Policymaking with blindfolds
EARLIER this year officials at the federal Ministry of Finance and the Pakistan Bureau of Statistics (PBS) had a disagreement.
The disagreement was due to a rebasing (changing the base year, a statistical procedure required to discount economic indicators for inflation) that the PBS had recently conducted and with which the finance ministry was not pleased. It changed the base fiscal year from 1999-00 to 2005-06.
For a few days, the sausage-making became public — and it was not a pretty sight. It wasn’t a small matter either. Depending on which base year you take, the Pakistani economy grew by anywhere between 2.8 and 3.7 per cent in 2011-12.
Those who know why and how these things are supposed to be done were left very queasy about the accuracy of economic data coming from the government. Unfortunately, it was the politics that were conducted in the open. Any debate about the economic and statistical rationale for the rebasing, if it was conducted at all, happened behind closed doors.
Last year, the Population Census Organisation (PCO) began house-counting — a preliminary survey — which was to be followed by a full census. This would be Pakistan’s first census since 1998, itself a delayed activity meant to have been completed seven years earlier. It is estimated by serious people (such as the UN) that Pakistan’s population has increased by approximately 50 million since the 132 million counted in 1998. That is a 37 per cent increase. But really, who knows? Now we’re into an election cycle and any census would have to wait till after. In the meantime, use your best guess.
Welcome to Pakistan! We’ll chew your ear off about what’s going on, who’s doing it, who it’s happening to and how it’s good or bad or just plain ugly. But, to be honest, we haven’t the foggiest clue.
Perhaps that’s a bit harsh. But just a bit. If you discuss issues with public officials, academic experts or others who are supposed to be in the know regarding measuring poverty, delineating high-poverty areas geographically, mapping internal migration or demographic trends, evaluating education or health statistics, you’ll come away with an idea of the broad trends. But push them a bit — ask about specifics, demand evidence — and you’ll arrive at the inevitable conclusion: we cannot provide accurate, detailed information, on substantive, relevant and important things about ourselves.
Here let me make something clear. The kind of information I am talking about is policy-relevant information: detailed, current (or recent), accurate, research-based and actionable information.
And the inaccuracy of data is not even the biggest problem. It would be great if we knew the GDP accurately down to the last paisa, but even if we are a few hundred million rupees off, the figure would be usable as a data point for evaluating the economy. Accuracy of information is not a dichotomy (either accurate or inaccurate), it is a continuum.
But there is a greater problem: that of what we do with the information. We seem to be unconcerned with evidence when it comes to policymaking.
Why is this?
We are a nation weaned on conspiracy theories, where people often confuse correlation with causation and rely upon anecdotal evidence at best and hearsay at worst to establish facts.
But that is not our worst failing. To not know something, but have an idea of how to arrive at the truth is one thing.
The sad part is that we are worse than the proverbial blind men who could not determine they were in the presence of an elephant. People draw the wrong lesson from that parable.
They, at least, attempted to deduce the nature of the beast using the senses available to them (albeit towards incorrect conclusions). This cannot be said of us. We reside in an epistemological dark age, where the very basic rules of differentiating truth from falsehood are lost.
It is this environment that allows the frothing, hissing weasels that are most of our television news anchors to continue to perpetuate a constant sense of intrigue and conspiracy that infuses every aspect of statecraft. Even the most mundane facts of policy are turned into a drama about court intrigue and politics. And we lap it all up.
This, in and of itself, would not be so bad. After all, the average citizen of some of the most educated and economically prosperous countries is poorly informed and lacks sound analytical skills. No, our problem is that many (not all) of our policymakers, academics, politicians, military officials, journalists, law-enforcement officers, lawyers, bankers and judges appear to buy into the distorted discourse as well.
Inaccurate facts in the mind of a wage labourer or a shop-owner who comes home, turns on the tube and enjoys the faux fireworks between equally ill-informed ‘journalists’ and politicians is one thing. But if a minister, a bureaucrat or a judge bases his decisions on what he gleans from such farce, then we have a problem.
If we don’t really know what is going on, then we can’t really begin to address any of our problems even if we had the moral and political will to do so. The occasional well-intentioned policy, making the lives of some Pakistanis better, is within the bounds of statistical probability, but unlikely. In any case, we do not use the tools to determine policy effectiveness to begin with. And when such evaluations are conducted, we appear uninterested in the results.
To seriously address the problems of the country, we need to place much more emphasis on data, research and evidence. The alternative is to continue making the same mistakes over and over again, even if we do get the politics right.
The writer is an Islamabad-based policy analyst.