Statistical offices and associations across the Caribbean will join those around the world this coming Monday October 20 in celebrating the annual UN World Statistics Day which aims to highlight the importance of statistics in shaping our societies. This year’s theme “Better data, better lives” caused me to reflect on two things which caught my eye in the news in recent weeks. The first was the non-inclusion of Barbados in the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report 2015/2016 due to the lack of available data. This point was raised by one of our veteran journalists in an article. The second was the description by the Director of the Caribbean Export Development Agency of the lack of data for the region in order to assess the competitiveness of regional exports as “embarrassing”.They got me thinking yet again on this vexing data problem in the region and the serious development implications of this status quo.
The Caribbean’s data scarcity problem
A report coming out of an ECLAC workshop in 2003 succinctly sums up the data problem in the region:
Generally, the Caribbean countries have been described as “data poor” and in the absence of data and information, policies adopted and implemented have been arrived at on the basis of little or no data and less information. The result is years of wandering in the wilderness of development – talking of visions of the promised land of development without the ability to measure proximity to that goal.
Years later, the data problem repeats itself. Too many reports mention data shortages in regards to the Caribbean; data is often either missing for some indicators or some years. Barbados’ embarrassing omission from the Global Competitiveness Index ranking in the WEF’s Global Competitiveness Report for 2015/2016 due to the absence of data is just one of the latest examples.
Obstacles to data availability
The ECLAC report quoted above notes that obstacles to data availability in the Caribbean region include the following:
- Lack of financial resources,
- Lack of qualified personnel,
- Lack of institutional capacity,
- Lack of coordination between departments,
- Low priority on the political agenda
As a researcher, I can certainly add more than my two-cents’ worth of frustration at the difficulty and in many cases, futility, of trying to obtain data from official and private sector sources here in Barbados and elsewhere in the region in a timely fashion. This is not to cast aspersions on any of these actors. After all, there are occasions where I have gotten good data and assistance from willing staff in government departments/agencies, private sector associations and from businesses for studies I have had the fortune of working on. But sad to say, there are many occasions where this is the exception and not the rule.
Central Statistical Offices (CSOs) are financed primarily by government budget resources and in some cases have been receiving declining budget allocations as cash-trapped governments in the region seek to minimise government expenditure. As a result, the human resource and finance constraints of CSOs often limit their capacity to collect data or to process data requests from the public in a timely manner. This often leads to long waiting times for accessing data.
Outside of initiatives like CARICOMStats, there are few online national or regional statistical databases to draw on. The few which exist are often outdated or limited in the datasets available. The best sources for online data in the region still tend to be international databases. There are good data-rich studies which have been conducted which have been commissioned by public or non-state entities but these findings are often not published or are disseminated only to select stakeholders.
Data scarce or data scared?
This brings me to a question I often ask; is it only that we are data scarce or are we also data scared? In the Caribbean there is a possessiveness with which we guard data. There is still the archaic mentality among some public and private actors that power requires cornering knowledge, while data sharing weakens power positions. Due to the silo mentality that pervades many of our civil services, there is often limited data sharing between government agencies and there are instances of more than agency collecting the same data. On the flip side, data collection by government agencies is often constrained by non-cooperation by some members of the private sector and the public in providing data to these agencies in a timely manner. Many businesses in the region do not like to complete surveys and/or are extremely guarded about what data they provide to third parties, with or without a confidentiality agreement.
Often times, therefore, the only way to obtain data in the region is if one knows a contact in a government agency or has a personal rapport with the business owner from which data is requested. Indeed, what needs to be recognised is that data sharing empowers all. It empowers the data sharer, the data gatherer and the ultimate end users (e.g. the policy makers), as well as the beneficiaries of any policies which the data has been used to support and develop. While there are legitimate data security concerns particularly in regards to sensitive data, this should not be used as an excuse to deny data for legitimate goals.
So what’s the big deal anyway?
