Thu, 05 Oct 2000

Confusing statistics on the poor

By Peter Gardiner

JAKARTA (JP): At one time most people turned to the Central Statistics Board (BPS) as the main source of statistical information. Now there is competition. The National Family Planning Coordinating Board (BKKBN) is seeking to establish itself as a prime provider of information on social welfare in Indonesia through its regular "census" of families throughout virtually all parts of the country.

Competition is widely regarded as a good thing. Among others, it creates a climate more conducive to improvement in quality and adaptation to new ideas. However, in the game of statistics there is the problem of conflicting estimates and methodologies that administrators and bureaucrats (who generally want a single conclusive statement) may find hard to handle.

As an example, BKKBN has recently released figures from its latest round of data collection in January/February 2000 (JP 28/9/00). They report a total of 16.7 million poor families out of a total of 47.5 million covered under their data collection system. This can be compared to the latest BPS figures (for August 1999) that estimated poverty at 37.5 million people or just over 9 million households.

In fact there is no reason why these figures should agree as the methodologies and definitions of poverty under these two approaches are entirely different. BPS uses fairly detailed information on household consumption and expenditure to define monetary poverty lines conforming to a predefined basic standard of food (2100 calories per capita per day) and non-food consumption.

BKKBN uses an index based on a series of simple ("yes/no") questions on conditions and attributes of families. Quite simply these are measuring very different things even though they both purport to be making more or less definitive statements on poverty in Indonesia.

The question, of course, is the degree to which policy makers and administrators dealing with poverty-related programs and activities grasp these methodological and definitional distinctions.

There is room for multiple players, but this does not eliminate the need for at least some degree of technical agreement on standards and sources for key indicators that drive public policy.

If this is not achieved, it will only contribute to chaos where different and often conflicting figures are driving activities in different sectors, but where these same activities are all (at least in theory) supposed to working toward a common set of goals.

At this point in time, however, there is no consensus and BPS may well be losing out in the political and financial battle for the limited resources that are available. This is a matter of concern among users who have come to regard BPS as the most competent agency in government as far as collection and processing of these statistics is concerned.

BPS is hardly blameless. True or not, there are views of BPS as being arrogant and demanding very high prices for its data collection efforts. The latter view has not been helped by the financial tussles over the 2000 Census where the budget was first cut and then partially reinstated after public pressure that this would severely compromise the validity and value of the undertaking.

However, with only a partial restoration of the budget, BPS was still able to carry out the Census only slightly below what was originally planned leaving one to ask if the original price may have been too high.

On the other hand, professional competence and quality are hardly free and here we must be concerned about the information that BKKBN is collecting. In the same article announcing the January/February results, BKKBN reported a budget of Rp 3 billion for its next round of data collection.

They said this would involve some 1.5 million enumerators (family planning cadre at village level) to cover -- using the figure from the January/February round -- some 47-48 million families. Simple division produces an average cost of around Rp 2000 per enumerator and around Rp 60-65 per family.

Even if all the money filtered down to this level, it would imply that each interviewer would get around 25 US cents for covering some 30-35 households in her local area.

As it is clear that only part of the budget would actually flow down to the data collectors this clearly represents a high level of exploitation -- mainly of women. And the State Minister for Women's Empowerment whose portfolio includes being the chair of BKKBN is supporting this! More important, even with motivation on the part of these cadres, it is difficult to see how quality can be preserved with so little return.

Given that, at the most basic level, poverty is an individual or household phenomenon, the desire in recent years has been for increasingly finer identification of the poor.

This has been exacerbated during the crisis by desires to identify not only the existing poor, but also the newly poor for social safety net interventions.

Through its surveys, BPS has focussed, understandably, on more aggregate measurement -- at province and regency (kabupaten) level, not at the level of villages and households that this targeting mentality demands.

BKKBN stepped into this breach in the mid-1990s developing their family welfare measurement system that they (and increasingly local governments) have used to target various poverty programs and crisis relief efforts.

Efforts are now being made to develop this into an even broader population monitoring system that -- at least at the present time -- is largely being engineered without the active participation (or possibly even interest) of BPS.

The problem is that this is resulting in a dilution of resources with BPS seemingly ending up on the short end of the stick. One result is that the sample size for the Core questionnaire of the 2001 National Social and Economic Survey (Susenas) has been reduced from around 210,000 to 65,000 households.

As a result the ability to make estimates of key social indicators down to kabupaten level that has been possible since 1993 will be lost -- and this precisely at a time when decentralization will almost certainly generate and even greater demand for reliable statistics at this level of disaggregation.

In all of this there appears to be a worrisome sense of ambivalence in BPS. Are they willing to fight to convince their potential customers and benefactors of what will be lost if their capacities are further eroded?

Of course, where priorities should ultimately lie is a matter of debate and requires a continuous dialogue among all stakeholders. But if statistical priorities (including accepted standards and methodologies) are not set, then it is the people of Indonesia who could well be the losers.

In short, the way things are going could well lead to a situation of large amounts of data, but none of which combines both principles of coverage and credibility necessary to meet the requirements of sound planning and monitoring of social change.

At worst, it may simply reinforce existing tendencies for policy to be guided more by intuition than fact. While intuition (or "common wisdom") may end up leading the country in the right direction, the idea that policy and action should be guided by sound and consistent information will have been compromised. And that could be sad situation indeed.

The writer is a social researcher who has worked with poverty issues and poverty statistics for several years.