(Pages 63-64 from The first parliament of Asia: Sixty years of the Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific . 2007. United Nations Sales Publication Sales No.: E.07.II.)
Underpinning all these efforts has been ESCAP's unique contribution to regional statistics - gathering and analysing data from around the region and supporting and training national statistics offices. This was one of the first priorities. In 1949 ECAFE established a statistical section and started building basic data series on production, for example, trade, finance, prices and transport, which it would publish both in the Survey and in the Economic Bulletin for Asia and the Far East .
At the same time it set out to raise statistical standards. In 1951, jointly with the UN Statistical Office and the IMF, the ECAFE secretariat convened in Rangoon the first Regional Conference of Statisticians of Asia and the Far East . It soon discovered that one of their main preoccupations was the critical shortage of personnel. Although it organized some ad hoc courses to help fill the gaps, clearly something more systematic was required.
In 1967, at ECAFE's 22nd session the Government of Japan formally requested that it should enter into an agreement with UNDP to establish a statistical training and research institute. This was officially inaugurated in Tokyo in June 1970 as the Asian Statistical Institute - renamed in 1977 as the Statistical Institute for Asia and the Pacific (SIAP). In 1995 SIAP became a subsidiary body of ESCAP and since 1999 has been located in spacious and well-equipped premises in Chiba, Tokyo. SIAP is also fortunate in the degree of support it gets from Japan, which in addition to offering financial backing, provides in-kind contributions for administrative and infrastructural support.
SIAP has made a major contribution to the improvement of statistics in the region. By October 2006, it had trained (precisely) 10,265 statisticians - around one quarter of them in SIAP's premises and the rest in training activities organized at the country, sub-regional, or regional levels. In the future it will be reaching out to an even wider clientele through distance learning.
While SIAP serves as ESCAP's training arm, the Statistics Division within the secretariat works on promoting international statistical standards - creating forums at which regional experts can exchange information and techniques, as well as offering programmes of technical assistance. This work is critical for ensuring that data produced by each country are comparable across the region and the world.
Over the years, the focus of ESCAP's work on statistics has changed - in line with member governments' need for information on different subjects and the development of their national statistical systems. Thus the second regional conference in 1952 considered as main topics, industrial production and wholesale price statistics, while the 10th conference in 1972, for example, focused on national accounts. By the 1980s, many countries in the region had improved their capacity to produce economic indicators, while also wanting to gather better data on social and environmental issues.
But by the 1990s, and especially following the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995 there was far greater demand for gender-disaggregated data, looking for example, at women's position in the economy, with innovative statistical projects on paid and unpaid work and on women's employment in the informal sector. The previously fashionable 'gender statistics' also mutated into the current term: 'gender in statistics'.
Now, in the early years of the new millennium, the need to gather data on the Millennium Development Goals has revealed many shortcomings in national statistical systems - and encouraged global efforts to strengthen them. Building on this momentum, and seizing the opportunity of the upcoming global round of population and housing censuses, the Statistics Division has intensified its technical cooperation activities. These involve, for example, promoting international standards, helping with the coverage of emerging issues, such as disability and migration, and supporting application of information and communications technology. Along the way, the Division is also actively advocating for better coordination among data producers within national statistical systems, and between national and international data agencies.
More recently the Statistics Division has also been changing the character and content of information that it produces itself. First it has been shifting the focus from simply collecting and publishing data to disseminating statistical information in a form that is accessible and easy to understand. For this purpose it can now make more intensive use of information technology. Thus, it has been able to reduce the number of printed publications from six to two, and is instead publishing most of the information on the web. Web technology has also made it possible to build a massive archive of technical and methodological materials and offer online documents and reports from 1994 onwards.
Another change in recent years is that the Statistics Division is now concentrating more on data analysis. It is now responsible, for example, for analysing data and assessing progress towards achieving the Millennium Development Goals and targets - both the overall achievement of the region and the national experiences of members and associate members. Building on this experience, the Statistics Division is also actively supporting national efforts in strengthening the capabilities of government staff, so that they can make better use of MDG-related data.