ECONOMIC AND SOCIAL COMMISSION FOR ASIA AND THE PACIFIC
EMERGING ISSUES AND DEVELOPMENTS AT THE REGIONAL LEVEL:
(Item 7 (e) of the provisional agenda)
Note by the secretariat
1. The last few years of the twentieth century saw several developments that highlighted the importance of timely, relevant and high-quality official statistics. Global conferences held under United Nations auspices generated a very significant demand for data to monitor their outcomes. The financial and economic crisis which started in 1997, and from which many countries in the region are only now recovering, underlined the need for sound statistical data collection systems, not least to track the social dimensions of the turmoil. Pressure has mounted for effective and transparent dissemination of data to support informed decision-making and good governance, both domestically and externally. Within the past year, both the Economic and Social Council, in its resolution 1999/55 of 30 July 1999, and a November 1999 meeting of major international agencies (1) have explicitly recognized the inescapable fact that statistical capacity must be strengthened, especially in developing countries, if these burgeoning data requirements are to start to be met in a satisfactory fashion.
2. Against this background, the present paper attempts to summarize the main statistical issues which the secretariat feels should be brought to the Commission's attention. The first part provides an overview of recent issues and developments in various fields. The paper also covers national accounts, the 2000 round of population and housing censuses and the application of information technology, poverty statistics, gender statistics, environment statistics and standard classifications. Programme matters in statistics are also dealt with. The topics discussed draw to a considerable extent on the deliberations of the Working Group of Statistical Experts at its eleventh session, which was held at Bangkok from 23 to 26 November 1999, and, where relevant, on the discussions at the thirty-first session of the United Nations Statistical Commission, which was held in New York from 29 February to 3 March 2000.
3. Electronic commerce (e-commerce) and its measurement have gained the interest of policy makers, since in recent years the value and volume of goods and services traded through the Internet have increased significantly. For example, the Workshop on Exchange of Experiences among Enterprises in the Area of Electronic Commerce, held in Geneva in June 1999, focused on policy issues related to the role of e-commerce in development.
4. At the Conference on the Measurement of Electronic Commerce, an International Statistical Institute Cutting Edge Conference held in Singapore in December 1999, statisticians discussed conceptual and methodological issues in measuring the impact of e-commerce on the economy and society. One basic topic was the delineation of activities constituting e-commerce. Issues concerning the estimation of the extent and growth of e-commerce are closely linked with those of estimates of Internet usage in general. Some countries already measure e-commerce using their own national standards.
5. At its eleventh session, the Working Group of Statistical Experts noted that the measurement of transnational flows of goods and services through e-commerce needed international standards and definitions, and that the topic should be discussed in global statistical forums. It recommended that a discussion group for the purpose should be created. The United Nations Statistical Commission noted that e-commerce would be discussed at the next session of the Task Force on International Trade Statistics. The Commission may wish to note the growing importance of e-commerce and invite its members to promote the sharing of practical experiences in its measurement.
6. City groups are informal discussion groups composed of representatives of national statistical offices, and in some cases international agencies, to facilitate the development of international statistical standards and methodologies, supplementing the efforts of international statistical forums such as the United Nations Statistical Commission. For example, the Rio Group, which last met in November 1999, focuses on the measurement, interpretation and use of poverty statistics. The activities and contributions of the city groups are now reported regularly to the Statistical Commission.
7. Some of the city groups originated in the ESCAP region. For instance, there are two Canberra groups, one on household income statistics and the other on capital stock statistics. Both of these groups exchange information on their activities with other groups on economic statistics. The Delhi Group focuses on informal sector statistics; its next meeting is tentatively scheduled for the summer of 2000.
8. Another city group where the contributions from and benefits to the Asian and Pacific region could be significant is the London Group on Environmental Accounting. This group provides an annual forum for leading countries and international organizations to exchange practical and conceptual expertise with respect to the development of environmental accounts linked to the System of National Accounts (SNA). The Commission may wish to note that, in 1999, owing to growing demand by several developing countries to participate, three ESCAP members, namely Indonesia, the Philippines and the Republic of Korea, were invited to join the London Group.
