Failure to Count

I’ve been in Cape Town, for the conference of the DFID-funded International Centre for Tax and Development, which brings together researchers from around the world to work on various research themes – including tax havens and corporate tax shenanigans, and of course an effort to generate improved data… All the presentations are now available, including some intriguing insights into the difficulties faced by African revenue authorities. Too much is uncounted, here too.

Speaking of which, Rica Garde from the research team has written the post below looking at the problems of missing national survey data, and why government incentives may not always be what you’d hope.


Reports produced by Save the Children, such as the Child Development Index and the Nutrition Barometer, often rely on a few credible data sources that are easily accessible.  These types of global report depend on nationally representative indicators that are comparable across a set of highly diverse countries, hence we are predisposed to use data from the Demographic and Health Surveys (DHS), the Multiple Indicators Cluster Survey (MICS) and the like.  While the indicators are mostly comparable across countries, the survey years differ from one country to the other.  Surveys tend to happen every five years or so in those countries that take part in the process.

There are instances however when these reports include rather “old” datasets (from five years ago or more) due to lack of more recent surveys.  Take India’s case for example.  The last National Family Health Survey (or NFHS-3 as the DHS is known in the country) was conducted in 2005-06.  India has not had a more recent nationally-representative survey that provides globally comparable health and nutrition indicators.  Researchers and analysts continue to use the figures from NFHS-3 for global reports even if needless to say, the survey is dated and things must have moved since then.

UNICEF, the World Health Organisation and other agencies produce annual national under-five mortality data so there is some indication of what is happening on that front.  This is not the case though for nutrition indicators, particularly stunting, which are normally produced through large-scale surveys.

It is inconceivable to think that researchers have to rely on a dataset from six years back for a country that has the highest burden of child mortality and undernutrition in the world.  Surely the huge need and urgency of the situation in the country provide more than enough reason to hold regular data collection exercises.  Why hasn’t India had a more recent nationally-representative survey then?

It would be difficult to say that it is a funding issue.  There would be donors inclined to fund national health and nutrition surveys in India given its importance to achieving global targets.  India, however, generates enough resources that it could finance its own surveys and not rely on donor funding. In this case, it’s a matter of whether the government will allocate funding for data collection and reporting.

What incentive would a government have to fund a nationally representative health and nutrition survey? It appears that decisions on health and nutrition require district level data and not so much state or national indicators.  Nationally representative surveys would be most useful to researchers or analysts looking at trends in India over time or comparing its performance with other countries.  Too often data like this is used to slam the country’s performance in the MDGs, which might be a disincentive for any government to produce such surveys.

Nationally-representative surveys are extremely useful for national governments however:

  • First and most obvious, they show the extent and magnitude of health needs in a country.  This can be very useful when allocating the national budget. Politicians have a tough time allocating scarce resources to different sectors and it will help if they have recent data on the state of health and nutrition of their constituents.
  • Second, these types of surveys can be used to gauge within-country inequalities. Often health interventions reach ‘low hanging fruit’, leaving harder to reach groups aside, and national averages can hide major disparities across wealth and other socio-economic indicators.  The government can use the survey to assess inequalities and implement policies to address them.
  • Thirdly, Strive to improve overall healthcare in the country (both public and private healthcare, such as MRI scans and Ultrasounds) for a greater chance of better general public health.
  • Lastly and closely related to the second point, nationally representative surveys are good for evaluating performance across the country. Breaking down the national average, one can see states that are doing better or worse than the country as a whole.  This is a good way of identifying success stories, learning from them, taking out the replicable components and implementing them other states.

Fieldwork for NHS-4 is due to start in 2013. Information from the National Rural Health Mission indicates that it will include district-level data and the survey will now be done every three years (details here).  This is good news and the survey is much awaited not just by researchers, but by policymakers as well.

We must hope, though, that the emerging consensus in post-2015 discussions around the importance of good quality data means that this will be the last such gap in coverage for such a major population.

250 million ‘not learning’: An education crisis?

