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When your number’s up: Bloodbath intensifies for statisticians for being bearers of bad news

Dr Pali Lehohla is the former Statistician-General of South Africa and former head of Statistics South Africa. Photo: Thobile Mathonsi/African News Agency (ANA)

Dr Pali Lehohla is the former Statistician-General of South Africa and former head of Statistics South Africa. Photo: Thobile Mathonsi/African News Agency (ANA)

Published Feb 6, 2022

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LEST YOU GET deceived that the author is an angel statistician, not at all. For the record, check the 2003 Consumer Price Index debacle of South Africa.

Only a politically patient frame of mind that understood the magnitude of the challenge faced in the building of a statistical institute, could lead to having the proverbial nine lives statistician.

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I observe that in the past decade, when it comes to severe ailments of economies, the axe falls on national statisticians instead of on policies. It is about shooting the messenger.

Many more chief statisticians have been fired in the last decade than has been seen in the past 70 years.

Climate change is the biggest threat to world survival as, similarly, are the heads of state relative to their national statisticians, who measure national economies, populations and social progress of their countries.

Although being a statistician has been a relatively safe and secure profession, it is no more.

We see this in history. Stalin demonstrated 83 years ago – in 1939 – that it was never a safe profession. Failure to deliver a politically expected number can be fatal to the statistician. The 1937 census data showed there were 30 million less people – reflecting the scale of unnatural death and carnage in the Soviet Union under Stalin’s leadership.

For that Ivan Adamovich Kraval, the chief of the Central Statistics Department, was its first mortal victim, followed by his assistants shortly thereafter.

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Pravda, the propaganda machinery of the Soviet Union, cited “crude violations of the principles of statistical science” by those entrusted with the practice, and claimed that was why they deserved the ultimate punishment. To secure the principles of statistical science that, ironically, Pravda made a spirited, albeit incongruent noise over, in 1994 – on the eve of accession of Eastern Europe to a market economy – the indomitable chief statistician of Canada, Dr Ivan Fellegi, led a crusade culminating into the Ten United Nations Fundamental Principles of Official Statistics.

These were then adopted by the UN Statistics Commission, and 20 years later they became global law, adopted by the UN General Assembly in 2014 as the lightning rod providing the best practice of official statistics dispensation for enlightened societies.

However, the world still witnessed another statistician’s murder. In Stalin’s kraal was the former Ugandan president Idi Amin, who executed the former Reserve Bank governor of Uganda.

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Fast forward to Covid-19-hit economies. At the end of January the president of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, reminded us of what happens to a chief statistician when numbers fail to meet political expectations. Erdogan did not do the Stalinist execution though, but he sacked Sait Erdal Dincer, the head of the state statistics agency. This was as Turkey’s inflation hit a number very much similar to South Africa’s most recent unemployment rate of 36.1 percent – the highest inflation rate in 19 years for Turkey. Erdogan has sacked three central bank governors since July 2019 as well. That reminds us of what also happened to the Governor of the Reserve Bank of Zambia, who was sacked by former president Edgar Lungu. Against this tapestry of the battle of titans emerges a very clear trend that the demise of fact finders of the nation takes on two paths.

The one path is excellently summed up by Noam Chomsky, where he opines on how privatisation technique creates chaos for cannibalisation: “Defund, make sure things don’t work, people get angry, you hand it over to private capital.”

This is a matter I will expand on in a separate column as the chosen path in South Africa.

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The second path is the firing of the chief statistician.

Regarding the firing of chief statisticians, the last decade has seen more living ghosts in the graveyard of statistics than has been the case in the past 70 years. By any measure this is a tragic situation.

Argentina fired Graciela Bevacqua, the head of Consumer Price Index; Andreas Georgiou, the former Greek statistician, is the subject of decade-long litigation; Rosario Fernandes, the president of INE

Mozambique, was fired in 2020; Camilo Simão Ferreira de Ceita, the former statistician of Angola INE, left unceremoniously; the services of the chief statistician of Montenegro, Gordana Radojevic, were terminated in September 2021, and shortly thereafter the services of Kemueli Naiqama came to an abrupt end in October. The new year starts with Turkey. The bleeding does not end.

A look back to Canada led to a revolving leadership turmoil of three in just a decade after the departure of the quarter-century reign of Fellegi.

The US Bureau of the Census has not been spared the exits either, because of political interference. What does this all mean?

Bean counters have become the Cinderella of the information era, and have been lifted from relative obscurity to the high table of politics, where the politicians are trying to teach them table manners.

Unfortunately, facts are stubborn and they refuse to conform with predetermined political narratives.

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

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

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