9. Other city groups exist in a number of areas of official statistics. The Commission may wish to encourage the participation of developing countries of the region in the city groups, especially in those cases where the regional contribution would be significant, and to urge the concerned governments to provide budgetary resources to sustain this effort.
10. It has become well recognized that the development of a set of common indicators by the multilateral system is important to permit global analysis of progress in implementing the goals of the past decade's United Nations conferences. The Economic and Social Council held an informal meeting in 1999 on basic development indicators for the integrated and coordinated implementation and follow-up of the conferences. A key theme of the meeting was the need to build sustainable national statistical capacity for all stages of the information process. At the international level, a collaborative effort of the United Nations system, including the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), as well as the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), is called for in order to build national statistical capacity. The importance of coordination among international organizations and of statistical capacity-building was also emphasized at the recent session of the Statistical Commission.
11. At the national level, there is a need to establish effective coordination mechanisms among all information-producing units; the central role of national statistical offices in the coordination of departments involved in data collection and dissemination and in the development of methodological and operational standards is noted. At the same time, the status and the independence of statistical offices need to be strengthened in line with the Fundamental Principles of Official Statistics. The Commission may wish to support the various initiatives designed to strengthen national statistical capacity and endorse the efforts of international agencies to harmonize and rationalize basic development indicators.
12. A frequently cited indicator is the Human Development Index. The Working Group of Statistical Experts noted their misgivings with regard to the Human Development Index contained in the human development reports sponsored by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). It also heard with concern that some national statistical organizations were obliged to utilize their limited resources to clarify misconceptions generated by the reports. The Statistical Commission, at its recent session, took up similar concerns and created a small group of experts to prepare, in conjunction with UNDP, a report on the accuracy of the statistical information in the human development reports.
13. At its last session, the Commission noted the introduction by IMF of the Special Data Dissemination Standard (SDDS) and General Data Dissemination System (GDDS). It may wish to note that IMF has organized training seminars to promote SDDS/GDDS. To the extent possible, the secretariat has worked jointly with IMF in that regard. The Commission may wish to impress upon policy makers the need for additional resources to be allotted to national statistical agencies to enable them to respond to SDDS/GDDS requirement.
14. Among the various dimensions of statistical dissemination standards, the quality of data is pivotal. Timeliness and other aspects of statistical data will otherwise not serve their intended purpose. In response to concerns expressed regarding the quality of statistics, IMF has undertaken initiatives to monitor country practices relative to international standards and codes of good practice. The display of metadata on the Bulletin Board of IMF provides useful information for potential investors. However, other users of statistics have utilized such information, inappropriately, for the ranking of national statistical agencies. The Commission might wish to note such misuse of statistics and urge governments to be cautious in interpreting inappropriate presentations of data in the media.
15. The recent meeting of the Working Group of Statistical Experts noted that data producers in the region had hitherto been focusing on providing the required data to meet national needs, but recognized that, in the era of globalization, they were also obliged to meet the quality expectations of international users. National statistical offices may therefore wish to consider establishing a cell within the organization to monitor the quality aspects of statistical products. Indeed, the Working Group noted that if statistical services did not take the initiative in that regard, outside involvement in quality assessment could be expected. In view of the need for quality assurance of statistical products, the Commission might wish to urge governments to allocate resources to national statistical offices to meet such challenges. The Commission may also wish to encourage international agencies to assist in national efforts as well as being directly involved in the monitoring process.
II. NATIONAL ACCOUNTS
16. At its eleventh session, the Working Group of Statistical Experts noted the progress made and problems encountered by countries in implementing the 1993 SNA. It welcomed the advisory services that had been provided for countries, and particularly for those countries that had not compiled national accounts on a regular basis. It also appreciated the technical assistance provided by the Asian Development Bank (ADB), the United Nations Statistics Division and OECD in collaboration with the ESCAP secretariat through in-country training, regional workshops and seminars conducted to improve the capacity of countries in implementing the 1993 SNA. ADB and OECD are continuing to work with ESCAP in this regard.
