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“Whose data is it anyway” (Edited version in The Fiji Times, 23 Jan. 2016)

24/01/2016

[Added to 25/1/2016,  (see bottom of post)]

Whose data is it?
Professor Wadan Narsey

Every year, large amounts of tax payers’ money are used by government departments (including the Fiji Bureau of Statistics) to extract data from a reluctant public.

The public, including households and companies, answer hundreds of tedious questions giving sometimes quite sensitive data to government survey staff.

More money (taxpayers and donors) is then used to convert the raw data into useful “reports” with tables of statistics, often accompanied by solid, policy recommendations.

Once the reports are published, they can be used not just by government ministries, but also NGOs, donors, academics and the public, to try and understand whether our society and economy are going in the right or wrong directions; whether government policies are working or not; and what policies we need to make our lives better.

The “virtuous data cycle” is complete, thereby encouraging the public to willingly take part in the next cycle of data gathering.

But, for the last five years, this virtuous cycle has been broken by the Bainimarama Government, which has suppressed useful reports and denied the public important useful information, some of which may have negative results.

This points to a much deeper malaise in Fiji- that the decision-maker(s) in government are freely able to reduce public access to information, resulting in a manipulated “democracy”.

Why are individual Cabinet ministers not challenging this suppression of reports which they themselves would like to see publicized and discussed in order to advance their own work?

I refer to just four examples, but no doubt there are more.

The 2007 Census Reports

With a census held every ten years (one planned for 2017), every household is required by law to give detailed information on the household, every occupant, their age, their relationship to the head of household,  the  number of children women have had, and all kinds of other information such as the kind of dwelling, numbers of rooms, the household assets etc. A gold mine of information.

When the reports for the 1996 Census were published in 1999 by the then Government Statistician (the late Mr Timoci Bainimarama) many end-users were dismayed that it had taken three whole years to produce the required reports, while the ABS or NZBS would take only a year.

Sadly, Fiji’s delays in publication have got worse, since then.

For  unstated reasons, some of the analytical reports for the 2007 Census have still not been published, NINE YEARS LATER, while the FBS is now even preparing for the 2017 Census.

These Census analytical reports contain enormous amounts of useful information about birth, education, work and death in Fiji;  about women’s fertility; about infant mortality; about adult mortality and life expectancies; about education levels.

They can tell the government and the public exactly what is happening to the development state of all the inhabitants of our country, in a comprehensive manner, far superior to sample surveys.

Who therefore in the Bainimarama Cabinet has refused to allow the Fiji Bureau of Statistics to publish some of the reports, the first Fiji government to ever to do so,  and why?

Employment and Unemployment

In 2010-11, the FBS conducted an excellent nation-wide survey of employment and unemployment.

The households recorded how much time each person in the household worked, paid and unpaid, in what occupations and industries, for how much time, for how much income received; and also how much time each person devoted to playing sports, religious activities, kava drinking, TV/videos, etc. all of interest to Ministries of Health, Women and Social Welfare, Education, Youth and Sports.

The Reports document fascinating results, and differences by urban/rural, males/females, elderly and young, by districts, all of enormous use to government ministries such as Labor, Women and Social Welfare, Youth, Health, as well as civil society organizations like FWRM, FCOSS, and organizations concerned about NCDs.

For the 2004-05 EUS, which I had also analyzed, the findings were discussed and used by all the stakeholders in national workshops held in Suva, Nadi and Labasa, co-organized by the FBS and myself.

Funded by AusAID, I again did this analysis for the 2010-11 EUS, and the Final Report (Fiji Women and Men at Work and Leizure) was prepared and ready for publication in late 2013.

But the Bainimarama Cabinet has refused to allow its publication, the first time that a Fiji government has ever interfered thus with the work of the FBS.

Was it because there were a few negative results about employment and real incomes between 2005 and 2011 which may not have helped the Bainimarama Government in the 2014 Elections?

But it is now two years after the Report was completed and it has still not been published, while the FBS is preparing for the next EUS.

Income and Expenditure Surveys

When income and expenditure surveys are done, households also record their incomes and expenditures for the year as well their detailed expenditures for two weeks through a diary.

The findings have great use for a wide variety of policy measures: poverty analysis and alleviation measures; a wide range of food security issues; social welfare policies;

Virtually all government departments and civil society organizations are interested in the findings, and the previous survey results (which I also analyzed for the FBS) were also disseminated through national workshops held in Suva, Nadi and Labasa.

