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“What are the facts on poverty” (FT 22/6/2019)

14/07/2019

What facts on poverty? (FT 22 June 2019)

 Minister for Women, Children and Poverty Alleviation (Hon. Mereseini Vuniwaqa) chided the Opposition MPS in Parliament to “use facts, use data that’s readily available” on poverty, instead of making “general and sweeping statements for political mileage” (FT 19 June 2019).

Vuniwaqa informed the House that data from the Fiji Bureau of Statistics show that our “national poverty rate” has decreased from 31% in 2008-09 to 28% in 2013-14.

Yes indeed, the FBS Release No. 98 of 31 December 2015 does show that the above “national” result.  But Hon. Vuniwaqa fails to point out that the SAME FBS Release shows

  • incredibly worrying indications of WORSENING incidence of poverty in most parts of Fiji
  • the only exception is the supposed massive REDUCTION in poverty in Rural Western Fiji (a highly challengeable result as I elaborate below)
  • that the incomes data from the same survey shows negative and some very strange results which the FBS has refused to clarify to me

The Minister refuses to acknowledge that

  • the 28% refers to the results of the household survey done in 2013-14, which was six years ago while the more recent 2015-16 Employment and Unemployment Survey shows negative employment results for the formal sector, while surprisingly neglecting to issue incomes results for 2015-16.

Far from the facts being “freely available” as Minister Vuniwaqa informed the Fiji Parliament, the opposite is happening  with the FBS  under the tight control of the Bainimarama Government.

It is dismaying that not just the Minister for Women and Poverty but also the FBS staff decline to even respond to a taxpayer’s legitimate requests for clarifying statistics.

It is even more disturbing that the thinking people of Fiji do not demand greater accountability from the Minister for Poverty and from FBS staff, all of whose salaries are paid by taxpayers.

The ignored facts on worsening poverty to 2013-14

The FBS Release which Minister Vuniwaqa selectively quoted from also gave the following urban/rural and divisional facts in addition to the national result.

Poverty in Urban areas as a whole INCREASED from 19% to 20% (a small increase).

Remember that more than 55% of Fiji’s population now live in urban areas.

But by divisions,

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

Poverty in Rural Central INCREASED from 36% to 37% (high levels

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

Poverty in Rural Eastern INCREASED from 40% to 42% (horrendously high)

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

In other words in most of urban Fiji and rural Fiji, poverty increased.

The FBS “facts” clearly justified the Opposition MPs in raising concerns about worsening poverty for large numbers of Fiji’s poor.

One strange FBS poverty result

Well may the public therefore ask, how on earth can the FBS facts say that “national”  poverty had DECREASED From 31% in 2008-09 to 28% in 2013-14.

Note that the 28% national poverty figure for 2013-14 is the aggregate number you get ONLY IF you accept the STRANGE result that poverty in Rural Western Division REDUCED from 43% in 2008-09 to 27% in 2013-14.

How utterly extraordinary, given that the sugar industry in rural Western Division has been in dire straits with a massive decline in sugar cane and sugar production, together with a squeeze of rural farmers’ and cane cutters’ incomes.

When I asked the FBS to explain this strange result for Rural Western Division, they answered that it was due to an improvement in the tourism industry in the west.

But the tourism industry in the west does not employ as many people as the sugar industry, and even then, the incomes of their workers are not in the lower end below the poverty lines.

It is utterly unlikely therefore that the improvement in the tourism industry could have taken so many people out of poverty as to more than compensate the increases in poverty due to the decline in the sugar industry.

If this alleged reduction in poverty in rural Western Division is not an accurate result (as I suspect) than so also suspect is the alleged reduction in national poverty from 31% in 2008-09 to 28% in 2013-14.

The strange FBS incomes data

The doubts I express above are strengthened when one examines closely the incomes data (Table 3) in the same FBS Release No. 98.

Casual wages (and most of these people in Fiji are usually in poverty) reduced by 34% IN REAL TERMS from 2008-09 to 2013-14.