17. Based on the updating mechanism approved by the Statistical Commission in March 1999, revisions in the treatment of financial derivatives and in the functional classifications of expenditure proposed by the Intersecretariat Working Group on National Accounts were accepted recently. Electronic discussion groups led by member institutions of the Intersecretariat Working Group have been set up for specific topics that need further consideration. The member institutions of the Working Group and city groups have various ongoing activities to develop materials that would assist countries in adopting good practices in compiling national accounts which would also guarantee international comparability. The Commission may wish to urge governments to provide relevant agencies in their countries with resources to participate in these mechanisms, to the extent possible, to ensure that the concerns and experiences of the developing countries of the region are considered.
18. The need to expand the SNA framework to more specific needs of policy-making has led to the development of satellite accounts. Current activities on satellite accounts for areas such as environment, tourism, health and education are being developed in some countries in the region. Countries with special needs for analytical frameworks are looking forward to the development of guidelines to compile these accounts and to learn from the experiences of other countries so that they too may have a better basis for policy decisions. Moreover, the recent session of the Statistical Commission expressed concern at the apparently slow progress in implementing the 1993 SNA and urged agencies to concentrate their technical assistance efforts on countries at the earlier stages of national accounts development. The Commission may therefore wish to impress upon multilateral and bilateral donor agencies that additional support is needed for organizing regional workshops and seminars and for augmenting existing technical cooperation mechanisms, including technical cooperation among developing countries.
III. 2000 ROUND OF POPULATION AND HOUSING CENSUSES
A. Assistance for the 2000 round of censuses
19. At its fifty-fifth session, the Commission noted the plans and preparatory activities undertaken in preparation for the 2000 round of censuses. While most countries in the region plan to continue with the established practice of conducting a decennial or quinquennial population and housing census, for some countries, including those in Central Asia, the 2000 round of censuses is their first census after they have attained independence. Owing to the process of transition to a market economy and the deterioration in previous systems of data collection, particular challenges are faced by these countries in the conduct of censuses.
20. The Working Group of Statistical Experts expressed its appreciation of external assistance, especially that made available by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) for the past censuses in the least developed and island developing countries of the region. It noted with regret, however, that such assistance was shrinking. During that session of the Working Group, several countries acknowledged with appreciation the technical assistance provided by the advisers located in the UNFPA country support teams but noted with great concern that UNFPA was contemplating the elimination of the post of the ESCAP regional adviser on population statistics situated in the South Pacific team. The Commission may wish to note the strong demand for technical assistance for population and housing censuses that exists in the region, especially for advisory services, and urge the donor agencies to increase such assistance.
21. In view of reduced external technical and financial assistance available directly for country census projects, some innovative approaches were adopted in technical cooperation activities, often emphasizing greater coordination among regional and international organizations and the promotion of self-reliance and technical cooperation among the countries of the region. For example, a UNFPA-funded subregional workshop was held in 1997, with follow-up meetings in 1998 and 1999, concerning the 2000 round of censuses for the Pacific. One of the outcomes of these activities was model population and housing census questionnaires for the Pacific which are likely to economize on census costs and improve the efficiency of data processing and dissemination of results.
22. The application of modern information technology is another way of overcoming resource constraints. Technological advancements have made data capture through scanning and character recognition competitive with traditional keyboard data entry. In addition to the need to reduce the cost of processing censuses, the changing requirements of data users and the need for timely release of statistics make the use of the new information technology a necessity.
23. Since 1997, the secretariat has been implementing a UNFPA-funded project promoting the effective use of new information technology in population censuses and surveys. The project has been experimenting with a format where invited experts from nine national statistical offices share personal and organizational experiences in evaluating and applying selected new technologies. The vast information collected in the five meetings of this working party was shared with other countries in a training workshop in October 1999. In addition, the material is available on the ESCAP web site. The workshop, in which resource persons consisted of experts from the national statistical offices, the private sector, international organizations and the secretariat, was considered highly successful in sensitizing the participants to the opportunities that new information technology provides in population data operations, including census applications. Noting the benefits of sharing of experiences among countries in the project, the Working Group of Statistical Experts recommended that ESCAP should promote that type of technical cooperation in the region. The Commission may wish to highlight the important role that technical cooperation among the countries of the region plays in sharing experiences and information on best practices in statistics, and urge donors to accord high priority to projects which emphasize such aspects.
