Volume 16, No.02 - February 2012

Feature articles

Facing the challenge of measuring the unmeasurable

Professor Paul Cheung, , Director of UN DESA's Statistics Division

UN DESA’s Statistics Division plays a vital role in collecting and analyzing data from around the world. Leading this work is Professor Paul Cheung, known worldwide for his contributions to the development of official statistics. “Statistics are crucial to economic and social development,” he says in an interview for DESA News.

Professor Cheung, recognized for his pioneering research in the fields of manpower, population and social planning, highlights the importance of statistics and their contributions to global development. “It is clear that without solid information we cannot measure where we are and what needs to be done, with respect to the MDGs or in other domains. If the world cannot get the right numbers, it cannot come out with the right solutions,” he says. Professor Cheung moreover gives praise to official statisticians around the globe, spotlighting the fact that this community “has worked steadfastly in the past six decades in building a global statistical system that the world relies on.”

Thanks to the work of the Statistics Division, important data is being collected helping the world to make informed decisions. What do you see as the main challenges in the work gathering and analyzing data from around the world?

“Indeed, an informed policy debate should be supported and facilitated by timely, consistent and relevant data at all levels. For the international users of data, an important quality dimension has to be added: data have to be comparable across countries. This is achieved by the United Nations Statistical Commission who has the unique mandate to set international statistical standards and methodologies in the various statistical fields. Based on the international standards, countries from all over the world can then produce and submit reliable and comparable data to the United Nations Statistics Division. Just imagine if there was no common standard in the compilation of ‘national income’ or ‘Gross Domestic Product (GDP)’. We would have all kinds of economic data with no common assessment platform.

Since 1946, the United Nations Statistics Division has collected billions of data records from all around the globe. In this context, I want to pay tribute to the professional community of official statisticians around the globe. This community has worked steadfastly in the past six decades in building a global statistical system that the world relies on. “Service, Professionalism and Integrity” were the key themes of our first World Statistics Day celebrated on 20 October 2010 (twenty-ten-twenty-ten) in which over 140 countries participated with high-level events, involving some heads of states and government. We are proud to be part of this global statistical community and the very existence of this global professional statistical family, which transcends political, economic and cultural differences among countries and works hand-in-hand to build common standards and databases, is perhaps our biggest achievement of all.”

What do you think is the most important contribution of statistics in promoting global development?

“In his address on the occasion of the first World Statistics Day, the Secretary-General observed that ‘Statistics permeate modern life. They are the basis for many governmental, business and community decisions.’

Statistics are crucial to economic and social development. They serve as reference points in public debates and contribute to the progress of our nations. They are indispensable to academic research and the development of businesses and the civil society. Statistics ultimately serve everyone in society.

A good example of the contribution of statistics in global development relates to the Millennium Development Goals. When the MDGs were established after the adoption of the Millennium Declaration, specific goals and targets were established and statistical monitoring was urgently required to assess the pace with which the world is progressing towards the MDGS. The member states and international agencies have worked very hard and very closely together to develop and harmonize their statistical tools in order to provide the data for the monitoring. We are happy to report that, as a result of this joint effort, we are able to produce a yearly assessment of the MDG progress. We are now working towards the final assessment of the MDGs when it reaches the target year of 2015.

It is clear that without solid information we cannot measure where we are and what needs to be done, with respect to the MDGs or in other domains. If the world cannot get the right numbers, it cannot come out with the right solutions. This is why we are committed to participate actively in the discussion on the post-2015 development agenda, in order to advise policy decision makers on which targets are actually measurable and for which indicators data can reliably be produced.”

What do you hope the 43rd Session of the Statistical Commission will accomplish this year?

“The 43rd session of the Statistical Commission will be held from 28 February to 2 March 2012. We are again looking forward to strong participation from member states. As in past years, we expect about 140 countries to be represented by their experts from the capital, making the Statistical Commission a truly global forum on official statistics. It has been said before that ‘Official Statistics’ is an area where the United Nations truly works well. The normative work of the Commission over the past 65 years is an important example of how the United Nations Member States can effectively act in unison, especially at times where the ability of the international community to act together in other areas is sometimes limited.

