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“Is the Fiji Bureau of Statistics losing its independence?” (FT 3/2/2018)


Is FBS losing its independence? (edited version in FT 3/2/2018)

Recently, when some political parties asked the FBS for ethnic break-downs of the 2017 Census results, the Government Statistician (Epeli Waqavonovono) gave what was to me, an alarming answer:  “We did ask about people’s ethnicity, but the decision to release it has to come from higher authority. Once we are instructed then we will release it.”

How many people in Fiji recognized that these simple six words (“Once we are instructed” by “higher authority”?) from Fiji’s Government Statistician imply:

(a) a potentially dangerous departure from FBS practice of more than a hundred years?

(b) that the FBS and its statistics may now be subject to political decisions by the Bainimarama Government?

(c) that this may undermine the statistical integrity of Fiji’s Bureau of Statistics which has always been supposed to be totally independent of the “Government of the Day”? and

(d) that the FBS may be in danger of losing the community’s trust in it as an objective provider of national statistics.

Need for neutral statistics

Good bureaus of statistics the world over declare explicitly their belief and practice in the neutral and non-political nature of their statistics gathering, analysis and dissemination.

The Australian Bureau of Statistic (ABS) says explicitly on their website that their purpose is to “deliver relevant, trusted, objective data, statistics and insights”.

The ABS website declares that their role as Australia’s national statistical agency is among others, to provide “trusted official statistics on a wide range of economic, social, population and environmental matters of importance to Australia” and “developing and maintaining community trust”.

Neutral national statistics, both economic and social, are absolutely necessary for society to assess in an evidence-based way, where the country is headed, economically and socially.

Society needs data not just on economic growth and distribution but also a wide range of social statistics so as to measure the changes in well-being of all sections of the society, including the poorest and marginalized.

While ideally it should be society as a whole which should be assessed for the economy’s performance, including the private sector and non-profit organizations, in practice, it is usually governments whose performance is most often assessed and the “evidence” or the data to judge them by can only be provided by some “neutral” institution, independent of all political parties who are in government or opposition in parliament.

Bureaus of statistics must therefore explicitly state their independence of governments in particular, as part of their mission and vision statements.

But all the FBS website states is “with evidence based planning now a requirement for development actors, we as the organization providing the evidence will continue to face major challenges”.

Note that neutral and objective bureaus of statistics are not instructed by the “government of the day” to stop producing statistics they have been producing for more than a hundred years, without discussion by parliament.

The departure from previous practice

Fiji has been conducting censuses since 1881, more than 135 years ago, and every census has reported the population data disaggregated by ethnicity.

Of course, ethnicity was always a political factor since historically different ethnic groups tended to support ethnicity based political parties looking essentially after ethnic interests.

These groupings blurred at the edges now and then, sometimes having an impact on the election of different governments, and that in turn led to military coups in 1987 and 2000.

The 2014 Election was unique in that the Bainimarama Government came in with broad ethnic support, but it was a government whose prime minister was a military commander still having influence over the military and totally supported by the military for many reasons.

Ethnicity important for vital statistics

While the political implications may be important to some, ethnic differentiation in censuses is far more important to social analysts because of the other essential demographic information they provide which cannot be made sense of if aggregated nationally.

Ethnically disaggregated statistics on fertility, infant mortality, elderly mortality, life expectancies, child dependency ratios, elderly dependency ratios, rates of poverty, to name just a few, are absolutely vital for assessment of national well-being and development, and especially to the Ministry of Health, Women and Social Welfare, which is why another name for such statistics is “vital statistics”.

The important point to note is that national aggregates can easily hide what is happening to different ethnic groups.

For example, the annual growth rate between 2007 to 2017 was given by the FBS as 0.6%. But this is the combined result of indigenous Fijian growth rates (probably around plus 1.6%), Indo-Fijian growth rates (probably around negative 0.7% and “Others” which has been around 1% in previous census results, but could be anything for the 2017 Census. There are similar profound differences in all the other statistics.

For example, indigenous Fijian child dependency ratios (the ratio of the (0 to 14) age group to (15 to 64) age group) are around twice that of Indo-Fijian child dependency ratios, of great importance when one looks at relative financial burdens on families.

Old age dependency ratios (ratio of the over 64 age group to the (15 to 64) age group were about the same for indigenous Fijians and Indo-Fijians in the 2007 Census (around 7%). But my population projections indicate that while this ratio will have risen for indigenous Fijians to around 9% in 2017,  for Indo-Fijians it will be a much higher 12%, and projected to double to a massive 23% by 2027.

Wow.  What a challenge over the next ten years for Government and specifically for Indo-Fijian social organizations whose “mission” it is to serve their communities by providing for age care homes for the elderly where they are comfortable with their diets and cultural practices for religion.

But to get the accurate projections needed for national planning, demographers (and there are still a couple of this rare breed around in Fiji but staying very quiet on the issue) need accurate ethnic dis-aggregations by age groups.

Why “instruction from higher authority”

It is unfortunate therefore that the Government Statistician is stating that he cannot provide ethnic numbers for the 2017 Census this unless he is “instructed” to do this by his higher authorities.

This has never happened before. When did the GS start requiring “instruction from higher authority”? Who would have issued such instructions? This needs to be clarified by the Permanent Secretary responsible for the Fiji Bureau of Statistics (Ms. Konrote).

