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Accounting for Change

It is fitting that the concentration of major institutions of development—the Planning Commission; the World Bank/IMF; the United Nations; the Local Government Engineering Division; the Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies; and the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics, just north of Sangsad (Parliament), the seat of national sovereignty—is bounded by Statistics Road. The Bangladeshi state takes the collection of statistics very seriously indeed, perhaps a reflection of the inherent unknowability of its vast human population. Governments count the things that matter to them, and the Bangladeshi state measures and tracks the state of its population ever more closely.[1] The Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (BBS) is an authoritative and technically able body with strong support from aid agencies, in particular the World Bank. It produces regular reports on social and economic characteristics using accepted techniques, its reports are universally cited, and its data are widely used. In many respects, the BBS is a model of public service: it has a clear mandate, which it is adequately financed to deliver; capacity in statistical data collection and use is good; there is both official and civil society demand for numbers, and scrutiny from Bangladesh's thinktanks and policy experts over its quality.

BBS was established in August 1974, at precisely the time the famine unfolded, and as the new state was planning its future. The new organization merged three large entities and a year later got its own Statistics Division under the Ministry of Planning, with high-level leadership. Before BBS, the state lacked much purchase on the daily realities of its large population, and had little influence over how it reproduced. Without credible statistics, the state recurrently failed to offer a credible account whether of the Bhola cyclone, wartime mortality, floods, or famine; the 'crying wolf' accusation made both during Bhola and during the 1974 floods was only possible because the state lacked the data to refute it. The early 1970s state was able neither to plan for nor to monitor its own performance. For some decades now Bangladesh has had a full complement of regular, authoritative, demographic, food security, and poverty statistics collected and disseminated, often with the support of aid agencies. The contrast between the state's weak accounting of its population in its disastrous past and its present reliance on official figures in its policy, planning, and service provision is striking, indicative in particular of the change in how the state relates to the people.

BBS is the central agency tasked with collecting official data, and its mandate is deep and wide. Several Bangladeshi ministries have working websites, but the BBS site possesses functionality that suggests a brisk traffic in official data and reports. Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics website gives a sense of the sweep of their authority to extract and use information, from the census, the counting of everyone, through to sectoral surveys of agriculture, housing, women and children, the economy. Note that the website hosts a tally of the population beneath a clock, a suggestion the population is forever being counted. Good national statistics mean Bangladesh's progress can be measured and represented in the Human Development Index. Interactive data make it possible to watch the progress of a quarter-century in a satisfying matter of seconds, as graphs showing improvements in the life chances of Bangladeshis climb steadily in the right direction: progress that has been sustained over the past thirty or more years.[2]

In the crucial and politically sensitive area of food policy, too, data collection and dissemination are now institutionalized. The food situation is closely monitored on the basis of key indicators of reserve levels, harvest conditions, global and national prices, production, etc. Wholesale and retail prices are closely monitored across the country, and some seasons or price changes may trigger open market sales or vulnerable group feeding activities.[3] Data are transparent, periodic, and accessible, leaving little room for the markets to misinterpret or manipulate food supply conditions, as in 1974.

  • [1] Bangladesh scored 77 on the World Bank's 2015 'Statistical Capacity Index', somewhat abovethe South Asian average (71) and considerably above the IDA average, in the low 60s (;accessed 14 January 2016).
  • [2] See, for instance, the inimitable Hans Rosling, health data guru and Ted Talks star, on the'Bangladesh Miracle' (Rosling 2007).
  • [3] See (accessed 2 January 2016).
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