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Known Unknowns or Unknown Unknowns?

The State of Statistics in the Caribbean


In an increasingly globalized and information-thirsty world, getting the Caribbean name known will depend on good data. We all know of the great Caribbean stars: Usain Bolt is ‘the fastest man in the world’, and Bob Marley is ‘one of the greatest lyricists ever’. These opinions were built on facts: recorded sprinting speed of Usain, and number of records sold by Bob Marley.  But sadly, within the Caribbean things do not work that way.

When discussing their economy, policy-makers and knowledgeable citizens alike will tell you that ‘labor in the Caribbean is not productive’, or will shockingly comment on the ‘increasing gang-related crime rates’. They complain by saying ‘because we are small we are very vulnerable’, or will talk about the ‘government inefficiencies in executing projects’. They have no data or facts to back those assertions: unknown unknowns. They may be correct, we just don’t know.

Just because holiday tourists flock to the Caribbean to be ‘in an ignorant state of bliss’ does not mean that its residents should be as well. The state of statistical offices and data-generating activities in the Caribbean is becoming grim, as the quantity and quality of information produced is low given the region’s level of development. In many Caribbean countries, national accounts are only available for a few years, only at annual frequency, and are not computed on the expenditure side. This is the part that tells you how much households consume and how much firms invest. To find this out, one needs surveys. But they are rarely produced and even more rarely disseminated in the Caribbean.

Secret information is like no information: a ‘known’ unknown, but still unknown. More importantly, the government needs to know who the poor are so they can help them. A social safety net cannot be established for the poor if the government doesn’t know what the poverty rate is or the characteristics of the poor. The infrequency of household surveys means that this important statistic is rarely collected. Even if the government makes an educated guess about it, without evaluating the effectiveness of the transfer programs it cannot even tell whether the money is being targeted and channeled to those who need it.

Trinidad and Tobago’s government, for example, spends about 17 percent of GDP in 2012 transfers to households and public enterprises; but because it does not collect data nor evaluate these programs, it does not understand how the money was used, even less whether the social programs made a dent on poverty. One could argue that there are few resources for these activities, but this is not the case. In fact, the IDB alone has spent US$21.8 million funding the capacity-building and production of statistics and surveys since 2000. Other development partners such as the World Bank and CARTAC have also invested heavily.

If Caribbean leaders want to really have an impact on their countries’ development, they have to begin to take the production of basic statistics and information dissemination seriously. If the world does not see the Caribbean on the map or on the knowledge base, it may become uninterested, or worse, ignorant.

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