With the USP Economics Department ordered not to host these workshops, they gleefully facilitated by Fiji National University and Dr Mahendra Reddy, the current Minister for Education.

The 2013-14 Household Income and Expenditure Survey has been completed, the data finalized and the World Bank is apparently analyzing the data.

But the local consultant who assisted in the previous analysis and the national workshops (yours truly), has been shut out, for reasons that can only be guessed at.

[The FBS has just released some results (19th January 2016), but it is not known what poverty line standards were used, and what were the WB-guided  adjustments made to the income measures.  Such adjustments can make a big difference in the results. They have in the past (see the next edition of USP’s Journal of Pacific Studies)]

The previous Government Statistician (the late Mr Timoci Bainimarama) refused to allow the Fiji Government to interfere politically with their choice of consultant.

As in other technical spheres of government, the process of localization has also been now reversed in statistical analysis.

The 2011 STEPS Report?

When health and nutrition surveys are done, great effort is taken to find what people consume as food, their substance abuse such as consumption of alcohol, tobacco and kava, their weights and heights, their general state of health, the diseases they have, and many other useful matters concerning good and bad health,

Look at the excellent Report on the 2002 STEPS done by the Ministry of Health, WHO, FSM, and the Menzies Center for Population Health Research (available on the Internet).

There was a similar 2011 STEPS done, but the Report is not being released, except in dribs and drabs.

Why is the full Report not being released, Minister of Health?

What can the public think when it is told by one MoH expert (Fiji Times, 11 January 2016) that the current NCD situation is so bad that optimistically, it will take three generations for the NCDs problems to be resolved.  Oh dear. I suspect he is not exaggerating, and is even optimistic].

The wider issues

This article started by asking “whose data is it”?

Of course, the data belongs to al the citizens of Fiji who provide the data and the resources for the data analysis and writing of reports, which are intended to be used for public policy formulation.

The data does not belong to any one Minister or the government of the day.

If there is to be public confidence in FBS data, no Minister should interfere at all with the work of the FBS or the publication of its reports.

Today, the FBS is under the tight control of the Minister of Finance and Attorney General and all things important (Aiyaz Khaiyum) and Cabinet permission is required before any publication is approved.

Sadly, as with other similar claims, the Bainimarama Government also has the dubious honor of being “the first ever government in the history of Fiji” to suppress the reports of the FBS.

Some proactive government Ministers might want to see the reports published, but do not have the required influence in Cabinet because the election results clearly indicate that they had minimal electoral support or “mandate”.

It is now endemic that civil servants themselves will not complain for fear of losing their jobs, while they can expect no support from the PSC.

The Reserve Bank of Fiji could consider reviving the now defunct “Statistics Users’ Committee” which included representatives from the RBF, the private sector and the universities, so that the FBS may be supported in their quest for total independence, integrity and timeliness of their statistics. But will they? I seriously doubt if they will.

The fact that the end users of statistics have so far failed to raise their voices is indicative of the total shallowness of Fiji’s current “democracy”.

The Bainimarama Government is succeeding in filtering and censoring the data that reaches the public, aided by a collaborating media: any hint of good outcomes is widely trumpeted; data on things going wrong is suppressed or simply not given prominence.

While the intelligent and well-off in Fiji have recourse to the Internet, the ordinary rank and file among Fiji has succumbed to a Stalinist style control of information, while happy to be fed a daily diet of information about rugby sevens and Bollywood escapism.

 

Addition The Fiji Times of 25/1/2016 quotes Aiyaz Khaiyum pouncing on the FBS Press Release to boast about the reduction of poverty in Fiji based on the 2013-14 HIES.  He has refused to explain why he has not given permission for the 2010-11 EUS Report to be released (that report had adverse statistics). The public should note therefore that the Bainimarama Government readily releases any bit of positive information, while suppressing the negative.

The public may be asking: are the results accurate?  They may be so, but the FBS has so far refused to give me the detailed raw data to verify that their results are correct, or whether differences in methodology may also explain some of the supposed reduction in poverty.

There is likely to have been some reduction of poverty in some sectors in the economy, but the FBS report does not clarify the origins of the reduction of poverty.

 

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