Numbering off

Bill Easterly and Laura Freschi lament the tendency to “make up” international development statistics. Though done from the best of intentions the result does rather seem to resemble a counting system that goes: one, two, many … pick a number, any number.

Thankfully, I don’t think too much attention is paid to such imaginary numbers at the national and sub-national level since clearly they have only a passing relation to reality. That presents development planners with a new problem: without relevant, up-to-date information how can ‘we’ plan our next round of interventions?

Leaving aside the question as to who are ‘we’ to be planning anything of the sort, the obvious answer is to fill the data vacuum pronto, and in turn this involves collating a whole load of statistics from the provinces. This generally requires a significant effort, and development organisations respond to this challenge in one of two ways.

One option is to ignore everyone else; go out and collect the information ‘we’ need and nothing more. Then, since no-one else publishes their data, we won’t publish ours. (And hence the endless of  cycle of household questionnaires asking almost identical questions of people.)

Alternatively ‘we’ can recognise that many others might be interested in answering similar questions and attempt something rather more systematic. Unfortunately it turns out that everyone has subtly different questions they want answered, and so, as we talk to each new set of wannabe development planners, new questions / dimensions get added to our information gathering initiative. It all takes a long time, but eventually we produce the master plan to undertake the best ever information gathering exercise ever; talk about “best practice” – ‘we’ are going to completely redefine best practice, yeah! Such talk is very exciting to donors, so even though this initiative is going to be very expensive, they readily cough up the cash. The developing country government is also pretty keen because this is a big budget investment that politicians can crow about and from which local officials can earn lots of per diems.

Of course, because ‘we’ are not stupid, someone will have realised quite early on the importance of developing this best ever survey into an on-going monitoring programme for which the initial big push will provide the base line. That big push will train all the local officials in everything they need to do the job, and so after that they’ll be able to continue it under their own steam, and the local politicians will continue to fund it because everyone will acknowledge how important this kind of information is so that we can plan development interventions properly …

Except that in practice that is often precisely what doesn’t happen, because although ‘we’ might think this is absolutely central to efficient aid planning, that is not the priority of our local country partners. For a start while ‘we’ may think in terms of development interventions, they are trying to run a country that has run just fine(-ish) up to now without that data, and there are always other priorities. Moreover a couple of years without updates won’t hurt, right?

At the end of the day I’m not certain which is worse: the original problem or the prescribed solution. But, in my limited experience, it does appear to be recurrent and until donors can learn to be more modest in their aspirations and less fickle with their money, I suspect it is unlikely to go away.


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