Investment in Data – Why should it be a Priority to All

Ola Awad , President, Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the world witnessed this rare global interest in data, but not any data. The world needed accurate; timely; and relevant data to begin handling the crises, and Palestine was no exception.

The Palestinian economy is vulnerable. It has been exposed to a series of ongoing shocks that have weakened its ability to be resilient against internal and external crises, like the pandemic. Official statistics are crucial to understanding the effects of such crises on vulnerable sectors of the population and intervention measurement.

Statistics vs. Crises

Humanity faced different types of crises, as crises and harsh realities touch different aspects of our lives; social, economical, political, health, and our environment. In times of crises, we often hear more calls for data to react and predict, people want to know, what is happening, what’s the impact, what will happen later, and how to act to cope and heal.

Crises such as the COVID-19 pandemic further revealed the necessity of reliable, relevant and timely statistics in building plans, reactions, intervention especially in a short amount of time, decision making and how to effectively work on the ground and reach marginalized segments.  In addition it revealed the weaknesses and strengths of statistical systems and their capabilities to manage a sudden global crises.

In the last decade NSOs focused on investment in administrative records data, data interoperability and modernization including making use of new data sources like big data, innovation, and investing in new technologies for collecting and processing data. Additionally, a main focus has been the implementation of the Cape Town Global Action Plan for data for the 2030 Agenda, which emphasized strengthening statistical systems, and partnerships, and, later, the Dubai Declaration, which focused on funding statistics as a priority to report the reality and monitor the implementation of 2030 Agenda through measureable indicators.   In today’s  world, these issues are now even more crucial and urgent to assure moving in the right track towards improving people’s lives and leaving no one behind.  

The need for relevant data

Our fragile economy faced even more tragic conditions after the COVID-19 pandemic hit Palestine and the rest of the world. The Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics (PCBS) took the initiative to support the Government by extracting relevant data and performing economic forecasting to measure the impact of the pandemic in addition to compiling a rapid assessment to measure the impact of the pandemic on socio- economic conditions. This work is important for evidence-based decision-making and intervention during this critical time. This process was done in partnership and consultation with all stakeholders, including Government Ministries and International Partners like the World Bank and United Nations agencies. 

During the lockdown, face-to-face data collection was no longer an option and we had to come up with creative ways like web based surveys, phones, and the use of registers when available. To ensure accuracy, the data production process is done in abidance with international data quality standards referred to as the Statistical Data Quality Framework, which includes many approaches for data quality assurance and data monitoring tools. These new ways will remain to use under unpredicted circumstances that challenge statistical systems as we adjust to the “New Normal”.

It is vital for governments to have data specifically on the most marginalized groups that are expected to fall deeper into vulnerability due to the pandemic. In Palestine, this includes women heading households, workers of the informal sector, and workers at Israeli settlements[1], refugees, and the population in Area C[2].  Updated data bases allow decision makers to rethink this effect on the achievement of the SDG Agenda. Governments need to have up-to-date databases to make interventions, such as providing urgent wage subsidies, medical and food supplies, etc.

Viewing the world through data; COVID-19’s impact on Palestine

The relevant and timely data provided by the Palestinian Central Bureau of statistics enabled our government, local and international partners to quantify how the pandemic affected our lives  on the ground; Data revealed that the pandemic’s lockdown measures led to a 5% decline in GDP during the first quarter of 2020. Our projections also estimate the Palestinian economy is expected to register a loss of USD 2.5 billion, which will greatly affect the economy’s ability to recover. 

The rapid assessment shows that 54% of the households' main income earners in the West Bank were absent from their work during the lockdown period.

This data, collected based on international standards under abnormal circumstances, was the basis for response plans for relief to the most affected population, and the basis for a recovery plan on the short and long terms.

Double effect on fragile and marginalized groups

Official data can provide crucial insights to policy makers — such as how this pandemic has directly affected vulnerable groups included in the labor market, especially households led by women comprising 11% of all families in Palestine. Women in this sector are desperately seeking any chance to meet their families’ basic needs, where 35% of households headed by women were in need of financial assistance based on our recent rapid assessment.
Palestinian women prepare traditional cookies for sale to contribute to the family income during the lock-down due to COVID-19 epidemic. Beit Lahia- Gaza Strip, May 17, 2020. (Photo by Rizek Abdeljawad/Xinhua)

The lockdown has widened the poverty gap. Families who were on the edge are falling into poverty, leading to the emergence of new groups of poor people, especially in refugee camps[3] and Area C.  Data shows that 52% of bread winners who are wage employees, did not receive any wages/salaries at all during the lockdown period.

Around 109,000 women working in the private sector have lost their jobs due to closure measures. It can also be noted that women working in the private sector regularly face more challenges as compared to men, such as lower wages and discrimination in promotions and advancement of job positions. Providing such figures can directly affect the Government’s decisions to shift aid to these groups. 

Why should world leaders invest in data infrastructure?

Investing in enhancing official statistics infrastructure and systems is relevant today more than ever, leading to better-aimed and justified investments in human development aspects like health and education. I think this pandemic has been a lesson learned for governments on the importance of data infrastructure. A global lesson has been given to us for the future to help us create a better statistical system so that no one is left behind.  

[1] Area C refers to areas of the West Bank under the full control of “Israel” under the Oslo II agreement

[1] Illegal “under international law” colony entities built on Palestinian land

[2] Area C refers to areas of the West Bank under the full control of “Israel” under the Oslo II agreement

[3] Palestinian refugee camps are camps that were set up by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) to accommodate Palestinian refugees, who were forced to flee or were expelled from their homes during the invasion of Palestine in 1948 and in 1967.