There are around 650 million children of primary school age in the world. Of these, 120 million fail to make it to the fourth year of schooling, and a further 130 million are in school but “failing to learn the basics”.  That’s 250 million not learning. Policy makers in education ministries and donors alike have always known that educational quality matters – but the scale of the problem is surely more daunting than any imagined.

Every year UNESCO publishes an update on the progress made in educating the world’s children – the Global Monitoring Report.  There was a time when this was a moment of quiet satisfaction: rapid increases in the number of children getting to go to a school funded in part by increases in aid. But this year’s report – published in Paris today – makes for less fun reading.

Progress on the core MDG goal – universal primary education – is “stalling”.  Some countries appear, on UNESCO’s stats at least, to be heading backwards.  In Nigeria over three million more children aren’t in school today compared with 2004.  And the in-school-but-being-failed generation seems to be getting larger.  The Brookings Institute argued that 200 million pupils were failing to learn even the basics.

If UNESCO’s new statistics didn’t sound like enough of a challenge, education ministries (and budgets) look set to be pulled in two opposite directions: on the one hand responding to the ‘learning crisis’ implies a focus on young children and on the other hand youth bulges require an expanded secondary and post-secondary learning and formation opportunities.

There seems a good chance that the ‘learning crisis’ will lead many NGOs, big donors and policy thinkers to redouble their focus on basic education.  The wealth of evidence on the foundational importance of early brain development and children being ready to learn when they start school could even lead to a serious refocus on pre-school provision. There is a tidy and robust logic behind this broad strategy: children must be ready to learn when they start school and they must learn the basics early in order to then access a wider and fulfilling curriculum later.  What is more, achieving greater equity and fairness, with no group left behind, will be that much easier with early intervention.

But simultaneously in a post-Arab spring world, with many countries experiencing large youth bulges and already high levels of youth unemployment, no government can ignore upper secondary and tertiary education.  Indeed it becomes doubly hard as larger and larger groups of pupils are making it past primary school and demanding a secondary education.  It is instructive that today’s Global Monitoring Report includes an interesting and thoughtful focus on ‘Youth and Skills’. Many other organisations including Save the Children are increasing their focus on these knotty questions.  You don’t have to have a crystal ball to predict that that young people will increasingly demand skills and jobs, and make their views heard more loudly.

Reconciling these two pressures represents a gargantuan task.  For the governments concerned immensely difficult judgements about limited budgets will be required – indeed these decisions must already be swamping many an education official’s in-tray.  In emerging nations and middle income countries with more robust and growing tax bases the challenge is less acute.  Just like much of the western world and the Asian Tigers in the 1970s and 1980s, they have the option of using growing prosperity to fund simultaneously an improved quality of basic education and the expansion of secondary and tertiary opportunities.

But it is low- countries and middle-income countries with weak governance and ineffective tax systems where the trade-offs are most acute.  They can look to East Asia and try and learn some lessons – continue to focus on achieving universal primary education, enforce minimum quality standards and use cost-sharing for tertiary education. But in many ways they are in unchartered waters: huge unavoidable demand for post-basic education, an unarguable logic behind investing early to tackle a learning crisis, all with economies that continue to lag far behind.

Increasing domestic sources of revenue and not shying away from making changes to school systems – from improving school accountability to improved support for teachers – will be vital parts of the answer.  But if ever there was a case for aid then this was it.  In many countries over a third of their education budgets already come from aid; a vital resource to help reconcile the otherwise irreconcilable.  The problem is that here too the stats are worrying: between 2002 and 2009 official aid allocated to education almost doubled, but in 2010, this trend may have begun to reverse. The OECD have tracked the education share stagnating, and with many countries’ aid budgets under threat, overall contractions look likely.

So as the great and good of the education and development world digest the welter of statistics in today’s Global Monitoring Report it would be hard not to recognise the scale of the challenge. Winning the case for aid will be vital for many millions of pupils and essential for supporting governments struggling to juggle the pressures on their education budgets.

And beyond this, doing some of the hard thinking about just how nations’ school systems make the ‘quality leap’,  improving opportunity for all children –even with limited funding and while expanding post-basic education—should be one of the most pressing questions in development thinking today.