South Africa

The perils of being a national bean counter

AT the 42nd UN Statistical Commission held in New York in February 2011, I was invited to present on the subject of UN Fundamental Principles of Official Statistics: Threats and Responses.

One country, Argentina, had not endeared itself and had persistently violated and endangered these principles.

The government of that country had decided to change the consumer price index, fired the head of the division that was responsible for this index, and created an equivalent of apartheid era “Sobukwe law” for Graciela Bavcqua.

The Argentine delegation stormed out of my presentation in protest while loudly announcing “mastido, mastido” (liar, liar).

Bavacqua continued to produce the consumer price index outside the Statistics Office and faced the wrath of the authorities, which included the prospect of losing her house if the “Sobukwe law” was tested in the courts of Argentina.

The good news is that Argentina finally turned the corner.

Greece also had its fair share of troubles. The then head of the National Statistics Office, Andreas Georgiou, in compliance with the Statistics Law giving the Chief Statistician final authority over the numbers, corrected a faked government deficit number in the national accounts.

Georgiou was there to tell the story of the bold steps he took as the Greek authorities turned the screws on him and labelled him enemy number one.

Since 2011, Georgiou has been martyred by Greece and blamed for the Greek economic meltdown.

His cardinal sin was to be the honest ears and eyes of Greece. In the arsenal of legal insinuations is one called simple slander, over which you can be prosecuted and charged for pronouncing yourself on true facts about the actions of the third party – should the third party feel embarrassed and be demeaned by the pronouncements, the pronouncer is guilty of simple slander.

In this regard, Georgiou has been found guilty of simple slander, wherein in his line of duty he established as fact that was accepted by Eurostat and the Greek government that the statistics were faked and he corrected these government deficit statistics.

But because this is demeaning to his colleague, Georgiou had to defend the verdict, which imposes a fine of about €17000, escalating at a number of euros a day.

For failure to pay the fine from the judgment, his accounts can be raided and paid over to the person who faked the statistics.

In addition, any associated accounts of his a mother, who is 85 years old, will be attached, and assets including the flat she stays in.

This are indeed the perils of being a national bean counter.

The former Greek prime minister George Papandreou has come out in defence of Georgiou.

And hopefully like Argentina, Greece will learn to mend its ways and not interfere with the eyes and ears of society – statistics.

But how can they, when in Montenegro a few days ago, its Chief Statistician, Gordana Radojevic, has said that she is asked by the government to do an equivalent of giving birth to a child of full term in three months?

She is under pressure from the Ministry of Finance to conduct a census in 2021, without meeting the preconditions for a census.

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

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

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