Breaking the silence on data deprivation in Caribbean poverty assessments
The Caribbean is facing the challenging issue of data deprivation, where data on poverty is either lacking or outdated, hindering the ability of governments to understand and effectively address poverty due to the absence of recent and comparable data. This area of concern was the subject of a recent YouTube discussion titled ‘Into The Unknown — The Hidden Truth About Poverty In The Caribbean’ between Caribbean economist and advisor Marla Dukharan, and the World Bank country director for Caribbean countries, Lilia Burunciuc.
Despite the recognition of a general US$6.85 poverty line for the Caribbean, there is a shortage of up-to-date information to effectively assess how Caribbean countries compare to others globally in terms of poverty lines, according to Burunciuc.
“We have a serious data problem,” the country director emphasised. “Apart from the international poverty line that we measure, each country has its national poverty line and this is what we mostly use these days.”
“Looking at the poverty measured at the national poverty line which normally is not comparable because it reflects only the national prices, we see that a considerable proportion of the population are actually considered poor in the Caribbean,” Burunciuc continued. “And this ranges from 12.5 per cent in Barbados, and this was in 2013, to 52 per cent in Belize, which was measured in 2018, and as high as almost 60 per cent in Haiti which was again measured in 2012. So, on average in the Caribbean the poverty line is at around 25 per cent which means one in four people live with less than what is actually considered necessary to satisfy the basic needs in their country.”
She pointed out that none of these countries have current measurements with the most recent being Belize in 2018.
Burunciuc explained that the World Bank identifies a country as data deprived if only one poverty estimate or less is available within any 10-year period. In the Caribbean, according to a World Bank study from 2015, nine countries have been classified as data deprived, and this situation persists. Among the 18 Caribbean countries, six have national poverty estimates available only for the first decade of the 2000s.
Jamaica stands out as an exception with a long history of monitoring poverty on an annual basis. In addition, the Dominican Republic has more recent poverty estimates. However, in several other Caribbean countries, the most recent poverty estimates are between five and seven years old. Additionally, social-economic information, such as unemployment rates and demographic characteristics, is not regularly collected in many countries.
The World Bank country director highlighted the importance of ending data deprivation based on the critical role of data in making the needs and constraints of the poor visible to policymakers.
This point was underscored by Dukharan.
“So we are data deprived, most of us in the Caribbean, and that means that our governments cannot formulate effective policies because they don’t know who these people are, where they are, what are their conditions, and we don’t know if the interventions are even working,” the economic advisor said. “That’s in a nutshell what is happening in the Caribbean which is heartbreaking because we elect these leaders to make our lives better and if they’re not measuring and we are data deprived, how do they even begin to make our lives better?”
Burunciuc shared that a recent survey conducted by Caricom and the World Food Programme in May 2023 across 22 Caribbean countries revealed trends that reinforce these concerns. Over half of the English-speaking Caribbean’s population, about 3.7 million people, are moderately or severely food insecure. The study spotlighted challenges in earning a living, with four in ten respondents facing job or income loss. Coping strategies, including depleting savings for food and cutting back on essential expenses such as health, are widespread, particularly among low-income families and youth. The survey indicates a significant increase in food insecurity since April 2020, persisting into the first half of 2023, disproportionately affecting the region’s most vulnerable populations.
The discussion between Dukharan and Burunciuc also brought to light that inequality, which contributes to poverty and which has been exacerbated by the recent COVID-19 pandemic, is inadequately measured as well.
There are a number of reasons why poverty is being insufficiently evaluated in the Caribbean. Lack of investment and funding in countries with limited resources means that investment in data collection is not a priority. Consequently, surveys rely heavily on funding from development partners.
“The overall statistical capacity and data collection needs to improve in the Caribbean,” Burunciuc added. “The statistical performance index, it’s a global index, shows that statistical capacity in the Caribbean is lower than in other regions and this is another reason why the surveys are being done rarely and the quality of data may not be what we would like to see.”
Countries also struggle to release data in a timely manner reducing the usefulness of the data and its reflection of the current situation.
Dukharan suggested that data might not be released because it may be “politically sensitive…I mean we have anecdotal evidence of countries that have measured poverty and didn’t release the data or refuse to measure it.”
The economist made an appeal insisting that “we want the people looking at this video and the people reading our blog…to take action in the first place. I would really like people to agitate in their own respects in whatever role they have, that the governments measure poverty and make that data available.”
Burunciuc revealed that the World Bank is currently implementing a project to build statistical capacity in several OECS (Organization of Eastern Caribbean States) countries and she stressed the need for a centralised capacity where small countries can collaborate to overcome challenges of developing individual capacities.
She urged the people of the Caribbean to actively participate in surveys and provide data to enumerators.
“We encourage you to respond when enumerators come knocking at your door,” the World Bank official stated. “This is how policymakers can truly understand your needs and can craft development programmes to address these needs. It is to everyone’s benefit.”