By Stephen Katz

While there is no universally accepted definition of official statistics at international level, few would contest that data produced, collated, and disseminated by national governments and their agencies are to be considered as “official”. The role of International Organizations (IOs) in producing official statistics is more controversial: some believe that that they should limit themselves to just compiling already‐existing governmental statistics while others recognize the statistical outputs of IOs as also being “official”.

In the current globalized world, more and more international and national decision making is based also on international sources of statistics. Users rely on international sources to put the national data into perspective and to complement them with additional indicators. IOs add value to official national statistics through the transformation of national data to international “Global Public Goods”, provided to users in a standardized and comparable format across countries.

Although IOs normally rely on official sources for their statistical work, occasionally they may also need to use non-official sources, particularly when national official statistics are not available or do not meet international quality standards. Limited financial and institutional resources, especially in developing countries, may prevent the implementation of proper data collection tools by national statistical institutions. In some countries, national definitions may differ from international ones and data produced may therefore not be internationally comparable. Finally, national statistical systems may find it difficult to meet the rapidly increasing demand on the global statistical system for real-time statistics or for data in new areas.

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In these instances, non-official sources may offer the only means to bridge the information-gaps left by official statistics. Traditionally, non-official sources, for example data available from private companies, are used by IOs to validate official data; to increase their accuracy and comprehensiveness; to improve data comparability and to fill missing values. Less common are the cases in which IOs undertake independent data collections to produce indicators specific to their mission and which are not covered by official national statistics.

Adoption of non-official data should be made by IOs only when all the possibilities of using national sources have been exhausted. In addition, strict and transparent protocols should be applied in order to ensure that non-official statistics used by IOs are of good quality. When using non-official sources the ultimate objective of IOs is to guarantee a greater level and scope of service compared to what is possible to achieve through the use of official sources alone, while at the same time ensuring the highest possible level of quality.

In the case of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), the Post 2015 Development Agenda requires the creation of new indicators of food and nutrition security. In order to address this information gap, and in particular in support of the global monitoring function of new food security indicators, FAO has recently launched the Voices of the Hungry project. Through this project, FAO is developing a new global standard for estimating the prevalence of food insecurity, based on people’s direct responses on how food secure they consider themselves. In the medium-term, national statistical systems are not sufficiently equipped to collect the necessary real-time and high-frequency data, which also needs to be comparable internationally.

However, in the long-term it will be far more sustainable to build on and strengthen existing national institutions, and to eventually hand-over these functions to countries as the result of targeted capacity development initiatives, such as FAO’s Global Strategy to Improve Agricultural and Rural Statistics.

On occasion, the use of non-official sources may create tension between IOs and the national statistical systems. Countries may not always agree, and sometimes may not like, the results that emerge, particularly if they contribute to decisions that offer advantages and opportunities for some countries and not others.

Processes and instruments therefore need to be in place to mitigate this tension. In particular there is a need for strengthened statistical governance mechanisms whereby member countries can discuss and endorse the statistical programs of a given IO in advance and peer-review data before it is published. At FAO, for example, a proposal to establish an intergovernmental global Commission on Statistics is being considered by the FAO Governing Bodies with the goal of having it endorsed at the FAO Conference in June 2015.

Learn more about FAO’s statistics on agriculture and food security by clicking here.

Katz is a senior coordinator in the Statistics Division of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.