South Pacific development report: Not Yet Complete (and nor is N.Z.’s)

This week five South Pacific nations including New Zealand are turning in report cards on their development progress. But even before the United Nations receives them, we know what will be written on them by the U.N. Development Programme.

Not Yet Complete.

Not surprisingly this will attract a response asking how it has come to this. Some of the answers are so obvious we have somehow been blinded by them. One great example of this is the sheer number of indicators that need to be reported on. 230 have been set. In the South Pacific, which comprises two wealthy first world nations – Australia and New Zealand – and a bunch of small island nations so tiny most printed maps struggle to show them, a combination of administrative difficulties, lack of resources, tiny populations and corruption mean reporting on them all is highly improbable on the best of days.

Perhaps it is time to refine the Voluntary National Review – as these exercises are known – to something more realistic. From an office somewhere in New York it is highly unlikely unless the people designing these programmes have visited small island nations like Tonga, the Solomon Islands or Vanuatu, that they have any idea about the logistical, cultural and political challenges of carrying out such in depth data gathering.

Let us take Papua New Guinea for example. Remote, once you get outside Port Moresby, towns like Lae, Wewak or Rabaul on New Britain, one might have to travel for days on dirt roads across rivers with no bridges, few airfields to land aircraft. A translator fluent in the many dialects would be needed as well as a cultural advisor to navigate local customs.

Anyone who has done statistical research will know and understand the challenges of creating, maintaining and manipulating data sets. They will understand that that whilst the set needs to be comprehensive enough and deep enough to work in, there needs to be a degree of refinement about what types of data one is after. In recognizing these challenges perhaps the biggest problem for me though, is, whether all of this is actually necessary? Of course the United Nations needs to know how its individual members are getting on, but how much of this can they not gain from simply requesting that their member states focus on a simplified range of indicators?

New Zealand is lucky. With a comparatively well working system for gathering statistical data, our biggest problem might be more whether it is still current. Being one of the larger nations by resources, population and wealth, we could establish those 230 indicators. But, just as with Fiji, Papua New Guinea and elsewhere, a bigger question might be do we really need all of them? Our 2018 Census left some major gaps in what it was meant to supply those doing the analysis for various government departments. The Chief Statistician was found wanting in terms of her management of Statistics New Zealand’s biggest single (five yearly)task.

Before any of this happens though, New Zealand needs to be honest with itself. Our statistical system, whilst in good order compared to say, the Solomon Islands or P.N.G., is not good enough if it cannot conduct a Census properly. Maybe the Voluntary National Review of New Zealand should be postponed until we get our own statistics in order.

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