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“Why count indigenous Fijians?” (ed. in FT 22/2/2020)


Why count indigenous Fijians? (ed. in FT 22/2/2020)

Not a “sunset clause” but a “statistical eclipse”

If Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison were to unilaterally decree that the Australian Bureau of Statistics would no longer count the Aboriginals and Torres Straits Islanders in the Australian Census because “we are all Australians”, there would be a mighty uproar, not just in Australia, but internationally.

Yet that is what has occurred in Fiji with barely a ripple in national dialogue and barely any international concern.

Does it matter?   YES,

Should it matter? YES.

Will it matter in the long run?  YES (DEPENDING).

In my previous Fiji Times articles, I have argued

* that ethnic disaggregation of statistics is absolutely necessary for Fiji’s planners in a whole range of policy areas (including health, housing and education) where there is a need to accurately know the exact size and changes of the target population.

* that this requires separate census estimates for the two major ethnic categories because their base populations are going in different directions, and because they have significantly different parameters for fertility and different rates of emigration (mortality rates are not too different).

* that even the welfare of Indo-Fijians (who the Bainimarama Government wishes to protect) may be harmed, or at least not helped, by refusing to count their numbers.

Some understandably indignant readers have asked “Arreh, pukkah sahib professor, what about us indigenous Fijians, Fiji’s First People and the majority ethnic group in Fiji”?

[I remind that a lot of indigenous Fijians know Fiji Hindi, enough anyway to insult you with a few choice phrases.]

So in this article this “not so pukkah professor” sketches how managing the welfare of indigenous Fijians in a whole range of development areas, necessarily requires that the Fiji Bureau of Statistics MUST COLLECT AND PUBLISH statistics disaggregated by ethnicity.

Let me start with Australian experience.

Australian Not “Closing The Gap”

For decades now, because of the parlous state of the Aboriginal people, the Australian Government has had a “Closing the Gap Project” where it monitors statistics on  child mortality, early childhood education, school attendance, literacy and numeracy, Year 12 or equivalent, employment and life expectancy, to assess whether progress is being made or not.

Sadly, and an indictment of successive Australian Governments (not just the current one), the latest 2020 Closing the Gap Report indicates that only the targets on early childhood education and achieving Year 12 education are on track, while the others are not.

Even more sadly, these few indicators barely scratch the surface of the myriad ways in which  Aboriginals have become totally marginalized in Australian society and economy, a problem too massive to cover here (perhaps another article).

But at least, the Australian Bureau of Statistics makes every effort to collect statistics separately for Aboriginals and make them freely and easily available on their wonderful website.

Which is more than what you can say about the Fiji Bureau of Statistics which currently refuses to publish data on the state of affairs of indigenous Fijians (and other ethnic groups) as a result of a political decision made by the Bainimarama Government.

As also do other state institutions like the Fiji Development Bank.

Whether the FBS is collecting data by ethnicity (even if not publishing it) is another matter I discuss at the end.

The 2017 Fiji Census

As faced by indigenous Australian Aboriginals,  so also are there many “gaps” that indigenous Fijians face in the modern economy such as in business, incomes, education, skills and housing, to name just a few.

When the 2017 Census Results were released without the ethnic figures, the Fiji Government Statistician issued on their website a “Statement on Ethnicity” claiming:

during our review of the data and methods of collection, we uncovered a number of anomalies in the way data on ethnicity was collected that severely compromised the objectivity and completeness of the data set on ethnicity”.

But having worked with the FBS technical staff for more than a decade and knowing their professionalism, I know that they have always conducted solid “pilot surveys” so as to pick up any problems in the questionnaire or interviewing process, before the main survey or census is conducted.

Even if there were some weaknesses of definition of ethnically mixed households, such weaknesses would be present in ALL censuses, and would be statistically insignificant in the Big Picture of Things (unless there has been a deluge of inter-ethnic marriages in Fiji in the Bainimarama era- which data indicates not to have occurred).

I therefore doubt if there were any significant weaknesses in the professionalism of the FBS technical staff to justify not issuing 2017 Census statistics by ethnicity.

I suspect that many FBS technical survey staff would share my disappointment at the Statement issued by the Government Statistician.