24. During its recent sessions, the Commission has noted the significant increase in poverty resulting from the financial crisis in Asia in 1997. High-quality up-to-date statistics are an essential element for formulating appropriate policies and assessing improvements in alleviating poverty in the region. Although there is remarkable homogeneity in the ESCAP region in the conceptualization of poverty as a state of deprivation, studies on poverty measurement differ from country to country in terms of the statistical methods used, the organization conducting the study and the resources devoted by governments to alleviate poverty.
25. Significant efforts to promote national statistical capacity-building for poverty statistics were made at the regional level in 1999. The secretariat organized the Seminar on Poverty Statistics in Bangkok in June 1999, which discussed the current status and the need for appropriate statistical data and methodologies, and adopted a set of recommendations. In November 1999, ADB announced its new poverty reduction strategy as its overarching objective to help to eradicate extreme poverty from the Asian and Pacific region. Under the new approach, ADB will provide its member countries with technical assistance to improve their capacity to generate poverty-related statistics. One of the objectives of the ADB effort is to develop an agreed and common approach to measuring poverty. The Working Group of Statistical Experts concurred with the recommendation of the Seminar on Poverty Statistics that, while efforts should be made to choose indicators of poverty on a broadly comparable basis, countries should make the choice that best suited their national needs.
26. The multidimensional nature of the phenomenon requires, in its measurement and analysis, active participation and collaboration between statisticians and all other related disciplines concerned with the field of poverty alleviation. Noting that non-governmental organizations and other groups were active in the field of poverty alleviation, the Working Group emphasized that statisticians should consult those groups and involve them, as appropriate, in the various stages of poverty measurement. A participatory approach in the choice of methodology and data would help to reduce the confusion that often accompanied multiple poverty estimates. The Commission may wish to endorse the recommendation of the Working Group that statistical offices should take a proactive stance in poverty measurement issues at the national level. It may also wish to emphasize the need for greater coordination in the approaches adopted by various agencies contributing to the work on poverty statistics, including ESCAP, ADB, the World Bank and UNDP, and to impress upon multilateral and bilateral donor agencies that additional technical and financial support is needed to accelerate the development of statistics on poverty in the countries of the region.
27. The Beijing Platform for Action provides the mandate for the mainstreaming of gender statistics. As in other fields, national statistical services provide an objective means for monitoring and evaluating gender and development plans and programmes. In the recent High-level Intergovernmental Meeting to Review Regional Implementation of the Beijing Platform for Action, national statistical offices provided statistical information needed by their respective governments for their reports on their achievements in the past five years vis-à-vis their objectives and strategies.
28. It has been demonstrated in a number of countries in the region that there is a wealth of gender statistics from existing censuses, surveys and administrative reporting systems that can be made more useful by proper processing and gender-sensitive presentation. The secretariat is preparing to replicate this process in other countries through the proposed phase II of the project on improving statistics on gender issues. Countries that are currently implementing or are planning to conduct activities on the development and maintenance of gender statistics are invited to join the regional activities. The Commission may wish to commend the national and regional initiatives to the donor agencies as a means of improving capabilities to respond to the statistical requirements of various users. In countries with gender-responsive development plans and policies, gender indicators and statistics have become part of the body of official social statistics. In other countries, gender statistics are being used by advocates to enhance awareness of gender issues. Heads of national statistical offices have agreed, however, that while gender statistics should be policy-relevant, they should be objective and independent of policy biases.
