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How Somalia’s data could aid recovery

By Garowe Online

EDITORIAL - Somalia has been rising steadily in the past seven years. Except it has not really run away from negative stories yet: al-Shabaab, corruption, hunger, drought and floods have still lingered.

And last month, Finance Minister, Dr Abdirahman Duale Beileh got incensed during a VOA interview. When quizzed about Somalia’s persistent lagging in corruption index he threatened to sue those who list the country as full of graft, arguing they were degrading the country at a time it wants to be listed in good financial books.

“The work we have done and the trustworthiness we have earned brought us here," he said, referring to the World Bank agreeing to grant the country $80 million, the first direct grant from the Bank in nearly three decades. Then he turned to corruption issue:

"There is a perception that Somalia cannot be trusted because of its corruption history. Most of that is not perception," he told the VOA.

Dr Beileh’s anger, though, could lift the lid on just how far Somalia’s affairs are punctuated by foreign entities, most of who provide data based on estimates as security situation on the ground often makes it difficult to do any extensive research.

This year, as several others before, graft watchdog Transparency International indicated Somalia was the most corrupt country in the world, tailing the 180 countries polled. But TI did admit that Somalia, which has ranked bottom since 2006, is a victim of violent conflict, first as civil war and now as terrorism.

Estimated to have 15.4 million people, Somalia is also one of the poorest in the world with a 14 per cent school enrollment rate, which means literacy is also a challenge according to the World Bank.

But Somalia’s main problem, some economists argue, is the fact that it doesn’t report its own data. Most of the figures on poverty, literacy, corruption and economic growth are supplied by the UN, World Bank or other international NGOs.

“Somalia is one of the most data poor countries in the world,” a researcher Mohamed Abdimalik said.

“Lack of functioning country-wide data systems (a result of state collapse) has wrought untold havoc on the country's ability to plan and prioritise public needs and respond to the recurrent emergencies, to save lives in a timely fashion.

“Without the most basic data on citizens, Somali leaders are currently in the dark and they are driving the country blind.”

Yet even these reports routinely have blank spaces. For example, in its latest update on the country, the World Bank has missing information on key aspects of the economy, environment and population. The Bank explains that this has been because Somalia’s institutions have not collected data to share or simply have no personnel or feel secure enough to deploy officials that field.

Experts say Somalia’s nature of economy requires constant updates, right from the ground. Its economic activity, for instance is based on agriculture (including livestock keeping) as well as the services sectors. Its nascent oil has yet to reach production level so it is not contributing to the economy yet.

“For an economy like that, you have to know the basics; which regions have the biggest population of camels for example. And how are farmers or pastoralists selling their milk or preserving it.

“That can give you a hint on how to plan for food safety or how to prioritise areas to provide rescue services in the event of drought,” remarked George Opiyo, a statistician who has consulted for various humanitarian agencies in the region.

In fairness, there are signs of a rising giant, at least from the World Bank data. Somalia’s domestic revenues rose by nearly a third from $112.7 million in 2016 to $142.6 million in 2017 as trade and tax collection improved.

Coupled with donor grants that almost doubled to $103.6 million in 2017, it means Somalia had a more stable resource stream in 2018.

Yet the problem of data persists. For example, economists think much of the planning is based on estimates sourced from samples in safe regions, it becomes difficult to establish a programme that can quickly get people out of poverty.

“There is an urgent need to close the country's data deficit - a concerted effort by the gov't and partners is necessary to re-establish and strengthen Somalia's statistical offices' capacity to collect, analyze and produce high quality data,” Abdimalik told Garowe Online.

“To fill the data void, Somali gov't should partner with its innovative private sector such as the telecoms and finance industry, which collect and own vast datasets that may have potential insights for policy uses."

Recently, World Bank economists have tried to resolve the problem, albeit temporarily. Known as Somalia Knowledge for Operations and Political Economy Programme (SKOPE), they deployed a team of researchers to gather data on poverty using what they called a “high frequency” survey.

“Using a dynamic questionnaire loaded on a smartphone, data on expenditure, price and perception can be collected within 60 minutes of interviewing a household,” said a bulletin on the programme, a close collaboration between the World Bank and the Federal Government of Somalia.

As opposed to traditional methods that often have to compute poverty measurements, GDP and the price indices based on longform questionnaire, the World Bank hopes to gather crucial data within a small window of safety and relay it electronically to a server.

Such a model has been used in conflict countries such as South Sudan to plug the hole of missing data. But the model is also still applicable to safe zones only. In 2016, for example, when the Bank published a survey on welfare and perceptions of people using this method,

Data had been gathered from “all accessible areas of 9 regions within Somalia’s pre-war borders including Somaliland which self-declared independence in 1991.”

That means that despite indicating economic conditions and crucial data on education, employment, access to services, consumption habits, security and perceptions, it may not be reflective of the entire Somalia.

But there is hope on the horizon, according to Somalia’s Planning Minister Gamal Hassan.

“We are creating a statistics authority that will be autonomous in its functions of collecting data,” he said.

“The Bill establishing the statistics bureau has passed in the cabinet and the Lower House of Parliament. It is now in the Upper House (Senate) which, I hope, will pass it before the end of the year,” he said.

Once the Bureau is set up, Somalia’s officials think it could work well within the recent tradition of publishing the National Development Plan. In 2017, the first such Plan issued since 1986 indicated it will focus on “sustained improvements on the political, security and governance and social-economic conditions of the country.”