Fiji’s Opposition ought to ask in Parliament: was the Statement by the Government Statistician issued under directive from “higher authority” perhaps because of the political objective of presenting Fiji as an ethnically homogenous society in which all ethnic groups are treated “equally as Fijians”?

Implicit proof of this is that FBS now refuses to release any statistics disaggregated by ethnicity, and this can hardly be because of the lack of professionalism of the FBS technical staff  in carrying out surveys or censuses.

Does it matter?

Remember the old colonial stereotype of Fiji’s “Three Legged Stool” where

* indigenous Fijians would quietly lease their best land (while staying in the village and drinking kava)

* to the intelligent Europeans, who would manage the enterprises (while sipping their martinis) and

* set the Indo-Fijians to work (without starting unions or gaining too much education).

But thankfully since independence in 1970, it has been accepted that indigenous Fijians must take part in all walks of life, not just as Prime Ministers and members of the security forces, but also as business people, doctors, engineers,  teachers and all kinds of professionals.

Anyone with common sense or eyes in his head (aankhi hai ke aloo? as my mother would ask in irritation when we children failed to see something obvious) would point out many obvious areas in Fiji where indigenous Fijians are grossly lagging behind other ethnic groups.

So what are the development indicators and statistics which would suggest that indigenous Fijians are seriously lagging behind other groups and therefore need to have remedial policies in place? I just give a few, but there are many more.

Indigenous absence in businesses

Any fool with eyes in his head (and not potatoes) can see that throughout Fiji the vast majority of businesses (shops, factories, resorts etc.) are owned by non-indigenous people: Indo-Fijians, Europeans, Chinese, and foreigners.

A few indigenous Fijians, like Dr. Mere Samisoni, are valiantly making a go of it, but they are few and far between, and in limited areas.

But today, even a flagship indigenous Fijian-owned company like Fijian Holdings Limited is not managed by indigenous Fijians.

While indigenous Fijians are probably progressing in the business world, no one knows accurately in which sectors they are succeeding and which they are not, and what exactly is happening to their total share of businesses, output, employees, technology and innovation etc.

We do not know because the Fiji Bureau of Statistics and other state institutions are not releasing such data, which once upon a time used to be collected without fail and duly published for all to see, discuss, debate and ponder upon.

Today, policy makers (both government and in the private sector) cannot know if indigenous Fijians are lagging behind in business, and if so, where and why.

Is it because they are not receiving the appropriate education and training, or appropriate levels of development finance from FDB and other financial institutions, or appropriate state subsidies, or whatever else they need to succeed?

Or do policy makers (like Government or the indigenous Fijian community itself) have to tackle cultural factors which may still be a factor today inhibiting indigenous Fijian business accumulation and development, as my departed friend the late Dr. Ropate Qalo used to passionately argue based on the experience of his family company, Mucunabitu Iron Works which is now defunct because some corporate giants refused to pay their debts in time to this small struggling company and some did  not pay at all? (RIP Mr. Samu Mucunabitu.)

Wherefore art thou, Indigenous Fijian Business Council?

Education and skills shortages

Currently, the Fiji Government does not publish ethnically disaggregated data on Fiji’s national exams or tertiary scholarships or enrolments.

But my own 2008 research with Ministry of Education data (access approved by that enlightened Interim Education Minister the late Nelson  Delailomaloma) showed that indigenous Fijians were significantly lagging behind others in critical fields such as mathematics and English.

Thus Graph 1 shows that for every one of these five years, the national average Fiji School Leaving Certificate Mathematics mark for indigenous Fijians was below 50%, while that for Indo-Fijians was around 58%.

Clearly, large proportions of indigenous Fijians were failing mathematics, a critical subject for many professional fields such as medicine, engineering, architecture, science.

I do not need to show you the results (which I also have) for English, or science, with very similar results (even at the school level, where some “elite” schools are clearly not elite in educational performance.

I doubt if the situation has improved in the ten years since and the Government is certainly not releasing any data which would establish whether the academic performance of indigenous Fijians has been improving or not or whether it is going backwards.

One horrifying indicator may be that universities in Fiji have been reducing their entry mark in Mathematics to 30, with barely a ripple in Fiji’s educational circles.  Oh dear.

