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“Shooting the expert messenger” (shorter version in FT 18/9/2021)

18/09/2021

In my Fiji Times article last week, I commended the FBS for convincing the Government to publish that Report and I commended the Bainimarama Government for releasing the poverty facts to the public, regardless of their political sensitivity. But I was clearly wrong on both counts.
The reputable Australian Bureau of Statistics collects data on ethnicity, such as on Aboriginal peoples or Asians or those Australians born in Fiji, even though all Australians are treated equally under the law. No Government Statistician in Australia ever loses his or her job because the ABS freely publishes such ethnicity data.
The reputable NZ Stats collects all kinds of data on ethnicity, such as Maoris or Samoans or Asians or residents born in Fiji, even though all New Zealanders are treated equally under the law. No Government Statistician in NZ ever loses his or her job because NZ Stats publishes such data.
Last week, the Fiji Bureau of Statistics published a Report on the findings of the 2019-20 Household Income and Expenditure Survey, with some fascinating statistics, which also included poverty and food poverty tables by ethnicity.
The next evening, the most powerful Minister Khaiyum gave a long press conference attacking the Fiji Bureau of Statistics for contradicting the Bainimarama Government’s policy to not collect or publish data by ethnicity and religion.
But much worse, the Minister slammed the statistical integrity of the household survey by the FBS, alleging that the ethnicity statistics were not reliable and they lacked “integrity”.
The Minister ranted and raved that the FBS could not make ethnic generalizations from a mere 3% sample of 6000 households, supposedly representing more than 190 thousand households.
Soon after, the CEO of FBS (Mr Kemueli Naiqama) was escorted out of his office and his employment terminated.
The Fiji public, of all ethnicities and political persuasions, need to register their public protest that an honest civil servant who was trying to do his job with integrity is being sacked for producing accurate official statistics for the benefit of all Fiji.
I won’t repeat here the arguments I have made in my previous articles why it is absolutely essential for development policies that statistics be gathered and publicized by ethnicity given that iTaukei and Indo-Fijians have many different development characteristics with respects to business involvement, fertility, health, aging, education, housing and other important areas.
Just as in Australia, the ABS recognizes that Aboriginals have different development needs from white and Asian Australians, and in NZ, NZ Stats recognizes that Maoris and Pacific Islanders have different development needs from pakehas and Asians.
In this article, I wish to rebut the baseless and scurrilous assertion by the Attorney General that the 2019-20 HIES lacked statistical integrity because it was a “mere” 3% sample, all because he does not agree ideologically with the release of statistics by ethnicity.
I call on the Fiji Public Commission and the Fiji Public Service Association to legally defend the rights of the civil servant concerned against this arbitrary and unjustifiable punitive action by the Bainimarama Government.

More than just a 3% sample?

When I first started working with the FBS household surveys, even I was skeptical whether such as small sample as 3% could give accurate results.
But to my continued amazement, I found that the statistical results were astonishingly accurate not the least because of the rigorous methodology of the statisticians in the Household Survey Unit of the FBS (I also show that in this article).
The Australian Bureau of Statistics has a wonderful webpage titled “Sample Design” which Fiji’s tertiary students and academics should read: just google “ABS Sample Design”. For numbers of households above one hundred thousand, the ABS statisticians recommend that even a sample of 1000 households (1% sample) can be more than enough.
Some might remember that I have been previously critical of the results of opinion polls like the Tebbutt Poll which questioned around “only” 1,000 persons in the Nausori-Suva-Lami-Sigatoka-Nadi-Lautoka-Ba-Rakiraki corridor. But even then, the Tebbutt results were pretty accurate about what Fiji’s voters thought about Bainimarama and his political opponents.
But the FBS selects 6000 households, not just far more than necessary, but rigorously and proportionately selected from all over Fiji.

The representative FBS 3% sample

Students, take the time to read this section (don’t be lazy). The FBS statisticians first obtain a population “frame” of households which covers 100% (YES, ALL) of all Fiji households, usually from their records from the previous Census.
Then, the FBS selects a smaller “List” of households (around a third) whose households contain all the different “strata” or “variables of interest” on which the survey wishes to obtain information: the four divisions (Central, Western, Northern, Eastern); and the urban and rural components within them (7 strata altogether because Eastern is just Rural).
Then from this “List” is proportionately and randomly drawn the smaller 3% sample of 6000 households: wherever in Fiji they happen to fall.
By this time, these 6000 households out of the national 192,000 households, are also representative of the 14 provinces and the major ethnic groups (iTaukei, Indo-Fijians, and Others) and other variables analyzed at length by the Bristol University group.
Such as multi-dimensional analysis of poverty; with respect to heads of households, aspects such as gender, marital status, number of children, etc. Or aspects of the house such as the number of rooms, toilets, access to running water, etc.

The hard slog by FBS staff

There then follows the incredibly hard slog by the FBS trained interviewers who physically go to every selected household wherever they are: in the towns, villages, hills, valleys, by foot, by horse, by foot.
They ensure that all the questionnaires are fully explained to the household head and filled at the beginning with critical data about the household: its physical characteristics, its occupants, its annual income and expenditure, etc. and MORE.
For the 2019-20 Household Income and Expenditure Survey, each household then also fills out a 2 week diary of incomes (all types- cash, crops, livestock, fish, gifts, remittances etc.); and all expenditures (cash, “home consumption”, gifts) etc.
These are all checked by the interviewer at the SECOND visit.