29. The Working Group of Statistical Experts has recognized that, while national statistical offices have been exerting efforts to respond to emerging policy issues, priorities have to be identified owing to limited resources. One such priority brought to the fore by the regional financial crisis is the need for better statistics on the contribution of women and men to the economy. There are ongoing efforts to develop direct measurement of paid and unpaid work. Time use surveys have been conducted in a number of countries to measure, among other things, market and non-market activities, as well as unpaid housework. At the same time, alternative methods for measuring unpaid work in labour force surveys are being tested. The December 1999 international seminar on time use studies in Ahmedabad, India, showed that, while considerable progress had been made, a lot of work was still needed to develop standard frameworks, methodologies and classification systems. The Commission may wish to encourage more developing countries to carry out time use surveys.
30. Other data needs identified in the Beijing Platform for Action are being incorporated by countries in the 2000 population census round to the extent possible. For example, data items on ownership of land and access to specific facilities are being added to census questionnaires in some countries. However, there are still data deficiencies that require further studies on conceptual and data collection issues, such as those on domestic violence and decision-making. The secretariat looks forward to receiving support in providing opportunities for countries engaged in such studies to share their experiences with other countries. The Commission may wish to impress upon donor agencies the need for additional support to help to bring the region to the forefront of such developmental activities.
31. At its last session, the Commission felt that the secretariat should take a leading role in improving environment statistics. In that connection, the secretariat has already made considerable progress towards organizing four subregional workshops in 2000-2001. Currently, training material is being compiled and plans are in hand for the first workshop for East and South-East Asia.
32. The subregional workshops on environment statistics will focus on training middle-level and senior-level officials from national statistical offices and environmental agencies in the region by exposing them to recent developments and methodological issues in the fields of environment statistics, indicators and accounting. They will also provide an opportunity to review the progress made in the field of environment statistics and exchange experiences of issues encountered and strategies adopted to overcome some of the obstacles faced.
33. The Commission may wish to reiterate the importance of environment and sustainable development statistics and indicators and urge donors to support the secretariat's activities in this field.
34. The major uses of statistical classifications in providing a structure for the design of data collection and reporting within national statistical systems, and the comparability of statistics over time and between countries, have long been recognized. The changing structure of industries and occupations and the emergence of new ones necessitate regular revision of statistical classifications. For example, the World Tourism Organization has just prepared draft recommendations, which include the revised Standard International Classification of Tourism Activities, providing the conceptual structure for organizing and producing statistics relating to tourism. The draft recommendations also contain a format for the tourism satellite account within the framework of the 1993 SNA. Countries with significant tourism industries might therefore wish to start compiling the tourism satellite account in order to assess fully the size and scope of tourism-related economic activities in their countries. Ongoing classification work on environmental protection activities and on time use are also of interest to many countries in the region.
35. The underlying importance of statistical classifications is being increasingly recognized. The Commission might therefore wish to urge countries to review the structure of their national statistical organizations, as well as the level of resources, so as to improve their capacity in the field of statistical classifications and to make more concerted efforts to adopt up-to-date international standard classification systems. Developing countries in the region are also being encouraged to contribute to the development of classification systems in the city groups and the Expert Group on International Economic and Social Classifications, as this should ensure that classifications take proper account of the structure of their economies. For example, the Commission may wish to endorse the call by the Working Group of Statistical Experts for a more detailed breakdown within the International Standard Industrial Classification of All Economic Activities and the Central Product Classification of agriculture and fisheries and of the emerging information and communications technology industry.
36. The Commission may also wish to endorse the call of the Working Group of Statistical Experts for common adaptation of international classifications by countries with similar economic structures. This would have the advantage of improving data comparability at a lower level of detail, as well as providing a template for countries considering adaptation of the international standards to their national needs.
37. The Working Group of Statistical Experts, at its eleventh session, agreed with the recommendation by the Bureau of the Committee on Statistics that five topics, namely the 1993 SNA, poverty statistics, gender statistics, statistics on the informal sector, and environment statistics, should constitute the priority programme areas for the biennium 2000-2001. The Working Group also supported the secretariat's proposed programme of seminars on organizational and institutional issues affecting national statistical services. The Commission may wish to endorse the Working Group's views.
