By Malinda Seneviratne –
For years, UNP Parliamentarian Dr Harsha De Silva has regularly claimed that statistics pertaining to the country’s economic and social wellbeing have been doctored. These claims have usually been accompanied by warnings of imminent economic collapse. The economy has not collapsed as predicted and explanations have been thin on logic. This does not mean, however, that the allegations of statistics-doctoring are figments of De Silva’s imagination.
The recent claim by a Director attached to the Accounts Division of the Department of Census and Statistics to the effect that he was asked by the Deputy Director General to change the economic growth rate calculated by the Division (from 5.4% to 6.0%) has shocked one and all. He alleges that this was a directive of the Director General.
The Director General has countered that the said Director had not followed standard procedure. The Director, since transferred out of the Department, now faces a disciplinary inquiry. The Department, to be fair, has on occasion come up with less than cheerful outlooks based on data gathered. On the other hand, in this instance, a manifest reluctance to explain discrepancy does raise questions about integrity. The said Director, it must be remembered, is a veteran statistician with 30 years of experience in the Department, and if he is inept, as claimed, that itself is a slur on the institution.
If indeed the Director General has insisted on the doctoring of conclusions it is a serious matter. Preferred outcomes can be generated by clever number-cooking, but that amounts to a breach of public trust. It moreover implicates top officials in both the Treasury and the Central Bank, for it is hard to believe that the head of this department would dare mislead say the Governor of the Central Bank and the Treasury Secretary.
The matter could easily be cleared if methodologies are revealed and the public be asked to deliberate on which was more robust and consequently which conclusions to believe. The Director’s statement to the investigating officer can easily be perused by experts who can then rule on his judgment. The same could be done for the ‘official version’, if the Department cooperates. As things stand, the onus is on the Department to reveal all, if it is to get rid of the shadow that has fallen on it.
Upping the number from 5.4 to 6.0, when considering what they numbers represent, translates into a lot of money. In the current global economic climate, however, a 5.4% growth rate is nothing to be ashamed of, even if it is falls short of government prediction. If it was say 3.2% it would be alarming and compromise the credibility of those who make such predictions. If anyone gets alarmed or doesn’t have the intellectual ability to explain difference between prediction and outcome, whether it be big or small, it points to a multiple ailments including arrogance, irresponsibility, lack of professionalism and absence of integrity.
Sunshine stories are not the preserve of spineless public servants (and we are not passing judgment on the Department of Census and Statistics, yet). They are what lackeys typically regale their masters with. Some say that this is the inevitable curse of those who lead. The problem with sunshine stories is that while they are nice to read, their veracity gets tested in the matter of living, the humble but necessary acts of buying stationary for children, purchasing medicine and securing money to bury or cremate the dead. Budgets have to be balanced, in the final instance, at home. That’s the bottom line of all economic theory. The term ‘economy,’ after all is derived from the Greek word for household, oikos.
A responsible and indeed a shrewd government will understand that all things considered truth sells better and more importantly is easier to defend than a lie. And it’s not only about growth rates. An analogy can be obtained from the operations conducted to rid the country of the terrorist menace. For years successive governments lied. In the last three years of the conflict, however, part of the reason why the Government secured the support of the general public was because the fact that ‘must do things’ come with ‘probably costs’ was expressly stated.
We don’t need fairy tales. We don’t need the truth to be varnished. The truth, rather, will empower both the ruled and the ruler in the long run.
*Malinda Seneviratne is the Chief Editor of ‘The Nation’ and his articles can be found at www.malindawords.blogspot.com