Monday, July 31, 2006

Government's bikini reports

"Statistics are like bikinis. What they reveal is suggestive, but what they conceal is vital.”-Aaron Levenstein

IF statistics could only be eaten, or provide us jobs where we could derive money from, this country may yet be the most prosperous in the world.

Regularly, government agencies are releasing figures hinting that things are improving, that exports are rising, investments are increasing, the budget deficit going down, jobs are being created, and economic growth has been robust-yet ordinary citizens are always wondering why life seems to be getting more miserable, living standards are slipping, commodity prices are skyrocketing, and every thing in the country seems to give us this sinking feeling.

Why is this so? Well, statistics are cold and abstract and what they measure at the social levels are events or phenomena that are largely incremental and therefore subtle. For instance, a 5-percent to 6-percent growth rate in the gross domestic product, especially if driven by the services sector, is not likely to create factories that would soak up the bums in the neighborhood. Yet we believe that the real factor could be lack of credibility of most of these statistics. One possible reason is that outside observers could hardly verify the veracity of these statistics.

Take the Philippine Economic Zone Authority (Peza). Periodically, Peza issues press releases about its export performance, investments accumulated and jobs generated. The reports are always glowing, as if overnight the Philippines has become an investment haven. But try verifying the statistics by asking for details at the firm level, something that the Board of Investments (BOI) does quite openly, and a researcher will encounter resistance. Try asking from them if they have basic data on rental rates, utility rates and other harmless information and they will tell you these are not available. “Try asking each ecozone,” they will say. These are perfectly public documents, and perfectly neutral they are almost useless, yet one can hardly get them from Peza.

If the BOI can provide this basic information, why can’t Peza? Is it hiding something? Is it fudging data and doesn’t want the public to know the real score? Maybe so, maybe not-but there’s no way to know because they are so secretive for reasons only God and the Peza’s conscience knows why.

Lately, Peza issued a press release saying investments in economic zones had increased 13 percent from P25.91 billion in the first half this year from P22.287 billion in the same period last year. Great!

Then the other day, the Department of Trade and Industry released another report saying investments generated by both the BOI and Peza actually went down 20 percent. Question: what agency are we supposed to believe? Should it be DTI or Peza?

Well, the truth is that investments are indeed declining significantly, contrary to the glowing press releases of Peza. That is, if we believe the reports of the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas (BSP). People are probably inclined to believe the BSP people, as they are the ones that count the real money, unlike BOI and Peza, which only count promises of investments. Promises!-and yet Peza is guarding its secret like crazy.

In fairness, the Peza seems to be very popular among its clients, largely the executives of companies located in these ecozones. Or at least, its website says so. But that’s expected because these companies are enjoying lots of fiscal incentives being doled out by the agency. Or maybe it’s a really, really good agency in delivering services to companies doing business in the Philippines. But Peza is also a public agency tasked to perform certain social functions and therefore the public, including the media, is also among its important clients. As a public institution, it is duty-bound to be transparent. Ultimately, it’s only in transparency and openness where its true worth to society can be weighed. Lately, the Senate has come up with a new bill dissolving Peza and forming a new one to supersede it. Which leads one to ask: if Peza is such a knight in shining armor, why are the senators dumping it?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

You are so right about PEZA being extremely secretive. We're doing a survey for which we need investors as respondents and although it's endorsed by DTI, PEZA won't allow them to receive letters asking if they'd like to participate in the survey. Why can't we even ask them if they're interested? Is that such an imposition?