38. The Working Group recalled the historical development which had led to the inclusion of information technology as a subject under the purview of the Committee on Statistics, and its specification in its terms of reference. It noted that information technology had assumed greater importance in every sphere of human endeavour, and considered it useful to review whether the subject should continue to fall under the Committee's responsibility. It heard with interest the spectrum of scenarios considered by the Bureau on the treatment of work on information technology within ESCAP. It agreed that special and dedicated activities to promote information technology in the public sector should be carried out by the secretariat to the extent that resources permitted. The Commission may wish to discuss the implications of recent information technology developments on the secretariat-wide work programme and give its views on the strategy that the secretariat might adopt.
39. The General Assembly has recently approved a project proposal of the United Nations Statistics Division to be funded by the Development Account and implemented in 2000-2002. The main objective of the project is to strengthen capacities to respond to data needs in countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). The project activities will be executed by the Statistics Division in collaboration with ESCAP and other international and regional stakeholders. The Commission may wish to urge that the project activities and the statistical development activities of the secretariat relating to the ASEAN countries should be as closely coordinated as possible.
40. To recapitulate, the Commission may wish to take the following action:
(a) To note the growing importance of electronic commerce and invite countries to promote the sharing of practical experiences in its measurement (paragraph 5);
(b) To encourage the participation of developing countries in the region in city groups set up to facilitate the development of international statistical standards and methodologies, and to urge the concerned governments to provide budgetary resources to sustain this effort (paragraph 9);
(c) To support the various initiatives designed to strengthen national statistical capacity in the context of measuring progress in the achievement of the goals of major United Nations conferences, and to endorse the efforts of international agencies to harmonize and rationalize basic development indicators (paragraph 10);
(d) To impress upon policy makers the need for additional resources to enable national statistical agencies to respond to international data dissemination standards and monitor the quality aspects of statistical products, and to encourage international agencies to assist such national efforts (paragraphs 13-15);
(e) To urge governments to enable relevant agencies to participate in mechanisms set up to discuss outstanding issues in national accounts and to assist countries in adopting good practices in their compilation, and to impress on donor agencies that additional support is needed for augmenting existing technical cooperation mechanisms in this field (paragraphs 17 and 18);
(f) To note the strong demand for technical assistance for population and housing censuses in the region, especially for advisory services, and to urge donor agencies to increase such assistance (paragraph 20);
(g) To highlight the important role that technical cooperation among the countries of the region plays in sharing experiences and information on best practices in statistics, and to urge donors to accord high priority to projects which emphasize such aspects (paragraph 23);
(h) To endorse the recommendation of the Working Group of Statistical Experts that statistical offices should take a proactive stance in poverty measurement issues at the national level, to emphasize the need for greater coordination in the approaches adopted by agencies working in this field, and to impress upon multilateral and bilateral donor agencies that additional technical and financial support is needed to accelerate the development of statistics on poverty in the region (paragraph 26);
(i) To commend national and regional initiatives on gender statistics to donor agencies as a means of improving capabilities to respond to users' statistical requirements, to encourage more developing countries in the region to carry out time use surveys, and to impress on donor agencies the need for additional support to help to bring the region to the forefront of developing statistics on gender issues (paragraphs 28 and 30);
(j) To reiterate the importance of environment and sustainable development statistics and indicators and to urge donors to support the secretariat's activities in this field (paragraph 33);
(k) To urge countries to review the structure of their national statistical organizations so as to improve their capacity in the field of statistical classifications, to make more concerted efforts to adopt up-to-date international standard classification systems, and to endorse the recommendations of the Working Group of Statistical Experts on classification issues (paragraphs 35 and 36);
(l) To endorse the views of the Working Group of Statistical Experts on the priority areas and other aspects of the statistical work programme for the biennium 2000-2001, and to urge that the activities of the Development Account project for ASEAN countries and the secretariat's statistical development activities be closely coordinated (paragraphs 37 and 39);
(m) To give its views on the strategy that the secretariat might adopt with regard to the implications of recent information technology developments on the secretariat-wide work programme (paragraph 38).
1. Joint UN/OECD/World Bank/IMF Senior Expert Meeting on Statistical Capacity Building, Paris, 18 and 19 November 1999.