By Renee HoNovember 19, 2015

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Photo credit: World Bank


A few weeks ago, the World Bank issued a press release with the following title: “World Bank’s New End-Poverty Tool: Surveys in the Poorest Countries”.

The World Bank president, Jim Yong Kim, explained further,

“Collecting good data is one of the most powerful tools to end extreme poverty. We pledge, working alongside our partners in countries and international organizations, to do something that makes common sense and is long overdue: to conduct surveys in all countries that will assess whether people’s lives are improving.”

That is common sense. But I’m left wondering what “good” data means. In other words, I wonder who is determining what is good, who is determining whether people’s lives are improving.

Basically, the World Bank is going to invest in more household surveys to measure what goods and services families consume. There are categories of interest, like education, health, hunger, infrastructure, sanitation, etc. It will cost $300 million every three years, on top of what countries are already spending on core data collection.

I’m not arguing that these surveys and the collected data aren’t important—I’ve helped fund them in a former life. I’m just questioning if the categories the “experts” measure are the ones that really determine if life is improving.

In the World Bank’s own earlier study, Voices of the Poor, we learn that the experience of poverty does—in fact—have to do with many things “experts” measure. But in the process of carefully listening to the poor speak more freely about their lives, we learn that they care about things that are often less measured: insecurity and violence, gender inequity, accountable government and reduced corruption.

If you don’t measure it, does it count?

How would responses from traditional household surveys stack up against this question to constituents: what do you want to make your lives better?

Kaushik Basu, Chief Economist and Senior Vice President of the World Bank Group added,

“Data gives representation to people who may otherwise be marginalized and forgotten….”

One day, perhaps, there will be a World Bank Senior Vice President that says:

People represent themselves lest our data marginalizes and forgets them.

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