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“Priests on Poverty” (edited in FT 22 Dec. 2018)


Priests on Poverty (Fiji Times, 22 Dec. 2018)

Professor Wadan Narsey

Catholics in Fiji would have been aghast to read an article by journalist Jyoti Pratibha in the Fiji Sun (16 November 2018) giving her list of “losers” after the 2018 Fiji Elections, saying:

“Archbishop Peter Loy Chong is one of the biggest losers in this general election. He did himself and the Church a lot of dam­age by spreading false information about Fiji’s economy. He came under fire from his own flock and people are not quick to forget the role Catholic Church and the Archbish­op played in spreading lies at a time when country needed facts.”

This followed on from what the Minister for the Economy (Mr. Aiyaz Khaiyum) had said the previous month (Fiji Sun 9 Oct. 2018) that

It is unfortunate that the archbishop has chosen to make comments in perhaps areas that are not his expertise, using outdated figures…. because that’s really misleading the Fijian public… It is unfortunate that we have a man of the cloth getting to an area that’s bringing some level of disrepute. … [new surveys had been carried and] we will give you the figures tomorrow”.

Several of  Pratibha’s allegations may be debated: did the Archbishop come under fire from his own flock? Did the Archbishop do himself and the Church a lot of damage by allegedly “spreading false information about the Fiji economy” (poverty in Fiji)? What exactly was the “false information” and the facts about poverty? Did the “new survey” figures from the Fiji Bureau of Statistics really contradict the concerns that Archbishop Chong had raised?

For Catholics to take umbrage at the statements by Pratibha and Khaiyum because their religious leader was being attacked would be wrong.

There are very legitimate and wider questions that Fiji needs to debate, and has not previously debated when religious persons have previously become involved in wider social issues: should a religious leader or a “man of the cloth” (a priest) be commenting on “poverty”?   Should political parties ask selected religious leaders to bless their gatherings? Should religious leaders align themselves with political parties and movements? I leave these grand issues for another article.

Here let me first address the “facts” on poverty that concerned Archbishop Chong, and which Khaiyum was disputing, with the acidic support of Pratibha.

Was Catholic Archbishop Chong really spreading false information that poverty was increasing? Was he really misleading the public?

I suggest that the Bureau’s own statistics and releases indicate that he was doing neither. Indeed, he was on sound statistical grounds in expressing his concern that poverty in Fiji was increasing.

I suggest that his attackers themselves need to look further at the statistics they claim to be authoritative facts.

The HIES Facts on Poverty

The FBS 2013-14 HIES results as released do indeed indicate that poverty in Fiji as a whole DECLINED from 31% in 2008-09 to 28%,  as Khaiyum was claiming.

But, what the same FBS HIES data also shows (see Table 13.4 of its series of “Key Statistics” on their website- if you can find it) is that in that same period,

Poverty in Urban areas as a whole INCREASED from 19% to 20%

Poverty in Urban Central Division INCREASED from 16% to 17%

Poverty in Urban Western Division INCREASED from 17% to 22%.

Note that these of course, are the most populous parts of Fiji.

In addition,

Poverty in Rural Central INCREASED from 36% to 37%

Poverty in Rural Northern INCREASED from 51% to 53% (horrendously high)

Poverty in Rural Eastern INCREASED from 40% to 42%.

Again, these are also heavily populated areas.

So whatever the 2013-14 HIES data indicates about poverty reducing at the national level (and I also express my doubts about this below), that same data which Khaiyum acknowledges to be the important indicators of poverty, also support Archbishop Chong’s concerns that large numbers of Fiji people are sinking further into poverty, despite the years of positive economic GDP growth.

There are no statistical grounds for Pratibha to pour scorn on Archbishop Chong’s interpretation of the poverty data, or for Khaiyum to claim that Archbishop Chong was “misleading the public” and “bringing some level of disrepute” (presumably to himself?) even if he used earlier data (based on previous FBS HIES Reports authored by me).

The questionable HIES results

In the same FBS tables I quote from above, there is an extremely surprising statistic which clearly affects the national average: that (apparently), poverty in the “Rural Western Division” REDUCED massively from the previous high of 43% to 27%. Wow.

