Nepali Times
Economic Sense
The numbers game


Last week, like a lot of you the Beed was up to his neck attending marriage receptions and the common thread that bound them was the talk of quantity, not quality.

Hosts like to brag about the number of people they've invited. And usually, a thousand are invited but the food runs out before 300 have arrived. Proud mothers of brides and brides-to-be talk of 51 saris and 101 saris for their daughters. It does not matter if each one cost a hundred or a thousand or tens of thousands. Bands are judged by the number of members in the group or the number of hours they were engaged. It doesn't matter if they weren't playing music but just plain noise. Catering companies lure clients with the number of items on their menu, perhaps people ignore the fact that only a few of them are prepared for the feast. Our quest for growing numbers is never ending. Perhaps it is our agrarian background that has led to this incessant obsession with numbers, where prosperity is judged by the number of cattle, goat or chicken you own and not by how healthy they are.

Government officials love to brag about the number of banks and financial institutions we have even if the same set of people own them. We have more airlines than any of our neighbouring countries. We like to talk about the 50+ FM stations and the number of civil society organisations in the same way and political parties are judged on the number of people they 'feed-in' to a rally. Our own parliament has 205 members while a billion people in India have just above 540. Judging by our parliamentarian to population ratio, India should have a parliament with 8,000+ members.

We have more committees than we can count and people represent more committees than we can remember. Even our Rotarian friends in Nepal have caught the number bug. If you throw a stone, it might just hit a Rotarian.

Our development plans too, focus on quantity. It is about providing health to all and education to all rather than improving the quality of health and education. We go by the number of schools that are built, not considering if they have enough teachers or if classes are conducted at all. Tax officials talk of the number of people in the tax net, not their quality. We talk of the number of saplings planted, not the number of trees that have grown. We talk of the number of tourists arriving and not the money spent by them. Statistical expression of development has led to quantification and number games, judging gender, vaccination, nutrition, ethnicity, rights, abuses, exploitation, energy and communication et al by them. And tools like logframes have made us dream in numbers in terms of judgment.

Of course, the numbers game is important, as it is one form of judging performance but ignoring quality as a way of life leads to mediocrity. This creates situations like a plethora of political parties lacking in quality, plethora of business people lacking in enterprise development, plethora of bilaterals and NGOs lacking in delivery of development basics, plethora of self-proclaimed intellectuals lacking in rational thought. Economy and development in the medium and long-term are qualitative issues, not the short-term maze of numbers. We need to refocus constantly to not get sucked into the number game. Perhaps people may start by inviting fewer people to parties but providing quality experience to those few.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)