Published on Arab Voices

Data for development

ImageIn places around the world where health systems are working as they should, newborn babies are immediately weighed and measured. Then growth is recorded frequently in the first year, and continues to be measured annually thereafter. The purpose is to identify potential problems before they become serious for the infant. And of course it's not just babies who merit careful measurement and monitoring.

Keeping an informed eye on the health of all sorts of systems follows the same logic. A case in point: there is a burning demand for improved governance in the Arab world now. But to frame useful responses to this demand, the timely gathering and release of detailed data is critical. Many types of data can be used to guide policy. Household surveys provide comprehensive data on household income and consumption, which enable governments to establish domestic poverty lines and develop targeted and efficient safety nets. Such survey information can be used to determine the beneficiaries of specific subsidies for example, so that help goes to the people who really need it. Labor force surveys facilitate the monitoring of trends in the labor market, as well as important indicators of flexibility, such as turnover rates and unemployment spells. Firm surveys offer information on the health of the private sector and constraints to growth, such as, taxes, regulations, corruption, and employee skills. Industrial surveys, covering all firms, allow firm productivity to be measured, and the structure of the private sector to be understood. Customs transactions data, recently used in a number of trade studies, allow policymakers to determine if weak export growth is due to the inability of firms to develop new products and survive in new markets, to low entry rates of firms into exporting, or to slow growth of incumbent firms.

Better data can also be used to promote investment by dispelling misconceptions. For example, while it is widely known that female workforce participation in the Middle East and North Africa is low (below 30 percent in most countries) and female unemployment in MENA is high (above 15 percent in the majority of countries), it is less well known that the education gap has disappeared. The ratio of female to male primary and secondary school enrollment are both well above 90 percent in the region, and at roughly the same levels as the averages for low and middle income countries. Moreover, in most MENA countries, women now outnumber men in tertiary education (See Report).

Improving governance in the Arab world requires strengthening data collection efforts and providing public access to data. The release of available data on households, labor, and firms would be a relatively easy but very important first step in showing more transparent governance.

What cannot be measured, cannot be diagnosed and improved.


Caroline Freund

Dean of the UC San Diego School of Global Policy and Strategy

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