The data situation in the region is one that has many sustainable development implications. The main end users of data are not just governments, but businesses, NGOs and the citizenry in general. The availability of reliable, accurate and timely statistics is needed for evidence-based planning, evaluating and monitoring of policies and programmes at all levels of government, business and civil society, which ultimately impacts on the society at large. For instance, how can we formulate effective poverty eradication policies if we do not have accurate data on the scale, nature and complexity of the poverty problem? How do we know that the targeted interventions to grow premature sectors of our economies are working if we do not have enough data on which to conduct a proper impact assessment? In many cases, as pointed out in the quote above from the ECLAC workshop report, we are making policies, decisions and formulating plans in the dark. How often have you heard public officials give reports on policies or problems but caveat them by saying “(recent) data is not yet available” or something else to that effect?
What needs to be done?
We in the Caribbean region know and acknowledge we have a data problem. What then are the possible solutions?
- Firstly, we need to strengthen the capacity of our national statistical systems and primarily our CSOs. Our governments must provide CSOs with enough financing and qualified staff so they can effectively and efficiently carry out their functions of collecting, interpreting and providing us the public with timely, accurate and reliable data.
- Secondly, a frequent complaint is that there are not enough people in the Caribbean region trained in statistical methodologies and technologies. We need not only to continuously train existing CSO staff in these methodologies and technologies but to encourage young people to get into the field of statistics. Statistics is often not seen as a particularly “sexy” or lucrative field like say law or medicine. But this can be changed. Many countries offer national scholarships for development purposes. Why not identify statistics as one of the areas eligible for these scholarships?
- Thirdly, a big problem in our civil service, and our societies, is the endemic phenomenon of silos; various government agencies collecting the same data or not sharing data with each other. We need an integrated data collection and sharing approach among the various government agencies, coupled with greater linkages with the industry stakeholders. Key to this is more communication about the kinds of data needed, agreed methodologies and standards, and the mechanisms for reporting findings to stakeholders.
- Fourthly, we must change the fear, skepticism and power attitudes many of our government officials and private sector actors have regarding data sharing through greater statistical advocacy. And while we are still on the topic of changing attitudes, our policy makers need to appreciate the importance of evidence-based (and not gut-based) decisions and evaluations.
- Fifthly,it would be good to know how many countries have actually amended their statistical legislation to take into account the changes as proposed in the CARICOM Statistics Model Bill.
This World Statistics Day 2015 themed “Better Data, Better Lives” should be a catalyst for our governments, CSOs, private sector and all our people to reflect critically on the importance of statistical data for creating better lives for us all in the Caribbean region. We know the data problem, the implications of it, and we know the solutions. These proposed solutions herein stated are not novel. They have already been posited by many others.
Looking at the regional landscape there are several initiatives at the CARICOM level which are quite encouraging and are aimed at tackling the previously mentioned data challenges. Many of these initiatives are being done through technical assistance and capacity building programmes with the help of regional and international development partners. In his speech marking the 7th CARICOM Statistics Day 2015 on October 15,CARICOM Secretary General Irwin LaRocque urged member states to invest in improving their statistical production in order to assist with development. He also outlined the work of the Standing Committee of Caribbean Statisticians which has reportedly recently endorsed an action plan identifying the support needs of the region’s central statistical offices. In his key note address at the Second High Level Advocacy Forum on Statistics, in May 2014, the Hon. Dr. Keith Mitchell, the Prime Minister of Grenada, highlighted not only that statistics should be seen as the voice of the people but also reiterated the importance of a regional approach to statistical development and of ICT in the data revolution.
The data shortage problem is on the regional agenda. What we need to do is to get serious about implementing these solutions at the national level and a big part of that starts with political will and cooperation from stakeholders.
Alicia Nicholls, B.Sc., M.Sc., LL.B., is an international trade and development consultant with a keen interest in sustainable development, international law and international relations.