But the bottom line is that indigenous Fijians are significantly lagging behind other ethnic grips in mathematics, science and English.

This must of course have a bearing on the numbers of indigenous Fijian students who are able to take up medicine, or engineering or other professional courses so vital for the future of Fiji, although they can always join the army of course, a sure pathway to success for some.

Imbalance in scholarships, training and professionals?

It is extremely sad that today, there is no ethnically disaggregated data on taxpayer funded tertiary scholarships from the Fiji Government- either the TOPPERS or the TELS.

But if high school performance is any guide, and the trends of my own statistical analysis at USP some twenty years ago still prevail, then I suspect that indigenous Fijians are lagging way behind in tertiary education and training and that this is impacting on their share of professional and technical positions in Fiji.

This can be seen indirectly from Graph 2 which shows the ethnic percentage shares of Fiji’s degree and post-graduate degrees derived from the FBS 2004-05 and 2010-11 Employment and Unemployment Surveys data on my computer (not analyzed before by me).

This graph has two stories of serious concern.

The first is that despite indigenous Fijians being more than 65% of Fiji’s population, they were in 2010-11 just barely 34% of all degree graduates (including post-graduates).

The second even worse story is that despite the numbers of graduates increasing for all ethnic groups over this five year period, the indigenous Fijian share of total graduates had declined from 38% in 2004-05 to 34% in 2010-11.

This decline happened despite the reality that my World Bank funded research and tracer studies almost thirty years ago showed that the vast majority of non-indigenous Fiji graduates were emigrating within ten years of graduation.

There is no evidence that this trend has changed in any significant way, especially given that for decades now, Fiji employers have been complaining of the lack of quality and experience of local graduates and severe shortages in all the critical areas of teaching, engineering, doctors, nurses, plumbers, electricians etc.

World of professionals

Any idiot knows that there is a limit to how many indigenous Fijians can emulate the military path to success of the current Fiji Prime Minister (and some of his rotund Ministers), apparently the ambition for many indigenous Fijian duxes of secondary schools.

But far more than more and more smooth talking military officers barking orders to civil servants and cane farmers, modern Fiji desperately needs doctors, engineers, teachers, nurses, scientists, electricians and perhaps good lawyers as well.

Who will deny that for a balanced healthy society, indigenous Fijians should also comprise a healthy ‘fair share” of these key professional areas and not just be Prime Ministers and the majority of the security forces marching around in uniforms?

Note that two critical and related policy questions are not even discussed in Fiji today. First, how are the skills shortages going to be filled if the graduates keep emigrating?

And second, how does Fiji ensure that there are sufficient numbers of indigenous Fijians being trained in the key professional areas to ensure long term stability and depth of experience in key professional areas?

The bottom line is, how can these two policy areas be addressed if the FBS and other state institutions are not even collecting data by ethnicity?

Housing and assets

To monitor what is happening to the development indicators for indigenous Fijians, one would need to at least monitor statistics on current incomes and wealth, which is usually the result of all previous income flows.

A key indicator for wealth can be the ownership of housing and household assets.

We all know that in the last three decades, more and more indigenous Fijians have acquired their own modern housing.

But we can probably guess that the value of the houses they have acquired is still lagging behind that of other ethnic groups and few indigenous Fijians will be living in the upper class areas of Suva and other urban areas.

Just as important, it is one thing to own a house, and another to own one suitable for the size of one’s family.

Graph 3 here, based on the FBS data from their 2008-09 Household Income and Expenditure Survey,  shows the numbers of persons in houses that were owned by the families in 2008-09, by the number of rooms in the house, ethnically disaggregated.

Clearly, indigenous Fijians with generally larger family sizes, are living in far more crowded conditions than Indo-Fijians (and Others who are not in this graph), for every size of the house one room , two rooms, and three or more rooms.

For instance, sociologists who study intra-family social problems such as domestic violence and child abuse, would worry that in thousands of one room houses, the average number of occupants for indigenous Fijians was a massive 4.9 compared to 3.3 (still high) for Indo-Fijians.

Such analysis is also possible by income quintiles so that the problems of low income families in particular can be quantified.