As mentioned before the core business of the United Nations Statistical Commission is to adopt international methodological standards and guidelines in virtually every area of statistics. This year the Commission has again a busy programme with over 30 technical reports to look at. In particular, the Commission will look at the proposals for a new Framework on the Development of Environmental Statistics and for the System of Environmental and Economic Accounting, which are highly relevant in the context of the Rio+20 Summit. This Commission session will also review the lessons learnt from the 2010 census round, where as of 1 January 2012, 180 countries and areas have conducted a census, enumerating 87 per cent of the world population. Censuses have helped countries collect enormous amounts of demographic and social data. Moreover, the Commission will address the issue of how coordination in statistics within the UN System can be improved further. Finally, given its overwhelming success, it is also expected that the Commission will approve a five-year cycle for the celebration of World Statistics Day.”

There will be a high-level forum on “Measuring the Unmeasurable: Challenging the Limits of Official Statistics” on 27 February. Can you highlight some examples of the “unmeasurable” and how your division tries to tackle these challenges?

“In order to remain relevant in a rapidly changing world, the statistical community has to continuously examine and push its own boundaries. Phenomena, which are not easily measurable today, may become important tomorrow, so we have to be prepared. In the past years it has become customary to explore ‘cutting edge’ issues in the format of a ‘high level forum’, which allows brainstorming and free-flowing exchange. In these discussions, we have to balance the desire to explore new ideas which may require new measurement tools and the need to preserve the credibility and reputation of official statistics.

This year’s event will focus on issues such as the measurement of happiness, well-being and ecosystem services and other difficult concepts. These are complicated topics with no clear measurement yardsticks. How to take the complex interaction between the environment and the economy into account and how to capture the level of well being in a country, which may include a high degree of subjectivity, will be discussed among the chief statisticians of the world.”

Last year, the Statistics Division arranged many seminars and workshops around the world focusing on a variety of issues including statistics on the MDGs, energy, environment and on population and housing censuses. Can you describe this type of work?

“Capacity building is a fundamental pillar of the work of our Division. In 2011 alone, more than 2600 official statisticians around the world participated in one of our events (conferences, expert groups, workshops and fellowship programmes). Specifically, over 35 training workshops and seminars were organized in the developing countries to assist the countries to gain the requisite knowledge. In this effort we always work closely with member states and with our partners in the international statistical agencies. To give an example of such cooperation, we launched in 2011 the China International Statistical Training Center which operates in collaboration with ‘UN Statistics’. Through this center, we have organized 8 international training activities. More are being planned.

Through our training activities, we are able to understand the needs of national statistical systems and how they are performing. This will allow us to direct more resources to those countries in need. In 2011, the global statistical community has adopted a Busan Plan of Action on Statistical development at the High Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness. In this document, we highlighted the areas that would require greater injection of resources as we bring the global statistical system forward. We will be working with the development partners in implementing this Plan of Action. The UN Statistical Commission will discuss this Plan of Action in its forthcoming session.”

A new UN Committee of Experts on Global Geospatial Information Management (GGIM) was created and inaugurated last year. Are there any special events or projects that the Committee will focus on during the coming year?

“The resolution of the UN Economic and Social Council to create a UN Committee of Experts on Global Geospatial Information Management came at a time when few new bodies are being created. This bold decision reflects the Council’s conviction that promoting greater and wider use of geospatial information globally is essential, especially in a context where we are discussing how to manage the resources on this planet responsibly.

The Committee, which will hold its second formal meeting in August 2012 in New York, is in the process for formulating its priorities and deciding on its work plan for the coming years. The setting of global standards on geospatial information, the evolution of an ethical statement on the production and use of geospatial information, and the pooling of information and platforms are clearly the main issues to be tackled. As new technologies have deeply transformed the availability and accessibility of geospatial information and its potential uses, we are working very closely on these issues with our partners in the international organizations and in the private sector. A second high-level forum on GGIM, to be hosted by the Government of Qatar in Doha, is now planned for 4-6 February 2013. This Forum will bring together all the stakeholders in an inclusive fashion to discuss the priority issues facing the geospatial information community before they are being formally addressed by the inter-governmental Committee.”

For more information:

Bio of Professor Paul Cheung:

Making strides towards extreme poverty eradication

Making strides towards extreme poverty eradication

As the global economy remains fragile at the outset of 2012, the need to eradicate extreme poverty is clearer than ever. UN DESA renews its commitment to work with stakeholders to promote sustained, inclusive and equitable growth, and reach the Millennium Development Goal of halving extreme poverty by 2015.

