From Isaac Anumihe, Abuja
Dr Simon Harry is the new Statistician General of the Federation (SG) and the Chief Executive Officer of National Bureau of Statistics (NBS).
Described by industry watchers as a man with the magic wand because of the sudden developmental strides he embarked on since assuming office in August 31, 2021, his humble disposition made him answer both hard and soft questions thrown at him by Daily Sun effortless.
According to Harry, at 33.3 per cent, at the last count, Nigeria’s unemployment figure is high, thus prompting the Bureau to embark on a more comprehensive investigation to determine the cause of the country’s lamentable unemployment profile that has thrown many more people into massive poverty.
In 2018, Transparency International rated Nigeria as poverty capital of the world and 3 years later, your bureau is embarking on a poverty survey. What is the objective
Statutorily, poverty statistics is to be produced after every five years. That is the standard. And so, in 2018/2019, we released that the poverty profile report on Nigeria which was 40.09 per cent, meaning that about 81 million Nigerians are poor.
Collecting information from all other countries is free to compare the poverty profile of Nigeria and the poverty profile of other countries of the world. So, if that of Nigeria is higher than that of other countries they may not have been wrong in declaring Nigeria a poverty capital of the world.
One, because if you look at the population of Nigeria, over 200 million with about population growth rate of about 3.2 per cent, we are having a growth rate that is certainly below the poverty rate. The standard says that for a country to be fully out of poverty, the growth rate must seem to double the population growth rate. But in the case of Nigeria, that hasn’t been the case. For us starting preparation for another poverty studies is not because we want to counteract what TI said, but it is part of our mandate and that is why today we are preparing to conduct another poverty studies for us to now assess properly, what has changed between 2018 and 2019 having gone about 2 to four years now. The situation would have changed either forward or backwards. So, it is a mandatory exercise that after every five years, we just have to do that and if you calculate very well from 2018 to 2021, we are talking of three to four years now. The poverty studies we are conducting now is quite different from the one that was conducted in 2018. That of 2018 was Nigerian Living Standard Survey while the one that is currently going on is Multi- dimensional Poverty Index (MPI) studies which appears to be more comprehensive in determining the poverty profile of a country than the Living Standards Survey. So, we decided to conduct this one so that we would examine in a more comprehensive way the poverty status of Nigeria in the area of health, education, standard of living and in the area of labour force. So, that is the essence of the MPI that is currently going on now. But beyond MPI we are equally planning to conduct in 2022 the Nigerian Living Standard Survey. That is the one that will help us to see whether what was released in 2018, there has been an improvement or not.
Multi-dimensional Poverty Index (MPI) is usually anchored on health, education and living standards. What do you want to achieve by adding the fourth one – labour?
As a developing economy, labour is very key. Conventionally, we know that the less-educated you are the tendency for you to be poor is high. If you’re not healthy the tendency for you to be poor is high. If your living standard is low the tendency for you to be poor is high. But then again, if you are not employed, the tendency for you to be poor is high.That is why the introduction of labour is very key because we are conscious of the fact that as a developing economy a good number of Nigerians are not gainfully employed. They are not engaged in gainful economic activities. And so, getting information on that will help us to a greater extent to determine whether actually Nigerians are poor or not because if you’re not employed gainfully, there is no way you will not be poor. So, we cannot shy away from the fourth module which is the module in labour. As a growing economy that is considered as very very key particularly, if you look at what Nigeria has been passing through in the area of unemployment that becomes very very important. Remember, the last unemployment figure was 33.3 per cent which is a very high figure. So, we have to carry out a comprehensive investigation of what could have accounted for that and if that is truly the position it means we have more Nigerians who are poor than even what we would have estimated.
The process of arriving at inflation, employment or Gross Domestic Products (GDP) data in Nigeria has been described as flawed or doctored. How do you respond to this?
That assertion is completely wrong and misleading because the production of the Gross Domestic Products determines the performance of an economy. The production of Consumer Price Index (CPI) determines the changes on the prices of goods and services. The production of unemployment figures which is done through the labour force survey certainly follows processional laid-down guidelines provided by the United Nations Statistics Division which is the co-ordinating organ of the statistical system in the entire globe. For somebody to sit down somewhere and assume that the entire process is flawed or influenced by any government, certainly that is not correct. NBS is strictly professionally autonomous and as such the process of producing statistics from the beginning to the end of it is strictly done by NBS.
And we release our data without making reference to any government functionary. So, specifically, for the GDP, we have our staff all over the federation. And so, we conduct what we call quarterly establishment survey and then again, that is complemented by administrative statistics. For in stance, we collect information from Federal Inland Revenue Service (FIRS) and Companies Income Taxes (CIT) as we well as Value Added Taxes (VAT). Again, we collect information on fiscal data from the Office of the Accountant General of the Federation, both at the federal level and each state of the federation. Again, we collect the audited report of the Office of Auditor General of the Federation as well as the 36 states and the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) auditors general. All these information are compiled and analysed and we get an aggregate Gross Domestic Products (GDP) that determines the performance of the economy.