Graph 4 gives a similar ethnic comparison by a whole range of household assets, whose possession and use are very naturally perceived by most families as important in improving the quality of life of the family in this day and age.

By all the criteria (ownership of cars and trucks, computers, TV/videos, washings machines, fridges etc. indigenous Fijians were lagging behind all other ethnic groups in 2008-09, and quite significantly in some areas.

From the 2002-3 HIES data that I also have, it is clear that progress is being made in all these areas by not just indigenous Fijians but Indo-Fijians as well.

But we are now eleven years from that 2008-09 HIES and data.

Economic and social planners must surely be interested to know what exactly is the progress till now and in what areas, especially given that the 2017 Census must have far more accurate and up-to-date data than what I am using from the 5% household survey sample data of 2008-09.

Increasing poverty of indigenous Fijians

I also have another table (not in my FT article already laden with graphs and statistics) from my analysis of the 2004-05 EUS and the 2010-11 EUS which shows very clearly how income distribution has changed over this five year period, with the majority of working indigenous Fijians becoming worse off in this period.

The following are the percentage changes in ethnic shares at each Quintile (20%) level between 2004-05 and 2010-11, a mere five year period (four of which years were after the 2006 Bainimarama coup):

                                                            Indigenous Fijians                       Indo-Fijians

Quintile 1 (poorest)                         + 17%                                    – 20%

Quintile 2 (poorer)                           + 40%                                    – 48%

Quintile 3 (middle)                          – 10%                                    + 17%

Quintile 4  (richer)                             – 6%                                      +11%

Quintile 5 (richest)                              + 3%                                      -4%

It is quite clear that over this five year period, indigenous Fijians have moved from the middle classses (Q3 and Q4) to the poorest 40% (Q1 and Q2).

Only at the top Quintile (Q5), do Indigenous Fijians show a tiny bit of improvement (of +3%) and you can guess who these may be?

It is no wonder that the Bainimarama Government does not want to see FBS data disaggregated by ethnicity.

Sunset Clause or Statistical Eclipse?

Will it matter in the long run if the FBS or other Government departments do not publish statistics by ethnicity?

I answered at the beginning “YES (DEPENDING).

Why do I say “depending”?

Remember that it is vital for government planners and society to obtain accurate national data by ethnicity over time, if the problems are to be managed in a rational way.

In ten years from now, social scientists will look back and note that while there was ethnically disaggregated data for more than a century to 2011, following that year, such data disappeared from public view, in some kind of “statistical solar eclipse”.

When that “statistical eclipse” goes away, as it will eventually, light will once more fall on the land.

But the real question then will be: even if it did not publish any, did the FBS collect data by ethnicity which can be published in the future?

If the FBS still does collect such ethnically disaggregated data (and I sincerely hope so) it will eventually become available for planners, even for the years that the “statistical solar eclipse” has been imposed by the current Bainimarama Government.

While some social media commentators warn that the “Sunset Clause” is being visited upon indigenous Fijians by Fiji’s political rulers (and He Who Must Not Be Named as in the Harry Potter series) anyone really understanding Graph 1 in my FT article of two Saturdays ago of the trends in total populations (to the right), know that the indigenous people of Fiji will not suffer this fate.

Outsiders may be really surprised that the above are all happening, because the political “leaders” who appear in public giving grand speeches are all indigenous Fijians themselves, (except for He Who Must Not Be Named) and it at may well be asked,  “how could they do this to their own people?”

Of course, one could argue that all that is happening currently is a “Statistical Solar Eclipse” which will one day pass, hopefully restoring the historical statistics that Fiji’s social and economic planners need.

BUT sadly and tragically as well, by the time that statistical darkness is dispelled from the land, the dictators might  have wrought such devastation on the economy and environment, and increasing poverty on the indigenous Fijians, that recovery may well take decades, during which the poorest (the majority of whom will be indigenous Fijians) will suffer untold misery paying back the massive Public Debt that its incompetent and corrupt leaders have created, while lining their own pockets.

While the rich will have emigrated,leaving a devastated land behind, as may be seen in many banana republics in Africa and Asia, where military rulers have run amok with their power, with the assistance and collaboration of corrupt business classes, and a docile public.


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