Does being “all Fijians” matter?

In replying to the ethnicity-related criticisms by the Leader of SODELPA (Rabuka) the Government Statistician stated that “On ethnicity information, we are guided by Chapter 1, Section 5 of the Fiji Constitution that states that all citizens of Fiji shall be known as Fijians.” (FT 25 January, 2018).

This might of course hint at where the “instruction” to not issue census statistics by ethnicity, may have come from even if does not make much sense.

All citizens of Australia may be called Australian, but ABS still collects census statistics on Aboriginal people, those of Asian origin etc. All US citizens may be called Americans but they will still collect census information on American Indians or the First Peoples.

Note that it is an exercise in futility for some “higher authority” to issue instructions to the FBS to not issue census data (including potential numbers of voters) by ethnicity.

Any demographer can use previous census figures and with solid population projections, work out what the ethnic voter numbers and proportions will roughly be for the 2018 Elections.

I estimate that indigenous Fijians will be around 59% of total eligible voters (up from 53% in 2006), Indo-Fijians about 37% (down from 42% in 2006) and Others about 4% (about the same in 2006), give or take 1 percentage point for each group.  If the “Others” group is lower, the other two will be higher slightly; and conversely.

But I doubt very much if knowing the number of ethnic voters more accurately will make much difference to the 2018 Elections.

Postscript 1:  Previous Government interference in FBS

Fiji Times readers will remember that I have previously pointed out the Bainiamarama Government’s interference with FBS outputs.   In 2013, the Bainimarama Government stopped the publication of my Report for the FBS (funded by Ausaid) called “Women and Men at Work and Leisure in Fiji”. full of fascinating data on paid and unpaid work, and leisure activities by men, women and children. Despite my publicizing this in previous Fiji Times articles and Letters to the Editor, the apathetic Fiji public and social and political organizations did not publicly and vociferously take up matter.

Sadly, some political parties are only concerned about ethnic numbers in the census results because of their election manifestoes for the 2018 Elections, not for the concerns I have raised above..

Postscript 2:  Political interference reducing the quality of FBS outputs

It is unfortunate that there have been at least two national sample surveys (an income and expenditure survey and an employment and unemployment survey) which have not resulted in the analysis they deserve or any substantive reports with policy recommendations as was the case with all previous FBS surveys.

With my assistance, the FBS produced more than five substantial reports and in collaboration with USP and FNU, we ran many national workshops involving government departments and NGOs, discussing important policy issues and recommendations. These have all stopped.

Despite my personal requests to at least one Minister who ought to have been interested in maximizing the output from these FBS surveys, I have still been denied access to any of this data, while that Minister (who I once had high hopes for) does not even have the basic courtesy to reply to my emails. She will no doubt be standing for elections again and appealing to indigenous Fijian voters for their votes.

Post-script 3:   Fiji statistical analytical capacity going backwards

It is sad that there are no local academics or civil servants who are now conducting the analysis of these precious household survey data. Foreign World Bank staff and consultants are given access to this data and they produce limited reports which are restricted in circulation. They are not put on WB’s website either, despite their alleged commitment to Open Access Information, as exemplified in their valuable Development Indicators database. Fiji is going backwards statistically.

Postscript 4    Whose “sunset clause”?

When a government refuses to release publicly collected and taxpayer funded data by ethnic categories, they are proclaiming to the world that ethnic categories do not matter for public policy. It is an important step towards denying the importance of this ethnic identity, in this case, the indigenous Fijian people, or the “First People” of Fiji (Lapita people notwithstanding).

The civil servants who are implementing these political departures from previous statistical practice are all indigenous Fijians while indigenous Fijian ministers in Government and elected Fijian MPs, as well as a whole array of indigenous  Fijians in powerful places in Fiji all stay deathly quiet. I would suggest that if there is any substance at all the the term “sunset clause on indigenous Fijians” contrary to some bloggers, it is not some Taliban Muslim that is implementing this clause, but powerful indigenous Fijians themselves. Why they keep quiet is not hard to guess.

This is not to deny the equality of other races in Fiji just as producing the data on Australian Aboriginals or American Indians (the First People of North America) does not deny the equality under law of white or Asian Australians or white and Asian Americans.

Postscript 6:  Titles of my Fiji Times articles

Fiji Times readers should not be puzzled by the difference between the titles to my posts here (usually designed to reflect the main idea in my article: eg “Is FBS losing its independence?”) and the titles given by the Fiji Times editors to my Fiji Times articles (such as “Stand on numbers”). Or the Fiji Times use of the term “iTaukei” for “indigenous Fijians” (which I do not subscribe to- until indigenous Fijian leaders collectively agree to that change in usage).

Fiji Times readers and all the prolific and passionate writers of Letters to the Editor) should show their commitment to free press (and the Fiji Times) by publicly demanding through a Letter to the Editor, why a trivial legal case against the Fiji Times, its publisher (Hank Arts), and its English editor (Fred Wesley) has been dragged out for more than two years by the DPP (Christopher Pryde) who was in the news recently.

Fiji Times readers might want listen to one of favorite 60s singer Joni Mitchell “Big Yellow Taxi” which has a great line that applies here as well: “You don’t know what you have got till it is gone”.


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