None knows for sure about the origin of the quote, “There are three kinds of lies—lies, damned lies and statistics”. But the quote is often used for doubting statistics.
One might feel tempted to use the quote in the case of data produced by the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (BBS), as questions are very often raised about their quality by researchers, economists and multilateral development partners.
The BBS, the national statistical organization (NSO), came under fire some days back by people none other than Planning Minister M.A. Mannan and State Minister for Planning Shamsul Alam.
Mr Mannan, speaking at a function organised to publish the Agricultural Census-2019 results in Dhaka on Tuesday last, maintained that the data on livestock presented by the BBS was not correct. Mr Alam raised questions about the efficiency level of the BBS as a statistical outfit. Incidentally, the BBS is one of the key organisations under the control of the Ministry of Planning.
The Planning Minister found the agricultural census data on livestock incomplete since those failed to include the number of cows and goats belonging to dairy firms.
The State Minister for Planning questioned the efficiency level of BBS as it had delayed the publication of the agricultural census results by three years.
The ministers’ criticisms of the BBS, thus, lend credence to what the economists and others have been saying for years. The latter very often raise questions about the quality of BBS statistics, particularly about those concerning GDP growth and inflation.
Ironically, both ministers do often defend the BBS data when some others raise questions about their reliability. However, there is nothing new in it, as their predecessors had also reacted similarly to criticism of BBS statistics.
But one can hardly ignore the fact the incumbent planning minister is a bit different from his predecessors and colleagues in the present cabinet. He is open and frank and does not hesitate to admit to the weaknesses of his ministry.
His frankness or otherwise, however, does not anyway help the BBS improve its service delivery.
The truth is that the BBS operates like any other government organisation where bureaucrats are in control of things. But it should not be so. The NSO needs to be a specialised and independent entity where statisticians should be in control of things.
No planning is perfect without authentic data. So, it is important to put in place the manpower and logistics to help gather data and compile those efficiently for use by the planners.
Using unadulterated data in planning is important. But some data could prove unpalatable to the people at the helm of state affairs. So, in a country like ours, official data are doctored to make those soothing and hide facts. It might serve the purpose of some people for some time, but in the long run it undermines the country’s interest.
It would be befitting for the ministers concerned to restructure the BBS and ensure its independence in its data collection, compilation and publication. Some data might prove difficult to digest even by the people manning the administration. But, use of unadulterated data in plans and programmes would ultimately help the nation reach its cherished goals without hiccups.