Most experts must be asking, how on earth could this be true, given the clear and horrible decline in the sugar industry where the bulk of the western rural people are employed, and the failure of the agricultural sector to grow?

When I queried the FBS on this particular surprising result, they “explained” that the reduction in rural poverty in the Western Division was because of the boom in the tourism industry.

Now I have very serious doubts (and so would any statistician) that the effects of the boom in the tourism industry with its much lower employment than the sugar industry could be so large that they outweighed the massive decline in the sugar industry, where employment is far greater.

Strange Results on Household Incomes

There are other strange results from the 2013-14 HIES.  With inflation of about 28% between 2008-09 and 2013-14, the FBS Table 13.3 (Key Statistics) on Average Household Incomes (again, if you can find it) shows that Average Total Household Incomes in Fiji nationally, increased in nominal terms by the same 28%, i.e. remained stagnant in real terms, adjusting for inflation.

Worse still, the Average Household Income in Urban areas increased nominally by only 23%, which means that in real terms, adjusting for inflation, it DECREASED by about 5% roughly. There is little doubt therefore that poor people in urban areas were going backwards.

Yet again, there is the very strange FBS result that Average Household Incomes in Rural Western Division increased by a massive 88% in nominal terms or 60% in real terms adjusting for inflation.  WOW.  How could this be in a period when the sugar industry has been in terrible decline?

It was extremely disappointing that the FBS declined to make the raw HIES data available to me for further analysis, despite the fact that I have analyzed their previous HIES and EUS, written comprehensive reports which were published and discussed in workshops all over Fiji. The FBS indeed requested me to confirm the values of the Basic Needs Poverty Lines with which they conducted their poverty analyses for the 2013-14 HIES.

I therefore remain skeptical about this FBS result for poverty in the rural Western Division which clearly had an over-riding impact on the rates of rural poverty as a whole, and hence I am also skeptical about the the overall national rate of poverty which is supposed to be declining.

[But who knows? The huge increase in remittances (above $500 million currently) might be largely responsible for reductions in poverty in some areas that some statistics are indicating. But again, why is the remittance impact concentrated only in the rural Western Division? There are so many puzzling aspects that need further research by independent researchers who are not under the control of the Minister for Economy.]

But note that there is an even later FBS survey, which indicates some other puzzling results that require further in-depth analysis by independent researchers.

The Strange 2015-16 EUS results

The FBS issued a Preliminary Findings Release (7 August 2017) with a number of statistics on employment and incomes  based on the 2015-16 EUS.

Between the previous EUS for 2010-11 and 2015-16, those “Working for Money” apparently DECREASED by 10,138 or -3.7%.

How on earth could that be when GDP has supposedly been growing steadily over these years?

There are more puzzling numbers I cannot discuss for reasons of space.

[For instance there is supposed to be a massive decline in unemployment. But note again: if the unemployed are receiving large remittances from abroad, they may well refuse to look for work and hence would not be classified as unemployed. In my previous report on the 2010-11 EUS I had estimated that Fiji has such large numbers of underemployed people that the “effective rate of unemployment” was then closer to 33%- which explains what people observe all over Fiji- large numbers of youth hanging around the streets.]

[Note that the 2015-16 EUS can also be used for poverty analysis at an individual and household level, of a different kind than that conducted with the HIES, but valid nevertheless because it would give different perspectives on employment, unemployment and underemployment, all strongly related to poverty].

Public Deprived of Basic Information

It is a sad indictment of the Fiji Bureau of Statistics that it has failed to issue any comprehensive report on the findings of either the 2013-14 HIES, or the 2015-16 EUS,

I have previously raised in the media, that my own Report on the 2010-11 EUS (Fiji Women and Men at Work and Leisure) has still not been printed, despite being ready in 2013.

Neither have there been any public workshops for Government Departments, NGOs and donors, as there used to be previously.

It is sad that key tables on the 2013-14 HIES and 2015-2016 EUS are not to be found as comprehensive documents on the website, but in little bits and pieces of tables here and there.

