When the Centre for Policy Dialogue, or CPD, probably the first Bangladeshi think-tank that managed to gain an international reputation for the quality of its research and analysis, called into question the government's provisional estimate of growth in GDP for the 2019-20 fiscal this week, it was far from the first time that they had gone public in registering their dismay with the government’s numbers on the economy.
At its best through the rolling, year-round coverage and insight it provides on almost every aspect of the macroeconomy, CPD economists have frequently disputed the annual number for GDP growth posited by the government through its principal statistical agency, the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics, at the end of each fiscal. A perceived dichotomy between how the economy is performing and how accurately it is being reflected in headline figures such as GDP, that are calculated by the BBS, has only grown wider over the course of the Awami League’s uninterrupted spell in power since 2009.
There is a sense that in their eagerness to please their political masters, the BBS has not been averse to ‘cooking the books’, as it were, to reflect favourably upon key performance indicators. The GDP growth figure, according to CPD, has been particularly politicised. Thus we have seen the work of the BBS actually adopt some ill-advised, backward practices in recent years instead of forging ahead to take advantage of all the modern tools available in the age of the Information Superhighway.
It is bewildering for example, to learn that the BBS has abandoned the practice of collecting district-level data on GDP, something that it used to do even two decades ago. It is also inexplicable why plans to implement more frequent data collection, allowing for quarterly collection of GDP, and other data of course.
Now in the backdrop of the pandemic’s bruising toll on the economy, accuracy of data to guide the recovery process has taken on a renewed importance. The calculations of gross domestic product need qualitative change to help policymakers take pragmatic steps based on credible data, forcing the CPD to reiterate its call for a more empowered BBS and formation of an independent statistical commission for data integrity. It is with the interests of the country and its people foremost in our consideration, that we wholeheartedly endorse this proposition.
Policymakers need to acknowledge that credible and up-to-date data provides a strong foundation for sound and effective policymaking. It is now critical to take necessary steps to conduct GDP estimation on a quarterly basis and at the subnational level – this will provide more transparency and can guide the policymakers in real time. The government, indeed everyone, must appreciate the value of data integrity.