HomeWorld NewsI don’t publish data to favour government or anybody –Kale, Statistician-General

I don’t publish data to favour government or anybody –Kale, Statistician-General

In this interview with IFEANYI ONUBA, the Statistician-General of the Federation and Chief Executive, National Bureau of Statistics, Dr. Yemi Kale, speaks on the state of the economy and what the government can do to take the country out of recession

How do you think the economy is doing now?

Our economy went through difficult time in 2016 for so many reasons many of which you are aware of. But I think we got to a point where we reached the worst of it in 2016 and once you get to the bottom of it, all you could do is for the economy to start to recover. The recovery is slow but most of the indicators we are seeing are improving.

So, I will say things are not where we want them to be but after a very difficult 2016 which we all felt, it’s beginning to improve.

That does not mean that things are now okay and it’s not saying the man on the street is now fine but it’s a gradual process of recovery.

The worst I think for the numbers is over because the economy is improving but we are not there yet.

In August 2016, you declared that Nigeria’s economy had entered into a recession, the first time in 25 years, when do you think we will get out of it?

I don’t think statistical offices can forecast when we will get out of recession. It doesn’t work like that. We will come out of recession in two ways. One is that in economics, there is what is called a business cycle and that means even if you do nothing, there is a particular period that you will come out of recession automatically without doing anything. So every economy goes through that boom and bust cycle where it would go up and go down. And if you do something, you might be able to fast track it.

Now it is difficult to predict a date that Nigeria will get out of recession. All I can say is that we will get out of recession when the consumer gets more money in his hands and consumers can get more money in their hands by two ways; either by inflation starting to slow down so that my money can buy much more than it used to or you are increasing my salary and I can spend more.

So whenever you increase the ability of the consumer to spend, then you start to get out of recession and that is the indicator people pay attention to because household consumption expenditure constitutes about 70 to 80 per cent of Gross Domestic Growth.

Are you sometimes tempted to doctor the data to make the government look good?

I have made it quite clear that data is too important for the progress of this country and it is not something you joke with. I have never been tempted once neither have I felt under pressure at all to doctor data. It will be a disservice to my country and to my government. My job is to enable government to make things work, if I doctor data by telling them that things are better than they are, I will be doing a disservice because they will introduce policies that would not solve the problem.

Tell us about the rebasing of the Gross Domestic Product that you reportedly spearheaded, how did that come about?

We collected the data. There is nothing special about rebasing of GDP. Every country, even the United States rebased their GDP but the only difference is that we didn’t do ours for about three decades. It’s a normal statistical process and what created the noise was it hadn’t been done for so long and at the end of the day, the impact was bigger. All we did was to go and collect the information that we had not been collecting over the last three decades and that was why it took us over two years to compute.

We had to go and gather a lot of information over that period just to fill in the gaps in the database and when we did that, we had to recalculate again. So it’s a simple procedure and the only difference was nobody was collecting it in the past.

Why was it not done up until then?

You will have to speak to my predecessors, I can’t really discuss why they chose not to do certain things. I don’t know the constraints they faced because I wasn’t here at the time, so I can’t speak on their behalf. It might just be priority depending on which indicator they believe is more important.

But I felt this was extremely important because we need to understand what our economic structure looks like and economic policies should start with understanding the sectors of the economy. Before rebasing, telecoms had only NITEL in our list as the only telecoms company in Nigeria and basically the telecommunications sector would be saying NITEL is the only telecoms company in Nigeria when NITEL was already dead at the time. So it means your policy will mislead.

People say it is hard to come by reliable data in Nigeria, so most times we have to rely on research conducted by foreign organisations about Nigerian issues. How can we improve the situation?

I don’t know what they mean by research conducted by foreign institutions. The foreign institutions that I know about which you may be referring to is the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, the United Nations Development Program.

What people don’t realise is that most of their researches that they called foreign are done by individuals and NBS staff. Nobody can sit down in Washington and tell you he is conducting research in Nigeria, it makes no sense, it’s not possible, you have to come to Nigeria and gather information. You can’t be in Washington and New York and be getting more valuable information than people that are in the field in Nigeria getting the information, it makes no sense.

The best you will have is to just use some estimates based on some random indicators that they have and try to guess what it might be. But until you come to Nigeria and do the field work, nobody can tell you they know anything that is happening in Nigeria.

Some Nigerians still have trouble believing your figures, that they are being downplayed. How do you arrive at your figures?

We do not apply formula like other international institutions to arrive at our figures. We go to the field and collect data and that is why we believe our figures are more reliable and more factual. We go, rent boats in the South South, our staff have to cross rivers on shaky boats to get to households to get information. We go through difficult terrain to get the information and sometimes the lives of our staff are at risk going to certain places to get that information. We don’t get data by information, we go to people’s houses to get data.

Many people didn’t think that you would get a reappointment after your first term in office. What was going through your mind at the time? Did you think you would be appointed?

I disagree. Most people actually thought I would be reappointed. I was indifferent whether I got reappointed or not. Most people that I knew and spoke to me actually told me I would be reappointed. It’s a credit to the current administration that they based their decision on whether or not I could continue doing the work as opposed to who appointed me. I think it was very clear I didn’t take any decision or publish any data to favour anybody the same way I did not publish data that are favourable to those that appointed me the first time and I am still not publishing data to favour those that appointed me this time.

