Dr Pali Lehohla is the former Statistician-General of South Africa and the former head of Statistics South Africa. Photo: Thobile Mathonsi
Dr Pali Lehohla is the former Statistician-General of South Africa and the former head of Statistics South Africa. Photo: Thobile Mathonsi

The onslaught on national statisticians continues unabated

By Pali Lehohla Time of article published Oct 10, 2021

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FACEBOOK, Messenger and WhatsApp collapsed for a few hours on Monday, causing financial harm to the tune of R107billion to Mark Zuckerberg’s stock.

This is how surreally the world of virtual networks moves.

Ironically, the outage happened as the World Data Forum was hosted in Bern, Switzerland, where among the key issues discussed was how the sensors passively collect data and the role of ubiquitous social media as a source of data.

It was also in this week that the 8th annual Multidimensional Poverty Peer Network (MPPN) through the catalytic research work of the Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative met in Chile to reflect on progress made in the application of multi-dimensional poverty indices as a fundamental policy tool for addressing poverty.

This MPPN was even more relevant in the context of Covid-19, which has plunged many into poverty. In both instances, the march towards the achievement of sustainable development goals remained the organising framework.

The two meetings reminded me how Statistics SA made history when it hosted the very first UN World Data Forum in January 2017. The key question, then, is how does data become a commons without sliding into the tragedy of the commons?

In 2016, we were hosted by a premiere geography and remote sensing outfit, Esri, in Redlands, California, to deliberate how collaboratives for commons can be made possible.

The two major global events of the UN World Data Forum and the MPPN have thrust the discipline of official statistics into the fray, and emergent in the discipline is how the new-found Cinderella plays his/ her role of an inevitable data steward.

The New Zealand National Statistics Office took an explicit position on the role of the national statistics office and the national statistician as a national data steward. In other jurisdictions such as Singapore, the president has allocated this role to an office directly under the president.

However, amid these global events, infinitesimally close virtually, and infinitely distant physically, the onslaught on national statisticians continues unabated.

Recently I wrote about Gordana Radojevic of Montenegro, whose term as a national statistician has now been terminated. Around the same time, Kemueli Naiqama of Fiji was indignantly hunted out of office and summarily dismissed for presenting the poverty results of Fiji by ethnicity. These showed that the indigenous Fijians or i-Taukei bear the brunt of poverty.

Leaving no one behind means sustained commitment to detailed results by gender, age, ethnicity, region and any feature that is detailed while preserving individual privacy. This is the dangerous, serrated saw edge that a national statistician has to dance on rather than on a safe, flat surface.

But the job is made ever more precarious by the election-mongering and good news-hankering world of politicians on the one hand and the riches-seeking information capitalist on the other. The world of sustainable development goals, especially in the context of Covid-19, needs more than ever what Ian Hacking refers to as the quiet statisticians.

“Quiet statisticians have changed our world – not by discovering new facts or technical developments, but by changing the ways we reason, experiment and form our opinions about it.”

Dr Pali Lehohla is the former Statistician-General of South Africa and the former head of Statistics South Africa. Meet him on www.pie.org.za and @Palilj01

*The views expressed here are not necessarily those of IOL or of title sites

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