On 27th August, 2020, the World Bank Group issued an official statement to pause the publication of the Doing Business Report 2021 after reported data irregularities in the Doing Business Report 2018 and 2020 published in October 2017 and 2019. The changes in the data were inconsistent with the Doing Business methodology as reported by the Bank.  “We have asked the World Bank Group’s independent Internal Audit function to perform an audit of the processes for data collection and review for Doing Business and the controls to safeguard data integrity. We will act based on the findings and will retrospectively correct the data of countries that were most affected by the irregularities” excerpt from the statement.

The issuance of statement by the World Bank has raised a lot of hue and cry from many corners and data irregularities in the report at this stage has invited criticism from people belonging to different walks of lifewithin and outside the country. However, before bashing this flagship project of the World Bank, which has been running successfully over the last seventeen years, one should take a 360 degree view of the situation emerged as a result of this statement.

Firstly, the official statement regarding irregularity in the data issued by the World Bank seems to be insufficient in order to gauge the consequences it will have on the performance of the countries who will be affected due to data irregularities. The World Bank Group must explain this statement in detail at some early stage to avoid confusion and criticism. 

Secondly, there’s no doubt that the statement regarding pause of the publication of the Doing Business report has disappointed many countries which have been performing well over the past few years. However, we need to realize and appreciate the fact that the World Bank Group has assigned top priority to integrity and impartiality of their data and analysis and that they will be independently conducting a systematic review and assessment of data changes that occurred subsequent to the institutional data review process for the last five Doing Business reports. The information regarding data irregularity was not swept under the carpet. The Bank without caring much about the criticism has maintained highest standards regarding transparency of information and has informed all the concerned through this statement.

Thirdly, we must understand from the statement that World Bank Group is now expected to conduct an extensive exercise to examine data collection and reporting procedures and make necessary data corrections and improve data integrity. Thereby,countries will now have a more refined methodology and reporting proceduresas a result of this exercise.

Lastly and most importantly, regardless of the data irregularity issues in Doing Business Report, one cannot deny the fact that this report has given many countries like us a well-defined framework/roadmap to reform the regulatory procedures to facilitate businesses. We all know that growth of Micro/Small & Medium Enterprises are of paramount importance for the developing countries therefore we must continue reform doing business procedures & processes in order to make conducive environment for them to operate and flourish. The Ease of Doing Business Reform Framework has been developed after thorough research of the global best practices and after having mapped 190 economies by the World Bank. Like, many other countries, Pakistan also decided to leverage this framework and by virtue of this, many reform initiatives were implemented under Ease of Doing Business Reforms Agenda at the Federal & Provincial levels. In Punjab, around 50 number of reform initiatives were implemented during last two years in the areas of starting a business, dealing with construction permits, registering property, enforcing contract, getting electricity and paying taxes etc. The notable reforms included digitalization of property registration procedures, online submission & issuance of building permits, online registration of businesses and payment of different government taxes, online payment of Social Security & Pension Contributions by the employers and dedicated district commercial courts for dealing with commercial matters etc.

All these initiatives were part of the Ease of Doing Business Reforms Framework which was monitored regularly by the highest authorities to ensure their completion. These initiatives were aimed at simplifying doing business procedures and improving efficiency and delivery of services. The question is that can the data irregularity issues in Doing Business Report overshadow the magnificent work performed by all the relevant Federal & Provincial departments? Are we implementing these reforms just to improve our performance in the Doing Busines Index? The answer to these questions as per my little understanding is No. Because the work done under this framework has been lauded at all forums and thousands of people benefited from it directly or indirectly. Resultantly, this splendid work is going to be scaled up and replicated in other districts and provinces. We can now develop our own Doing Business Framework at district or divisional level or for any special economic zone. We can build on these reforms already implemented and customize the framework as per our own needs as we have developed in-house capacities to design and implement such reform frameworks.

As far as ranking is concerned, while we should not be afraid of slipping few points down in case of any data corrections, we should keep in mind that there were many reform initiatives implemented by the Federal & Provincial Governments which were not recognized by the World Bank in the previous reports. In case these unrecognized reforms are accepted by the World Bank, we might see our performance getting further improved in coming years. However, we should not let this statement overshadow the brilliant work done by all the concerned departments with an aim to reform the regulatory processes in order to improve the business environment.

– The author is serving as Head of PIU, Planning & Development Board, Government of Punjab and can be reached at alijalal1@hotmail.com.