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Interview with Carol Carson: IMF making great strides in data quality

Author(s):
International Monetary Fund. External Relations Dept.
Published Date:
July 2004
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Carol Carson on IMF statistics initiatives

IMF Survey: You’ve been in the statistical field for over 30 years. What strikes you as the most exciting, significant change?

Carson: Maybe I have a biased view, but I’d have to say the increasing realization of the importance of internationally comparable data. In fact, I’m at the IMF partly because I believe in the value of this type of data. One catalyst of change was the Internet—it’s so easy to pick up data on GDP from around the world, but you need to be able to compare one country’s data with those of others. Also, there has been an increased recognition, by countries of all sizes, of the importance of the data. For example, I’ve seen the United States take a lot more interest in international comparability. I’ve also seen China make it increasingly clear that it wants to move closer to international standards on methodologies. Of course, the regional organizations are also pushing the cause.

IMF Survey: How close are we to achieving internationally comparable data?

Carson: That depends on whether you want perfection or whether you’re prepared to accept that it’s simply getting better. And it depends on which data set you’re looking at. In balance of payments, for example, we can track how many countries are reporting data according to the standard presentation of the Balance of Payments Manual, fifth edition. But in other areas, progress is not as clear.

IMF Survey: Over the past decade, there’s been a tremendous push in high international circles to improve data quality. How confident are you of the progress that’s been made?

Carson: Looking back over the decade, I’m very confident that tremendous progress has been made. There is better coverage, greater timeliness, and a huge leap in the publication of advance calendars that show planned release dates. A decade ago, very few countries published them, let alone worried about whether they would meet their promised release dates. Now, our monitoring of Special Data Dissemination Standard (SDDS) subscribers shows that around 90 percent are on time. In terms of coverage, we have an international reserves template and a data set on external debt. Plus a number of countries regularly disseminate quarterly GDP estimates. If you want to quantify the improvement, just look at the number of SDDS improvement plans that were laid out and then implemented. These number well into the hundreds.

IMF Survey: Has it paid off in terms of the countries getting better prices when they float bonds?

Carson: Definitely. A recent IMF study by John Cady [see IMF Survey, June 14, page 172] found that countries that participate in the SDDS have enjoyed lower borrowing costs in the primary capital markets. In the case of seven emerging market countries, it was a reduction of around 75 basis points—or about 20 percent—which could add up to savings of millions of dollars in interest. This confirmed trends that some other agencies had reported for the secondary markets.

In addition, countries are able to generate better numbers. At the UN Statistical Commission in March, one speaker—representing the chief statisticians of a wide range of countries—made the point that the SDDS, the General Data Dissemination Standard (GDDS), and the Data Quality Assessment Framework (DQAF) have contributed greatly to the improvement of data around the world (see box). Chief statisticians wouldn’t say that if they didn’t feel that the attention given to data has helped them make the case for better data.

IMF Survey: One recent initiative has been to strengthen the sociodemographic data section of the GDDS to help countries develop indicators to trace progress in meeting the Millennium Development Goals on poverty, health, and education. At the same time, many international bodies can’t even agree on how to measure poverty. What needs to happen to resolve these differences? How hopeful are you of coming up with the needed indicators?

Carson: For economic data, there has long been an agreement that money—typically market prices—is the measuring rod. But for sociodemographic data, we don’t have such a firm measuring rod. That said, I believe it’s very important for the GDDS to have sociodemographic data. And although there has been a good deal of controversy over which indicators to include, over time there has been progress toward an agreed list. As we go forward, we want policymakers to be aware that, although there’s a quality issue with the indicators, we don’t want to undercut their use. If indicators are used, they will receive priority when they need to be fixed. If they aren’t used, no one will want to spend money on them. It’s a balancing act.

A primer on the IMF’s statistical initiatives

Special Data Dissemination Standard (SDDS): Established in March 1996 to guide members that have, or that might seek, access to international capital markets in the provision of their economic and financial data to the public. It currently has 57 subscribers, consisting mainly of industrial and emerging market economies.

General Data Dissemination System (GDDS): Established in December 1997 to guide countries in the provision to the public of comprehensive, timely, accessible, and reliable economic, financial, and sociodemographic data (population, education, health, and poverty). It currently has 60 subscribers, all developing countries. Another 20 are expected to join in the coming year.

Data Quality Assessment Framework (DQAF): Established in July 2001 as a framework for assessing data quality by national producers of official statistics, international organizations, and other data users, including those in the private sector.

IMF Survey: Is the problem in measuring or collecting data?

Carson: There still isn’t agreement on a methodology for many of the sociodemographic data indicators and that makes it harder to provide guidance and technical assistance.

IMF Survey: What about a basic measurement like poverty?

Carson: I don’t see an early resolution to the debates, but I think the attention that indicators like poverty are getting will help get us where we need to go. There are some movements afoot—like at the UN Statistical Commission—to try to develop an internationally agreed approach. One can hope that it takes hold.

IMF Survey: It’s assumed that part of the problem is the inability of some countries to collect data. What is the IMF doing in its technical assistance and outreach efforts, especially for Africa?

