By Filomeno S. Sta. Ana III

16 November 2021

The publication of World Development Report 2021: Data for Better Lives (WDR 2021) is most timely, most relevant for advocacy of my organization, Action for Economic Reforms (AER).

The release of WDR 2021 in fact coincides with the AER’s 25th year.  What serendipity!  

For the WDR 2021 serves as our guide to do better in meeting our strategic goals.  WDR 2021 posits the fundamental question that AER and for that matter other civil society organizations must constantly grapple with. That is, “how can data better advance development objectives?”

Answering this question becomes all the more critical at the time of the pandemic when policy makers and implementers are all lamenting the dearth of good data, which compounds the institutional weaknesses that obstruct sound health and socioeconomic interventions.

This is not to say that we are not informed about the basic concepts or principles and good practices contained in WDR 2021.  Through the years, we have emphasized the importance of rigor, including the integrity of data, to make our advocacy or campaign effective. What makes WDR 2021 timely is that it upholds and reinforces what we want to do in promoting and securing reforms.

Founded in November 1996, AER has set its goals to put in place policies that enable or promote sustainable development, including equity (without undermining efficiency), economic wellbeing, inclusiveness, and democratization. AER thus advocates policy reforms or alternatives that serve the said goals. 

Of course, the ultimate metric of success is achieving concrete policy and institutional reforms.  And we are proud to say that together with our partners in government, civil society and the private sector, we have won historically significant or transformative reforms.  To cite the key gains: 

  • The series of tobacco and alcohol tax increases (otherwise known as sin tax reforms) and the corresponding substantial and consistent increase in public health spending.
  • The legislation of Universal Health Care (UHC) anchored on primary health care.
  •  The passage of other major tax reforms embodied in the so-called tax reform for acceleration and inclusion (also known as TRAIN), including the increase in excise taxes on fuel and automobile, the rationalization of the value-added tax, the personal income tax relief for fixed-income professionals and wage workers.
  • The modernization of the fiscal incentive regime by strengthening its governance and making tax incentives transparent, time-bound, and accountable, and subjecting them to rigorous economic criteria.
  • The signing of an Executive Order to operationalize freedom of information (FOI) or the right to know.
  • The passage of the Rice Tariffication Law (RTL) that will transform the uncompetitive Philippine rice industry and that will benefit consumer welfare, and in the long run create incentives for farmers to boost productivity and incomes.

In all these reform efforts, political capital, smart strategies, and high multi-stakeholder trust are necessary.  But reforms cannot be advanced either without solid technical analysis.  More, the technical work requires the collection of and access to good data, which in turn must be interpreted and analyzed well.

Our long experience shows that advocacy succeeds when it is grounded on sound and reliable data. As WDR 2021 puts it, data should be treated as a “force for the public good.”

Thus, we conjoin data and politics. Good data, or better data, is good politics!

This idea of good data is good politics has likewise guided AER in launching and implementing its new program titled Data-Driven Development (or 3D). The program focuses on championing “human-centered, gender-responsive data-driven development in the Philippines by using data-informed and technology-enabled participatory decision making” at the local government level.

For this to happen, AER adopts “participatory systems design thinking in the utilization of data and technology for evidence-based solutions.”  As emphasized by WDR 2021 (Chapter 8): “Nongovernmental institutions…can help governments and other actors safely share and use data to capture greater value, while promoting equitable access to data and the value they create.”

The main components of AER’s 3D are: 1) data collection, management, and analytics, 2) building evidence from the data for policy making, 3) alliances with local government units and their officials, with national government agencies, and with civil society organizations and the private sector, and 4) capacity building for policy and research. The major components will take the form of creating the following: a development data lab, a policy development lab, a coalition for data and technical work, and a policy and research consortium of academic and research institutions in the localities.

The program is divided into projects funded separately by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) (https://collabdev.aer.ph) and the European Commission (EC) (https://sites.google.com/view/ph3d-ols/home).  The projects all in all cover more than 10 municipalities, cities, and provinces in the Philippines. The ultimate goal is to draw the good practices from the local governments involved in the projects so that they can be scaled up and replicated elsewhere.

As AER embarks on new programs on its 25th year, it will be guided by what WDR 2021’s “Data for Better Lives.”  AER and its partners are stakeholders of data-driven development. As such, we subscribe to WDR 2021’s “multistakeholder, purpose-driven approach to data management and governance [which] can help institutions keep pace with an ever-evolving data ecosystem and enhance their legitimacy, transparency, and accountability.”

To reiterate, having good data is good politics. Having better data is having better than good governance.

Recommended links:

https://www.worldbank.org/en/publication/wdr2021

https://asiafoundation.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/Thinking-and-Working-Politically-in-Development_Coalitions-for-Change-in-the-Philippines_Faustino_Sidel.pdf

https://collabdev.aer.ph

https://sites.google.com/view/ph3d-ols/home