Indeed, all previous reports of the FBS have virtually disappeared from the FBS Website.

I have little doubt that such a state of affairs is not because of the lack  of professionalism of the FBS staff, but rather those who now control (or rather restrict) the output of the FBS, as has never happened before.

It is tragic that the public are being denied national statistics and facts that should be freely available as a matter of basic human right as citizens of Fiji.

Should Priests Comment on Poverty 

It is sad that decent law-abiding clerics such as Archbishop Chong (and Father Kevin Barr) have been excoriated by some in the media and the Government, for raising what are not just statistically legitimate concerns about the worsening welfare of the poor among us, but the deeply moral and ethical concern that economic growth should not leave behind large numbers of the poor.

Every society does that at its peril, as the ongoing BREXIT and the Trump phenomena show all too clearly at the international level.

Clerics like Archbishop Chong, who personally take vows of poverty, see all too clearly and share the pain of the poor at  close quarters, on a daily basis.

Their voices are beacons in our moral wilderness and must not be silenced by those driven by greed, politics, and power.

Post script for the legal beagles of Fiji (not in the Fiji Times article).

It is particularly dismaying that a Fiji Sun journalist (and one must assume with the approval of  its Editor/Publisher Peter Lomas) should be party to alleging that the Catholic Church and Archbishop Chong are spreading “lies” about the economy. This is a horrendous allegation to make about a respectable religious leader not known for taking political sides in Fiji.

A “lie” is a statement made with the deliberate intention of deceiving the listener or reader. The worst one could have said of Archbishop Chong’s statements on poverty was that he had genuinely made some errors in using outdated statistics, which in reality he did not do at all, as the article above indicates.

While I did not agree with that prosecution, remember that not too long ago, the owners of The Fiji Times (Motibhais) and the Editor-in-Chief (Fred Wesley) were being charged for the printing of an alleged seditious letter in the vernacular newspaper Nailalakai.

On the grounds that “what is sauce for the goose is also sauce for the gander”, can we also therefore surmise that the Editor/Publisher (Peter Lomas) and the owners of the Fiji Sun (CJ Patel) should also be held responsible for the accusation by Fiji Sun journalist (Jyoti Pratibha) that the supreme religious leader of Catholics in Fiji was “lying”, a statement which most Catholics would have found deeply offensive and likely to incite religious tensions, especially when the average Catholic in Fiji may be forgiven for thinking that Pratibha (a Hindu) and Khaiyum (a Muslim) were attacking their Catholic religious and spiritual leader in Fiji.  Remember the horrible fallout when some insensitive individuals in other countries attacked the Prophet Mohammed?

While Khaiyum has every right to question whether the Archbishop had any expertise in the area of poverty in Fiji (a question one could address to the Minister himself), it is dismaying that Khaiyum apparently used the words “some level of disrepute” in reference to Archbishop Chong’s statements of concern on poverty in Fiji.  How can one allege that a cleric expressing concern about the problems faced by the poor in Fiji, is bringing some “disrepute” (presumably to himself)?  I suspect that it would not be hard for lawyers to argue that that word has unsavory connotations bring harm to the public character of the person referred to.

I suspect that lawyers could make a pretty strong case that such statements can incite religious intolerance and are against the law as it is being applied in Fiji. It is surprising (some may not find it surprising) that the usually vociferous and proactive Ashwin Raj (holding the dual posts of head of Fiji Human Rights Commission and MIDA- both of relevance to this case) has not made any public comment on the insensitive Fiji Sun statements.

The tacit support of CJ Patel for its newspaper’s editorial policies ought to be also of concern given that the Fiji Sun receives preferential treatment from the same Fiji Government it vehemently defends and supports. This also raises fundamental questions about journalism ethics and the fairness of  MIDA in regulating the media.

This post-script is not a call for anyone to be prosecuted for the Fiji Sun statements. There is surely enough of that going on in Fiji, of no benefit to Fiji in the long run.

[Whether religious leaders should comment on social issues like poverty is addressed in another article.]

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