Heralded at the 1995 World Summit for Social Development, poverty eradication continues to be an overarching objective of national and international development efforts. There has been significant success in recent decades in reducing poverty. In 1980, for example, 1.5 billion people were living below $1 per day; by 2005, the number had been cut to 850 million.

However, there is still more that needs to be done. Rising income inequality, worsening environmental conditions, poor job creation and weakening social stability all pose serious and ongoing challenges to accelerating poverty eradication. Moreover, the financial crisis, volatility of energy and food prices, climate change and loss of biodiversity has increased vulnerabilities and inequalities, particularly in developing countries.

Adopting action-oriented recommendations

To help address these critical issues and kick-off the development efforts slated for this year, the Commission for Social Development (CSD) will convene in New York for its fiftieth session from 1-10 February, focusing on the priority theme “Poverty Eradication”. The Session will be chaired by His Excellency Mr. Jorge Valero (Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela) with expected participation of 46 Member States and accredited NGOs.

Taking into account poverty’s interrelationship with social integration, full employment and decent work for all, the session will complete the biennial cycle by adopting action-oriented policy recommendations on poverty eradication. The work of the Commission is expected to focus on the structural barriers to poverty eradication. This focus is seen as an effective means of ensuring that proposed policy guidance emphasizes inclusive growth, building up the asset base of the poor, and opening up social and economic opportunities for large numbers of people, in particular the most disadvantaged.

Creating jobs, reducing inequalities and providing social protection

In concert with ECOSOC resolution 2010/10, the promotion of macroeconomic and social policies which focus on creating jobs, reducing inequalities and providing social protection, are expected to be part of the discussion. Investing in agriculture, rural development and climate change adaptation and mitigation measures are also elements expected to be addressed in the discussions.

The scale of investment required to eradicate poverty exceeds the capacity of Governments, civil society organizations or the private sector working alone. Discussions in the session are also expected to address truly transformational public-private partnerships in the formulation and implementation of development programmes.

Addressing youth poverty and unemployment

In conjunction with the primary theme, the Commission will also discuss the emergent issue on youth poverty and unemployment, underscored at the World Summit for Social Development and the Twenty-fourth Special Session of the General Assembly. Young people between 15 and 24 years of age, particularly from developing countries, are not only disproportionately affected by unemployment over the past decades, but are now faced with an onslaught of difficulties as a consequence of the financial crisis. Unemployment among disadvantaged youth, young women, indigenous peoples and ethnic minorities perpetuates a vicious cycle of poverty and social exclusion.

Poverty eradication is the centerpiece of sustainable development

The anti-poverty objectives and expected outcomes of the fiftieth session will make a significant contribution towards this year’s events dedicated to the International Year of Sustainable Energy, culminating in the UN Conference on Sustainable Development, Rio+20, in June 2012. In the closing remarks of the 2nd Intersessional Meeting for Rio+20 in December 2011, DESA’s Under-Secretary-General and the Secretary-General for Rio+20, Mr. Sha Zukang, encouraged, “Our minimalist ambition at Rio+20 should be to eradicate poverty. This should be a centerpiece of our efforts to achieve sustainable development. To start with, this will require that stability and inclusive growth be restored to the global economy.”

For more information:

New ECOSOC President outlines focus for 2012

“While some nations escape the poverty-trap, many more desperately need help. In 2012, ECOSOC must therefore carve out its niche as the forum for frank, free-flowing discourse on development cooperation,” said H.E. Mr. Miloš Koterec, its newly elected President at the handover ceremony on 10 January in New York.

Mr. Koterec also gave an overview of what ECOSOC would be focusing on in 2012. “As we look ahead, two other themes will surely compete for the Council’s attention in 2012: sustainable development and the post-2015 development architecture. What have we learned from our past endeavors? At the last Rio summit, we dreamed big. This time around, ambitions may be more modest. If Rio+20 is to make the right impact, it must instead set its sights on changing the terms of debate — from neutralizing human influence on the planet to better managing and mitigating its impact.”

He also discussed ECOSOC’s role in shaping the post-2015 development framework. Influencing requires “visionary thinking: setting, not following the agenda; retaining the best aspects of the Millennium Development Goals, like for example simplicity and time-bound targets while adopting a sharpened focus on outcomes and delivery.” For which he concluded, “the Council is well positioned at the heart of the action.”

For more information:

Statement by new ECOSOC President Miloš Koterec

Statement by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon

Statement by ECOSOC President for 2011 Lazarous Kapambwe