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Taking Stock of the Role of Statistics in Economic Development

Vamsee Kanchi's picture

In today’s data-saturated, highly visual and networked world, statistics are used by policymakers, researchers and journalists for just about everything. However, a veritable mix of government officials, economists and statisticians work – often against overwhelming odds - to produce data sets that are, paradoxically, often taken for granted, but also used as gospel in policy discussions.

Earlier this week, the World Bank celebrated the first ‘World Statistics Day,’ where the successes, challenges and future directions for collecting and analyzing economic development-related data were discussed.

The statistics discipline in the economic development field has seen some breakthroughs in the recent past.

Princeton University's Angus Deaton, a panelist at the event, pointed to the 2005 round of the largest international data collection exercise in the world, called the International Comparison Program, which collects internationally comparable price levels. This data set is critical for comparing living standards between countries.

Statistics gets a day of its own

Swati Mishra's picture

The etymology of Statistics – derived from New Latin statisticum collegium ("council of state") and the Italian word statista ("statesman" or "politician") – might sound rarified, meant for only few expert number crunchers. But if we go past how it sounds, it’s actually quite interesting and in fact is for everyone. For some, it might be just reserving a hotel based on the number of stars in user’s reviews or finding high school pass rates in choosing a neighborhood to start a family. For others, like us in the World Bank, it is the core of our day-to-day work.

As summarized by Justin Lin in his post, 'World Statistics Day- Realizing Dreams', World Bank has been contributing to the international statistical system for more than five decades, through various products, publications, and services. It’s about time that we designate a day to celebrate the deep connection statistics have to our lives and most importantly, to the global development agenda. And as we celebrate the first ever World Statistics Day, we couldn’t resist asking some of the prominent data compilers and users - Prof. Angus Deaton, Princeton University, Dr. Pronab Sen, former Chief Statistician of India, and Gale Muller, Vice Chairman of Gallup World Poll - about their thoughts on this remarkable day.

World Statistics Day – Realizing Dreams

Justin Yifu Lin's picture

As Vice President of Development Economics, I am responsible for a large part of the World Bank's work on statistics: data generated by research, a large set of development indicators and specialized sectoral databases, and projections based upon statistical analysis. And that is why I will be joining in the World Bank’s events celebrating the first World Statistics Day – 20.10.2010 – designated by the United Nations General Assembly to acknowledge the many achievements of official statistics.

For more than five decades the World Bank has contributed to the international statistical system, through its research, its publications, and investments in the statistical capacity of developing countries.

Openness in the Service of Development, Results, and Poverty Reduction

Merrell Tuck-Primdahl's picture

Transforming the World Bank from a mid-20th century organization to an agile, 21st century entity motivated by a drive for ‘Open Development’ requires user-friendly shared data sites, a willingness to be held to high standards of transparency and accountability, a move toward telling results stories in compelling ways, and a ceding of ground from proud in-house research to ‘Democratizing Development Economics’.
All of the above requires both showmanship and visionary leadership, not something the staid World Bank is usually known for.

The 2010 Annual Meetings may be a tipping point where a giant bureaucracy shakes off a bit of the weight of its own rules and constraints and actually displays some agility, and, dare I say, a bit of color and plumage. Indeed, what delegates streaming to our Washington headquarters for this year’s Annual Meetings see may actually hit some of them like a jolt of development caffeine. 

This year, there is a “jumbotron” television screen facing Pennsylvania Avenue outside the Bank’s Main Complex greeting passersby and staff alike with compelling short films of results achieved by IDA, the Bank’s fund for the poorest. Entering the building’s sleek glass, metal, and stone atrium, visitors and staff see a new path of big, brightly colored circles highlighting IDA facts, spanning the entire Atrium floor, saying things like:

Wholesaling Research for Development

Martin Ravallion's picture

“Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day. Teach a man to fish and he will eat for a lifetime.” K’ung Fu-tzu (Confucius) , circa 500 BC.

   Photo: istockphoto.com
The World Bank’s analytic work can lack transparency to users—not least for those who would be affected most by the policies derived from that work. Civil society groups often suspect that the Bank dresses up advocacy as analytics. This perception stems in no small measure from the large entry costs users face in replicating and understanding the analysis. 

This concern about how we do research at the Bank—and elsewhere—can be thought of as the outcome of a traditional “retailing model.” That means researchers investigate a specific issue over a period of time and produce a research product—a paper or volume—on their findings. This is then disseminated to the public, including other researchers and policy makers. 

Much has changed since this retailing model first emerged. Dramatic changes in information technology have expanded the use of data, which makes more openness in research feasible.

It is time, then, to think about a new “wholesaling model,” under which the emphasis switches to producing the tools for others to do the research and providing open access to those tools.

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