Someone asked me recently, what is the population of Pakistan? 180 million — I said, with some confidence. How did I know that? Well, quite frankly, I didn’t. I guessed it based on the estimates being thrown around. The authenticity of estimates, mind you, by non-governmental organisations, international NGOs and other ‘websites’, is quite dubious. As I dug a bit deeper, especially on the recent World Population Day, I found estimates ranging from 170 million to nearly 190 million. The 20 million disparity is more than 10 per cent of our national population!

In my quest to find out some real numbers, I turned to government websites. The last official census data available from the government is from 1998 — 16 years ago, which by any standard, is outdated and provides little value to understanding our demographics today. We have little information about population migration, growth areas and national demographic restructuring except what we found a generation ago. Even the national census website is outdated and provides little information of use (http://census.gov.pk/datacensus.php). The implications of the lack of this information are long term and negative for everyone in the country except for those who want to control resources irrespective of their due share. In a so-called democratic society, where allocation of national resources should take population and demographic trends into account, lack of any reliable data is extremely problematic.
While a clear estimate of national population is a huge problem, the lack of data and its implications for policy are manifested in nearly all spheres of our policy domain. The governments, both in the capital and in the provinces, talk about higher education for instance. We have little or no data on the demographics of our students, their financial capacity to pay the tuition, the representation of urban versus rural student population, the ability to secure jobs within a five-year period, the success and the dropout rate, the percentage of low-income students, etc. What we have is estimates, which provide bits and pieces of a picture that can hardly be used for a concrete policy. Combine poor data with lack of competence among the politicians and it’s no rocket science to figure out why policies fail to work.
I have had first-hand experience in dealing with the dearth of data in the country. In my own research area of understanding and analysing the determinants of poor quality medicines, we have no clue how bad the problem really is. Ask anyone on the street about the quality of medicines and he or she will have a story to tell about the ill effects of counterfeit or substandard medicines. But personal stories do not create policy, data does. We can start with the assumption that there is a widespread problem of medicine quality in the country, but how bad is it? Where does it start? Is it an issue of supply chain, or incompetence, or corruption, or poor manufacturing? Is it bad in one region and acceptable in the other? At the end of the day, it’s a tapestry of guesswork and anecdotes. In multiple conversations with public and private stakeholders, I have always been told that we do not have any real data to answer these questions.
The problem is not just the fact that we do not have the data that we need to create a better sense of our challenges; the real problem is that we are not interested in doing anything about it. The ill-structured and outdated website of the organisation that conducts the population census is a reflection of our lack of interest or will. The problem is probably much deeper.
It is said that good data leads to good policy and good governance. I wonder where no data leads to?