The data are lousy, but they are all we have…

The title of this post pinpoints exactly what I feel about the secondary data I’ve found on my study area. It is also the (slightly modified) title of a report published by the International Institute for Environment and Development‘s Sustainable Agriculture and Rural Livelihoods Programme. This report, written in 1993, was named after a quote by an international economic expert who was speaking off the record.

Official statistical data, produced by the national ministries and government organizations usually provide easy-to-access, free, or relatively cheap, data with a wide coverage. The report, however, states that official statistics in developing countries often are of unsatisfactory quality, including the following errors:

– unreliability

– data gaps

– overaggregation

– inaccuracies

– mutual inconsistencies

– lack of timely reporting

The problem, according to that report, is that while many researchers are aware of the problems, they use the data anyway.

I can admit to being one of those researchers that are hoping for at least an indication of truth in the data. Currently developing a project on agriculture and food security in the Kurdistan Region (KR), I’m relying on this report, “Agricultural Areas In The Governorates Of Kurdistan Region” published in September 2012. This 26 page report lacks a title page, an index, and the first thing I see when I open it is bad English spelling and grammar. Nevertheless, I try to see if the numbers published in the report can be useful to understand the main crops produced in the KR, and compare them with food imports, which are known to be important. This would indeed give me a good starting point to further discuss the agricultural development in the context of food security, food sovereignty and state building, right?

However, the more I work with these data, the more I start mistrusting them. There is no description of how the data has been collected and if it represents a sample or the whole region. There are no maps included to show the extents of the governorates, as I have found that different sources (e.g. KRG, UN, IOM) uses different borders for the governorates. The tables show the production in tons (this information is only provided in Arabic/Kurdish, not English), the yield in kg/dunam and the area in dunams. However, when I tried to calculate the yield based on the production divided by the area (for some sample rows), I did not always get the same value as presented under “yield”. The data on wheat and barley dates as far back as 1969, which is both fantastic and a bit “too good to be true”. Can a region, with a history filled with conflicts and political issues really have a reliable and consistent 35 year record of crop production?!

And can these data give any indication of what direction to look at, in terms of food production and imports in the KR? Should I perhaps avoid using this data at all, and instead rely on other data sources, such as my own rural household survey and ground truth points, in combination with remote sensing of satellite images? Is there, perhaps, a way to validate the data? And who was the report compiled for, or was it compiled just for the sake of having another report online?

How many dunams of wh(e)at?

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