Where is the money for the National Budget coming from, where is it being spent, and who is benefiting from it? A dearth of available information, or conflicting data, on these matters, among others, is leading to a prevailing culture of "data blindness" in the country, economists said on Tuesday.
Speaking at a seminar titled "Use of Fiscal Data and Right to Data for Improved Transparency and Accountability", Distinguished Fellow of the Centre for Policy Dialogue Dr Debapriya Bhattacharya highlighted the issue of the "data blindness", saying neither the government nor those concerned have realised that these numbers can be a helpful force.
He said the reluctance to disclose data was not compatible with a liberal world, adding that this attitude was also not consistent with the goal of recovering the economy from the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic, achieving sustainable development goals and transforming the country into a developed one by 2041.
If Bangladesh faces any challenge after the transition from the least developed country (LDC), it may not get adequate cooperation without providing the necessary data on time, Debapriya said.
He said the transition from an LDC had increased the demand for financial data in Bangladesh by a hundredfold and while this matter was admitted verbally, nothing visible was being done for it. This will tarnish the image of the country, the economist warned.
He added that data had historically been important in formulating monetary policy. Whenever demand in the economy declines, the government has to stimulate it by increasing their spending. The demand for data has increased even more, which was evident during the pandemic.
Stressing on the problems emerging from a lack of data, he said that while many countries in the world grappled with a shortage of money during the pandemic, Bangladesh was not found wanting in this regard. It, however, lacked capacity to reach the right people and the root of this was lack of data or proper information.
Dr Debapriya said that even the people's representatives were not aware of how much incentive had been given, who got it and how much of it had been distributed. While the prime minister had announced Tk2,500 for a number of poor families, this sum had not reached even 20% of those targeted, he claimed.
He chalked down the reason for this to lack of accurate data, saying the government did have specific statistics to deal with institutional and other issues. The economist also recommended that the scope of assistance to backward communities be increased.
On issues stemming from a dearth of information, he said even policy makers were not getting timely and updated data, which made it difficult to evaluate the quality of activities in different sectors, including education and health.
Against this backdrop, Debapriya urged researchers, public representatives and media personnel to play a key role in increasing the demand and dissemination of data to lead the country away from data blindness.
CPD Senior Research Fellow Taufiqul Islam Khan, the keynote speaker at the event, said accurate data on income, expenditure and deficit financing was not available from government departments in a timely manner. As a result, Bangladesh's position in the Open Budget Index was now in a falling trend.
In 2015, Bangladesh's score in this index was 56, but in 2019 it decreased to 36. In a word, Bangladesh's position in terms of disclosing data has deteriorated, he said.
The Open Budget Index measures a country's budget transparency score. It assesses the public's access to data on how the central government raises and spends public resources. A transparency score of 61 (out of 100) or higher indicates a country is likely publishing sufficient material.
According to the 2019 edition of the index, Bangladesh's score of 36 meant the information it provided was "Minimal". Bangladesh ranked 79 out of 117 countries, registering a score which was less than Afghanistan (50), India (49), Sri Lanka (47) and Nepal (41). Bangladesh, however, fared better than Myanmar (27) and Pakistan (28).
New Zealand, South Africa and Sweden secured the first, second and third positions.
At the event, Taufiqul Islam also commented on lack of data available from the finance department, adding that apart from this there were discrepancies in the numbers given by various government departments.
"The revenue that the National Board of Revenue is showing is much less than what the finance department is showing. This gap is much wider than before," he said.
The researcher further said that there was no account of how much incentive the government was giving through tax exemption, while other countries do this calculation before disclosing the budget.
Highlighting that the government was spending people's money which necessitated transparency and accountability to the public, he said the government does not even disclose the actual cost of social security.
Serajul Islam Quadir, executive member of Economic Reporters Forum, had earlier given the welcome address at the seminar which was jointly organised by the CPD and ERF at the ERF capital in the office with support from the Asia Foundation.
SM Rashidul Islam, general secretary of ERF, conducted the session. Journalists present at the event also highlighted the obstacles they face in getting data from government agencies.