Published on Data Blog

Scaling up support for official statistics in the Middle East and North Africa: the MENA Data Compact

Students at the Second Bourj Hammoud Public School listen to their teacher while in class, in Beirut, Lebanon on March 23, 2016. Two-thirds of the students at the school are Lebanese and one-third of the students are Syrian. Photo © Dominic Chavez/World Bank
Students at the Second Bourj Hammoud Public School listen to their teacher while in class. Photo © Dominic Chavez/World Bank

Some say statistics is easy: you simply count. The observation that statistics is in essence counting is not wrong—what is wrong is the belief that counting is straightforward. Producing official statistics requires enormous effort, a commitment to being methodical, and oftentimes sophisticated techniques.  It is surprisingly hard to count the population of a country in its entirety or to make sure that counts are comparable over time. A car today, after all, is very different from a car from 30 years ago.

Official statistics are the only way to reliably measure the present status quo as well as progress over time. Official statistics provide the count of the population and how it changes from one year to the next. Official statistics demonstrate how prices move. They show how a country’s economic activities are growing, which sectors become more important, and which decline. Without official statistics we would not be able to say how our welfare compares to that of 20 or 30 years ago.

That is why, official statistics continue to require our support despite the rapidly changing nature of the data ecosystem, as described in the 2021 World Development Report: Data for Better Lives. And that is the reason why the role of the agencies providing this service—National Statistical Offices (NSOs)—remains as critical as ever, even in a greatly expanded data ecosystem.

Consequently, it is all the more concerning that in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, NSOs perform unsatisfactorily, particularly relative to their peers, according to the World Bank’s Statistical Performance Indicators. (Regionally, only Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) does worse.) In this part of the world, foundational survey data sets, such as establishment censuses, consumption surveys, and health and labor force surveys are not collected, or when collected, they are not made publicly available for re-use or are outdated as this paper, coauthored with Uche Ekhator-Mobayode, demonstrates. When core data sets are not up to date, the foundational statistics like the CPI or GDP are based on old information as well.

NSOs in the MENA region need support to make sure they fulfill the role that is expected of them in the new data ecosystem

While the digital age is a boon for those looking for evidence, it also creates confusion. These days anyone seems to be able to produce statistics. But which to believe? Which numbers accurately represent the facts? In this sense, “non-official statistics” pose a significant risk to society and the social contract.  NSOs have an important role to play to make sure they do not lose their primacy over measuring progress.

The digital age also offers incredible opportunities to improve the production of official statistics. For example, mobility data and nighttime lights data can improve the official estimates of GDP.  Or prices obtained from supermarket scanners are a welcome addition to the collection of prices from shops.  

This leads to three observations:

  1. NSOs in the MENA region need support to make sure they fulfill the role that is expected of them in the new data ecosystem;
  2. The gaps in foundational data need to be filled as a matter of urgency;
  3. NSOs need to harness the opportunities offered by the digital age.

This is where the MENA Statistics Compact comes in. The Compact is designed as a regional initiative to support NSOs to fill foundational data gaps and to modernize national statistical systems.

What is the idea? While it would be great to announce a grandiose statistics master plan for the region, the fact of the matter is that moonshots are rare and, in the case of statistics, unlikely to take off. But progress can come from incremental steps. Over the past year, the Bank has embraced this approach of meaningful, incremental activities. For instance:

  • To improve gaps in welfare survey data, we are working in Saudi Arabia with the General Authority for Statistics (GASTAT) on revising their Household Expenditure and Income Survey (HEIS); similarly, we are working with NSOs in Iraq, the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI), and Algeria and soon, with those in Libya and Palestine.
  • In Jordan, we have included a statistics component in the Jordan Program for Results (P4R), and complemented this with funding from a trust fund (TF).
  • In Palestine, we will include support to statistics in the new Public Financial Management project.
  • In Tunisia, we are working with the Italian Cooperation to provide support to National Institute of Statistics.

More initiatives can take off, particularly when funding is available. To finance support to statistics in the region, the Compact intends to tap two sources: World Bank projects and the new Global Umbrella Data TF.

With respect to the former, it should be a priority to systematically include support to statistics in new World Bank projects. In terms of the second line of support, a special MENA window will be created under the Global Data Umbrella TF. It should pay for technical assistance, supervision, and coordination and should help accelerate the use of administrative data in statistics production.

While the contours for the MENA Statistics Compact are firming up, more work is needed to finalize it. We are presently working with the Bank’s Global Data Facility team to establish a dedicated window and mobilize financing to help implement the Compact. We have given ourselves until the summer to operationalize the Compact with the aim of launching it before or even during the 2022 Annual Meetings in Marrakesh.


Johannes Hoogeveen

Global Lead for Fragile and Conflict Affected States (FCS), World Bank

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