I think my reputation has been depoliticised. I don’t have any opinion as statistician general on anything politics. My job is data and that is what I do.  All I was happy about is that as long as I was leaving the place in a better state than I met it, I had fulfillment and I was happy with whatever the outcome was.

And I also had the concern that whoever comes in would continue with the reforms that we started so that my previous targets would not be a waste. And when the current administration said they had the confidence in me to serve, I was happy serving the country.

Some Nigerians also believe that you play down some of your data, especially the ones concerning rate of unemployment persons and the number of Nigerians living below poverty level. They believe the figures are more than what is reported. Is this the case?

We have preconceived notions about a lot of things and it has stayed in our heads for many years and we have learnt to believe those things. And I think it is because in the past, a lot of data wasn’t coming out. I believe that our numbers are accurate and those that understand the methodology know how we do these things.

Unemployment, using the internationally accepted standards that we use, is when you are unemployed only if you are actively looking for work and you are within the active age population and you can’t find work.

If your definition of work is to come to the office with a suit and tie and you have a shop in Alade market, then you say you are unemployed because you are trained as a banker, the NBS will say you are employed.

Many of us have drivers, plumbers, carpenters, these people are working because they are getting a living. Some people are of the opinion that if the money you are making is not much, then you are not working but that is not how we see it. You can work and still be in poverty because the money you earn is not enough for you and that is what people used to determine work but you are working but it is not enough. It’s about dignity in labour.

So if NBS said 25 million people are unemployed, that figure is not understated. So if you said 25 million is understated, have you seen a job interview where the total people that applied are more than 25 million? We said 25 million people are unemployed and the number of unemployed graduates is about 50 per cent. So there is no evidence that the NBS figure of those unemployed or underemployed is overstated.

We have 28 million households in Nigeria and if you assume one person in each household does not have job, that is 28 million. But in some households, all of them have work and in other households, four of them would not and so by the time you average everything, you will probably not get more than one or two. So there are ways to rationalise these things.

When you give out such figures, what advice does the NBS give to the government to improve poverty, unemployment rates and so on?

Government is beginning to increasingly appreciate the importance of data in policy formulation and that is why I attend the Monetary Policy Committee meeting of the Central Bank. I go there and explain the inflation numbers and try to give them a sense of how the economy is faring. Data is only useful if you can convert it to information. It’s not the numbers that matter, it’s the information you convey from the data and so I try to convert the data we are producing into information so as to guide policy makers.

I am also a member of the economic management team chaired by the Vice President and so of course for them to make me a member of all these important committees means that they understand the importance of data.

As a member of those teams, I give my input into how the economy is faring, what the challenges are, what areas are doing well and what areas are doing badly and give my suggestions on how they can improve things.

The easiest way to solve poverty is employment. Once people have jobs, then poverty automatically disappears. The next question is, how do we create enough jobs? Well, we need about three million jobs every year just to keep the unemployment rate constant and for it to go down, we need about five million jobs. Government doesn’t create jobs directly, they can only hire people in the public service and so on and that would not really provide three million jobs every year. It’s the private sector that creates jobs and it’s all about policy. Once you get your policies right, you don’t need to go and beg anybody to come and set up factories.

People will come because Nigerian market is a very attractive market if you get the right policies. If you solve infrastructure, people on their own will come and set up factories, people will set up businesses that will automatically employ and that is the only way you can create an environment that can create enough jobs to absorb the number of people that are coming into the system.

Statistics is not an attractive course in our universities because most people believe statisticians end up teaching, most often than not. How can it be made more relevant in Nigeria?

Statistics is beginning to become more relevant in Nigeria. To get data right, you need more than statisticians, you need economists, demographers and people that cut across so many disciplines. It’s a lot of people that come together to make this data more prominent.

How well can we trust data on Nigeria especially those not compiled locally but by foreign organisations?

We have challenges and what I will say is that I am comforted that the challenges are reducing, we are fixing them and it is improving and that is what we can hope for. Every day, we are improving on the previous day and that is the process. There are challenges with funding, our South African counterpart have budget of about $30m per annum, ours for data is about $1m.

There is also issue with attitude towards giving out data. People are just reluctant and suspicious. Most of the population is uneducated and it’s difficult for them to understand your reasons for asking them for information.

There is the politicisation of data. If the number in a state is not good, the chief executive of that state would not be happy and so he is going to call you that he is unhappy. Your job as a chief executive of a state or head of any agency is not to find fault in data but pick the data and use it to improve. And that is why we don’t do political data at NBS.

Our job is to give you what you can use, pick the data, see the challenges in your state and go and fix it as opposed to spending time disowning the data and meanwhile, your people are languishing in poverty and unemployment. Fighting NBS about a data because you don’t like it is not the way to solve the problem.

We have these challenges and it’s a process we have to go through and continue to work on it by improving things through reforms.

So the data we publish is credible and accurate data we collect the most.

Sometime back, there were allegations that your agency owed workers their entitlements but that you had 50 aides and people you brought to work with you who got all they wanted. How true is this?

On my floor, there are not even up to 50 staff in general and for me to have 50 aides is purely remarkable. I have two aides in this office and the rest of them are NBS staff and even on this floor, there are not up to 50 people. All these claims were made towards the end of my first tenure and they are just politics that usually play out during such periods and it happens everywhere. It’s not something I took seriously.

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