Carson: We devote about 40 percent of our technical assistance resources to African countries. We have GDDS projects for Anglophone, Francophone, and Lusophone African countries. There are now 36 African countries that are GDDS participants. We work with them to describe their statistical production and dissemination practices, leading to a statement of their plans for improvement. Then we target our technical assistance to help them with these plans. This, combined with the assistance that these countries are receiving from the IMF’s two regional technical assistance centers in Africa, results in a substantial effort. On top of that, PARIS21—an advocacy group composed of policymakers, analysts, and statisticians from all countries of the world—prepares videos, flyers, and conferences to drive home the importance of good statistics for sound policymaking and tracking progress on the Millennium Development Goals (see box on technical assistance, page 218).

IMF Survey: Under your stewardship of the Statistics Department, the IMF has become a recognized leader in organizing and promoting work within the international statistical context. The work on external debt statistics is a good example. What is the secret to your success?

Carson: We’ve definitely benefited from the greater realization by individual countries that statistics aren’t just for the country itself. Each country is part of a bigger scene, and each country needs to care about its neighbors’ statistics. We have also benefited greatly from working with other international organizations. For example, with external debt, we managed to develop a compilation guide on methodology in just four years, working with six other international organizations. As a result of that cooperation, the methodology has far more clout than if we had just developed it alone.

IMF Survey: Do you feel that your primary responsibility has been to these other world statistical agencies or to the IMF’s operational work?

Carson: My primary obligation has been to the IMF—its operational and surveillance work. However, I also believe that I get more for the IMF if I engage with the other international organizations. Take a country’s willingness to report. If you want external debt statistics, you can approach a country by saying: The IMF wants these data, and if you want a program, you need to provide them. Or you can approach the issue by first developing the needed guidance with other international organizations. The message for a country then becomes: We can help you understand why you need the data and why we want them, and we can help you put them together.

IMF Survey: The DQAF is increasingly viewed as the international standard for assessing good practice in national statistical systems. Some of your staff consider that this may prove to be your most enduring contribution as Director of the Statistics Department. Would you agree?

Carson: If it stands the test of time, I would be pleased that I had a hand in it. It has proved robust so far, and the way we went about it suggests that there may be buy-in. We started it in 1997 and kept pushing. It’s now been embedded in the Reports on Standards and Codes, and some countries even use it for their own self-assessment.

IMF Survey: Is there anything you regret not having had the chance to do—items that your successor, Robert Edwards, will need to take up?

Carson: I could give you a long list! Let me focus on two issues that I think should be among his top priorities. First, the SDMX, which stands for Statistical Data and Metadata Exchange. It was formed by a group of international organizations that wanted greater standardization in the exchange of data, particularly from countries to international organizations, and then among international organizations.

Currently, European countries will report to us, to Eurostat, to the European Central Bank, to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, and even sometimes to the United Nations. The question is why, for something like GDP and national accounts more broadly, there can’t be a standard whereby a country puts the data on its website with tags so that international organizations can go there to pick up what they need. Moreover, countries often send slightly different data sets to each agency to meet the agency’s specifications.

We got serious about the SDMX about three years ago, and I’ve chaired the group of international organizations that is sponsoring it. It’s somewhat hard to let this go because I think it has great potential. My successor is going to need to see that the IMF stays a part of that operation.

Second, over the past decade, the IMF and other organizations have put a lot of effort into updating methodologies. We now need to focus more on implementing them. Which brings us back to international comparability. If you have a methodology and you’re helping countries implement it, you will get more comparable data. For example, we’re working on standardized report forms for monetary statistics.

IMF Survey: Is this part of an effort to standardize country data within the IMF?

Carson: Yes. For example, in monetary statistics, we have an ongoing series of projects to develop what is known as an integrated monetary database. We help countries set up a reporting system that they can use for their own purposes, that the IMF’s regional departments can use, and that we can use for International Financial Statistics.

IMF Survey: How about regional data?

Carson: We haven’t put a lot of effort into regional data. We’ve been happy to work with regional organizations, like AFRISTAT, Eurostat, and the European Central Bank, which need standardized methodologies for their own purposes. However, if the IMF gets more involved in regional surveillance, then our own need in this area will increase.

IMF Survey: Any future plans?

Carson: I think I’ll just let the next stage unfold slowly, but I expect it to include some combination of words, flowers, and photography!

Helping countries improve data quality

The IMF’s Statistics Department gears its technical assistance to bringing about lasting improvements in member countries’ national statistical systems and support the IMF’s surveillance activities and the use of IMF resources.

Technical assistance is offered in national accounts, balance of payments, monetary and financial, government finance, and price statistics, as well as in statistical organization. The assistance is typically provided in the context of internationally accepted data standards frameworks, and in recent years it has had a growing regional focus. Regional projects use the General Data Dissemination System (GDDS) framework to help countries improve their ability to produce and disseminate macroeconomic and sociodemographic statistics. These projects are carried out in coordination with other technical assistance providers, including the World Bank.

The Statistics Department is prioritizing its technical assistance projects to reflect the IMF’s main program areas, including crisis prevention, poverty reduction, and postconflict country assistance. In carrying out its work, the department complements short-term visits by staff teams with the long-term placement of statistical advisors.

In 2003/2004, the Statistics Department sent 294 mission teams to 112 countries—a sharp rise from the 150 missions to 85 countries only two years earlier. In addition to its own program, the Statistics Department also supports technical assistance delivered through the IMF’s regional technical assistance centers in Asia (PFTAC), the Caribbean (CARTAC), and Africa (East AFRITAC and West AFRITAC).

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