Statistics in development cooperation - national statistical systems

This article is part of a set of background articles providing an ‘outline of knowledge’ of international statistical cooperation between the European Union (EU) and developing countries, for non-statisticians needing to deal with statistics in development programmes and projects. The outline serves as an entry point and introduction to the much more detailed Eurostat publication 'Guide to statistics in European Commission development cooperation', downloadable in PDF format in English, French and Spanish (further down referred to as 'the Guide').

Many developing countries have weak statistical systems and mechanisms for measuring results. Good, reliable statistics are essential for measuring progress in reaching development goals and provide essential information about the effectiveness of policies and programmes. They help governments improve their policies and to be transparent and accountable about the delivery of development results. Reliable statistics are a key element towards better measurement, monitoring and management of the results of development assistance.

The national statistical system (NSS) typically consists of the national statistical institute (NSI) and any other institutions and administrations that produce official statistics. An effective and efficient national statistical system that provides regular and reliable data is an important indicator of good policies and a crucial component of good governance.

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What is the 'national statistical system' and what is its role with respect to ‘official statistics’?

Official statistics are used to design, implement, monitor and evaluate public policies. Areas of interest can be social, economic, environmental or other subjects relevant to public policy.

A set of international fundamental principles of official statistics is available. Some regions in the world have adapted and further developed this set of fundamental principles.

The term national statistical system (NSS) refers to a country's producers of official statistics, generally a national statistical institute (NSI) and other institutions and administrations producing official statistics.

The structure of a NSS is generally built on national administrative or legal traditions.

Principles and practical advice on the operation and organisation of statistical agencies are given in the UN Handbook of statistical organisation.

Statistical legislation – the basis and framework for official statistics

Adequate statistical legislation ('statistical law') and its effective implementation are key conditions for an efficient statistical organisation and the production of timely and reliable official statistics. An example of modern statistical legislation is the European statistical law.

Often the existence of a statistical law, its content and the way it is implemented give a clue of the NSS capacity to produce quality official statistics that answer the statistics users’ needs.

Statistical laws generally cover the following areas:

  • Authorisation and responsibility for collection and publication of statistical data: the organisation and functioning of the NSS and NSI;
  • Independence of statistical activity from political authorities;
  • Obligation on individuals and organisations to reply truthfully to official surveys and censuses;
  • Dissemination rules and confidentiality of statistical data, including exchange of statistical information within the public administration;
  • Programming procedures, including a requirement for broad stakeholder consultation and transparency.

Statistical legislation exists within a national legal and administrative framework. These structures can differ greatly between countries; thus, there can be no single approach to the development of statistical legislation and to the organisation of administrative structures producing statistics.

Whatever approach is adopted, it should conform to the UN Fundamental principles of official statistics and to regional frameworks based on them (e.g. the African Charter on Statistics, the European Statistics Code of Practice and the Code of Good Practice in Statistics for Latin America and the Caribbean).

Users of statistical data

Statistical data exists to answer the questions of decision-makers, whether public or private, national or international. Users of statistics are therefore important members of national statistical systems. Main user groups of statistics:

  • government: political decision-makers and officials of central government, local authorities and supranational bodies;
  • general public: press and citizens;
  • business: enterprises, business and employers' representatives and trade unions;
  • other countries and international organisations: trade partners, development partners, etc.;
  • other users: researchers, non-governmental organisations (national or international).

National statistical institute

Generally, the NSI is the main body of the NSS and the core producer of official statistics. NSIs can be organised by function, by statistical subject or a mixture of the two. The NSI can have the status of a ministerial department or be an autonomous government body with its own budget.

The regulatory authority of an NSI also varies from one country to another. The statute of the NSI and its administrative attachment influence its autonomy vis-à-vis the political power and its authority within the NSS (see the UN Handbook of statistical organisation).

Whatever the legal and administrative structure for an NSI, important elements for the effective functioning of a NSI are:

  • guarantees of professional independence;
  • assured financial support;
  • a clear public mandate from government;
  • operational flexibility as to how it meets that mandate.

Guide examples and practical information

  • B.2.1 Official statistics and their fundamental principles
  • B.2.3 National Statistics Systems: who does what
  • Box 2.1: The UN’s Fundamental Principles of Official Statistics
  • Box 2.2: The principles of the European Statistics Code of Practice
  • Box 2.3: The principles of the African Charter on Statistics
  • Box 2.4: The Code of Good Practice in Statistics for Latin America and the Caribbean
  • Box 2.5: The organisation of the statistical process
  • Box 2.6: Users of official statistics
  • Box 2.7: Uganda Bureau of Statistics

Use national data first!

National data should be preferred to data from international and regional organisations when formulating policies, programmes and projects in a specific country (provided that national data are available and of acceptable quality).

  • National data reflect the national setting and the information needs of national decision-makers.
  • Adjustments and estimations at national level are based on in-depth knowledge of the situation on the ground and of specific local issues.
  • Use of national data may also improve communication with national stakeholders through a common reference framework.
  • Under the Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness, donors committed to respect partner country leadership and help strengthen their capacity to exercise it. The Accra Agenda for Action strengthened donor’s commitment to work through national systems in the recipient countries, based on the developing country’s own development objectives.

Data availability is closely related with the functioning of the national statistical system. Extended use of national data strengthens the position and relevance of the NSS. It also gives incentives towards better quality and availability of the national data. (See the article on data availability.)

International and regional organisations compile and publish data based on data from national authorities. However, generally, international organisations make adjustments to ensure comparability across countries and produce estimations for missing data. Such data, processed to achieve comparability, typically do not match the national statistics of developing countries. There is continuous debate between developing countries and international organisations on the publication of data differing from the national data.

Quality data available through the NSS should be given priority for any analysis at national level.

Snapshot of the NSS – a tool developed by Eurostat

If you ask yourself: "How do I assess the strengths and weaknesses of the national statistical systems of the developing countries in the context of budget support", Eurostat’s pilot tool for a "Snapshot of the NSS" aims at providing the answer.

The pilot tool for the "Snapshot of the NSS" is:

  • a project on the role of statistics in the budget support procedure;
  • a tool to assess the strengths and weaknesses of the statistical systems of partner countries to produce quality data and compute the agreed indicators on the implementation of their national development strategies.
The pilot tool for the "Snapshot of the NSS" allows managers of budget support programmes to assess the quality of the information these indicators provide.

The project developing the pilot tool for the "Snapshot of the NSS" was launched in 2011. The project will, in close consultation with key stakeholders (incl. EuropeAid, PARIS21):

  • Present options for a pilot tool for a snapshot of the NSS. This is based on the analysis of the existing documents, tools and initiatives, aiming at assessing NSS, in the perspective of budget support management;
  • Developing a pilot tool for a snapshot of the NSS, integrating selected comments of the stakeholders;
  • Testing the pilot tool for a snapshot of the NSS, drawing conclusions and recommendations from the field tests.
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