Then all 6000 records are collated at FBS HQ, blanks or obvious errors clarified and corrected, and the data entered into computer programs. This data is then “cleaned” and analyzed by the FBS statisticians and for this particular survey by experts from the World Bank and the Bristol University group (and once upon a distant time, by a certain unnamed USP economist).
The AG in his virulent Press Conference diatribe (which a blogger called appropriately a “hissy fit”) gave no hint whatsoever that he understood an iota of the enormous technical effort of the FBS staff in conducting this year long HIES (from February 2019 to February 2020).
Nor did he give a slightest hint that he understood the enormous statistical rigor of this FBS exercise, which he contemptuously labelled as “lacking in statistical integrity”.

The population cross-check

From my personal experience in analyzing at least five household sample surveys by the FBS (the Household Income and Expenditure Surveys of 2002-03 and 2008-09, and the Employment and Unemployment Surveys of 2004-05, 2010-11 and 2015-16) I have always been blown away by the incredible accuracy of the results for the national picture.
Before conducting the detailed analysis by different variables of interest, all analysts first check whether the national aggregates derived from the survey match the national totals from alternative sources.
The first is the total population estimates from the survey, and that from the census and the resulting population projections; and also components such as rural:urban and ethnic components.
In all the surveys whose raw data I have analyzed, the differences have been less than 1% in the total population, or for rural/urban numbers or by ethnicity.
The components from the 2019-2 HIES estimates all match what the demographers have projected for 2019-20 for rural/urban (45% and 55%); iTaukei/Indo-Fijian (62% and 34%); as well as all the other variables such as divisions and provinces, and even the age group divisions (including those of voting age (18+).
The only difference has been that the household survey estimates do not include the non-household “institutional” populations of the army, police, prisons, school and college dormitories, hence will usually be less than the estimates or projections derived from the census estimates.

The independent FNPF cross-check

A totally independent check that I suspect even the FBS is not aware of is the 2015-16 EUS survey estimates of how much should have been paid to the Fiji National Provident Fund for 2015-16 (my estimate from the 2015-16 EUS was an average of $454 million).
On the other hand, the Annual Reports of the FNPF for 2015 and 2016 given an actual average total FNPF contribution received of $456 million, or less than 1% different from the EUS estimates. WOW.
These FBS 3% sample surveys can also give you accurate estimates of how much FNPF is NOT being paid (read my FWRM Report soon to be published, if you are interested).
There are all kinds of similar cross-checks possible from HIES data.

The HIES estimates are accurate

Contrary to the AG’s ideological assertion, the estimates of the incidence of poverty are absolutely accurate, given the WB methodology the FBS has chosen to use for poverty analysis and which the AG allegedly agreed with in February of this year when the national estimate of 29% as the incidence of poverty was released.
The AG did not then raise a single boo or peep about the statistical methodology of the FBS when he spoke at length on how this incidence of poverty could not be compared with previous estimates in 2008-09 or 2002-03 because the criterion had changed from income to consumption expenditure (all agreed).
But the AG in his grand press conference speech pontificated with local knowledge that we should all realize that some households consumed bhindi or bhaji or cassava they grew themselves and these he wisely informed were all included in the consumption criterion but he alleged not in the income criterion (FT 16/9/2021).
Hilariously, this all-knowing lawyer AG demonstrated his abysmal statistical ignorance (not picked up by his chamchas in Fiji Sun and FBC) that even in the “income criterion” previously used by the WB or the FBS or me, there was always a component of income called “home consumption” which comprised precisely what the household grows (vegetables or fruit) or raises (cattle or poultry) or catches (fish and marine foods) for its own consumption, in addition to what they buy using cash. The lowliest person in the Household Unit of the Fiji Bureau of Statistics could have enlightened the AG Khaiyum of this basic national income fact (which always includes “subsistence income”) (if they could stop laughing).
BUT suddenly in September 2021, the AG wakes up to the FBS’s “lack of statistical integrity” when exactly the same HIES data (which gave the national estimates he approved in February 2021) are used to provide estimates of poverty by ethnicity (useful for policy in my opinion) and religion (useless in my personal opinion).

Remember Abraham Lincoln?

I wonder what the real economist Ministers in the Bainimarama Government, like Dr Mahendra Reddy and Jone Usamate, are thinking about the AGs latest diversion from national discussions about the horrible impact of the COVID pandemic.
But they probably are chuckling inside, thinking about what Abraham Lincoln is thought to have said, “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and to remove all doubt that you are a fool”.

Footnote: Not the first time that the Bainimarama Government got rid of a Government Statistician

What has happened to the CEO of FBS (Naiqama)is not the first time it has happened, except that the public did not see what happened behind the scenes to another Bainimarama.

Once upon a time, a certain Fiji Government Statistician (the late Mr Timoci Bainimarama) refused after the 2006 coup to allow the Fiji Bureau of Statistics to knuckle under to the Powerful One in the Military Government, who had the ears of the Interim Prime Minister (and goodness knows what else).
When he kept refusing to compromise, the late Timoci Bainimarama was forced to retire although many others with lesser contribution to make to Fiji went well past the retirement age with no such punitive action (some even had the same name).
As is often the case in Fiji when unfair personal tragedy occurs beyond the victim’s control, the former GS took solace in the amber liquid readily available at the “sporting” establishment opposite the Botanical Gardens, from opening time 10 am until he had to be taxied home in the evening.
To no one’s surprise, after many months of seeking this sad oblivion, the former Government Statistician found the usual ultimate solace for all humans, grieved by his loving family.

Silver lining for Naiqama’s dark cloud?

The former CEO of FBS must know that there is a big market among regional organizations for good honest statisticians at much higher salaries than offered by political dictators who have bankrupted the economy. Check with his mates at SPC for instance. There are also some professors who will happily write a reference for them.

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