Subsistence incomes also declined by 10% in real terms in the same period, again where large numbers of poor people in Fiji live.

Moreover, what is not in that FBS poverty release is worrying data tucked away in the FBS Website under “Key Statistics”: Table 13.3 of Average Household Incomes (see if you academics out there can find these tables and many other interesting ones)

That Table 13.3 shows that between 2008-09 and 2013-14, average household incomes in urban areas increased nominally by only 23%, but with inflation of 28% in that same period, average incomes in all Fiji DECREASED IN REAL TERMS BY 5%.

But this same table shows that average household incomes in Rural Western Division increased by a massive 88% in nominal terms or 60% in real terms adjusting for inflation.

How utterly extraordinary again, given the decline in sugar industry and incomes.

Without this alleged increase in rural western average incomes, the average for all Fiji would also have shown a decline.

The Negative 2015-16 EUS Results

How strange that the Minister for Women referred to the results of the 2013-14 HIES which is already outdated by six years.

Why would she ignore the more recent 2015-16 Employment and Unemployment Survey data released by the FBS Preliminary Findings Release (7 August 2017)which shows horribly worrying results.

Between the previous 2010-11 EUS 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 all these years?

Note that the 2015-16 EUS also has all kinds of fascinating incomes data (by gender as well) which the FBS has refused to release any results on.  Why have they not done so?

Indeed why did the FBS never publish my 2013 Report for the FBS funded by AusAID (Fiji Women and Men at Work and Leizure) which also showed declining real incomes and increasing incidences of poverty for important target groups in society.

Lack of Response from Minister and FBS Staff

I wrote to Minister Vuniwaqa (on 7 Nov. 2017) offering to clarify the statistics from the FBS surveys but she did not reply.

I wrote (email of 25 April 2019) again to FBS staff (Acting Governent Statistician Kemunieli Naiqama, cc’d to Salanieta Soli, Maria Muusudroka, and M.Qaloewai), and then again on 23 May 2019 requesting basic data, and I even asked if they would like me to obtain the Minister’s permission.

Sadly, there were no replies from anyone to this Fiji taxpayer who has worked closely with FBS technical staff for more than ten years.

It should be clear to all in Fiji that facts from the FBS are not freely available as the Minister states in Parliament.

Why an indifferent Fiji public?

Last year (FT 22 December 2018) I revealed some of the above uncomfortable facts on poverty, not just correcting the selective quoting of the FBS statistics by the Bainimarama Government, but also   defending the Archbishop Chong’s legitimate concerns about the poor in Fiji,

So why have the Fiji intelligentsia not corrected Government ministers when they distort the facts or quote selectively from the facts in order to ridicule the many Opposition MPs who are legitimately raising the concerns of the poor in their constituencies.

Why is the Fiji intelligentsia not asking questions of the Fiji Bureau of Statistics staff for not producing complete statistical reports on the 2013-14 HIES nor on the 2015-16 EUS, six years and four years on.

Instead, they have also been selectively giving statistics at a recent “poverty forum”, which merely back up their Minister and not give the “whole truth” to the people of Fiji.

Why is the Fiji intelligentsia not demanding to know from the Public Service Commission why the FBS civil servants are not responding to legitimate calls from taxpayers.

Indeed, why has the PSC refused to make a substantive appointment as Government Statistician, when they knew for three years that the previous incumbent (Epeli Waqavonovono) was due to retire?

And why would PSC retire him allegedly because he was over 55, when there is a grave shortage of statisticians in Fiji and the civil service, and many more older far less capable persons are kept employed in the Bainimarama Government.

It is terribly dismaying that the Fiji public, ever ready to daily write tomes on rugby sevens, refuse to publicly fight for their far more important right to obtain timely, accurate and objective poverty statistics from a professional and apolitical Fiji Bureau of Statistics.

What an utter tragedy for Fiji that public commentators ignore the horrible regression in statistics and statistical accountability fromthe Fiji Bureau of Statistics.

 

Postscript 14 July 2019: Neither the Minister nor the FBS staff have to date responded to my concerns either to me directly or through the media.

 

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