The same applies to Consumer Price Index (CPI) which measures the inflation rate. We have a full basket of goods and services that is made up of 740 commodities and we have about 10,523 responders that provide us with information and our market outlets have spread across the 36 states of the federation and the Federal Capital Territory. So, this information are collected on monthly basis and analysed and weighted for us to be able to come up with the average price level of each commodity. You can imagine we are talking about 740 commodities and we are talking of 10,523 responders. People go about accusing the figures wrongly. Perhaps, it is possible that in your village the price of a commodity is costing N10,000 and in some other places it is N8,000. So, at the end of the day, what we do is to bring together the information gathered from all the market outlets and then average them and come up with an average price of that particular commodity. That is why at the end of it all what will come up with may not be a representative of what you have in your village but rather a representative of the entire situation of the country. And mind you, we are aggregating for the whole basket and not just one commodity. Again, the basket is made up of varieties of commodities. Some might be constant, some might be going up and some might be coming down. But then an aggregate of this will now determine what is the price level.
With high level of insecurity in the country, can these figures be trusted? ll, certainly, there is no doubt that there’s insecurity. Like I said earlier we have our staff spread all over the federation. But even with the insecurity, in the case of prices for instance, the markets are still going on. We have established relationship with these responders. Even without going there physically we monitor from here what are the current prices. That is, these days we are using the computer-assisted devices where you send the questionnaire loaded in the system and then you have the contacts of your responders and you are in touch with them on regular basis with a view to getting information from them. Once these information are gathered you analyse them. We agree there are some areas that are unreachable but in a situation where we are conducting a survey there are occasions that we use security agents to take us to some households. But in some other cases where completely the areas are unreachable——–take for instance the last Nigeria Living Standards Survey that we conducted which helped us to come up with the poverty profile of the country, we had to exclude the whole of Borno State because we didn’t get half of the information we were supposed to gather. And so, Borno State didn’t feature in the poverty profile produced in 2018 and 2019 because the information we were able to gather were not enough for us to be able to determine the poverty profile of that state. So, the best thing for us to do was to exclude Borno State from the report.
But for some other states we were able to get a sufficient information that we analysed. Besides, when you talk of cycle production we are talking of an estimate that is well representative and that can give you a clearer picture of what is actually on ground.
By excluding a state, does that give you a full representation of the actual situation?
Yes, in sampling techniques, it does because in sample production, we adopt a system of sampling. And once you have a sample that gives you a fair representation of the situation on ground, we are comfortable with that. And the fact that out of 37 states only one state is not captured does not affect the final result of the survey. And so by standard if out of 37 states we are able to get three quarters of the states, that gives us the picture of the poverty profile of the country because at the end of the day, we are going to use weight to blow off the information that you would have analysed and that would now give a fair representation of the entire country.
Most of your staff are ad hoc staff. How reliable are their information?
It is not only NBS that uses ad hoc staff. The law allows every agency to us ad hoc staff when you have an assignment that the manpower requirement is more than what you have on ground. Take for instance, the conduct of population census which is to cover the entire country there is no way the National Population Commission will have the manpower required on ground. In the conduct of election, there is no way Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) will have the manpower requirement on ground. And so, all that it takes is that you recruit ad hoc staff, train them. Then in the process of training them, you examine them. There are some in the course of examining them their commitment will be in doubt. Of course, in the process, you drop some of them and take those that are committed and have the credibility to work. The issue of trusting does not arise. But rather than conducting a survey NBS has just roughly a manpower of about 2000 on ground and out of this number you have about one quarter of them that are field staff and so for a survey that requires about 1500 manpower there is just no way NBS can handle that. And that is why over the years we have been able to develop a database of pre-qualified enumerators. These pre-qualified enumerators are being picked from time to time as ad hoc staff to support the field operations of the bureau.
NBS is supposed to be independent. But how can you be independent when you are fully funded by government and international organisations?
That you are independent, technically of professionally, does not mean that you cannot be funded by government. It is not just NBS that has the technical autonomy. There are so many agencies. Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) has technical autonomy. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) has technical autonomy and INEC has technical autonomy and a lot of similar organisations like that, have technical or professional autonomy. So, what is of importance is that yes, government is funding you but as long as the government does not delve into the technical operations of the office to determine how things are done, then there is no problem. That is exactly what happens in the case of NBS. We carry out our work independently. So, I do not have to ask the minister or inform her what we are doing. Mandatorily it is bound on me to produce GDP on quarterly basis. It is bound on me to produce inflation rate on monthly basis. It is bound on me to produce trade statistics on quarterly basis. It is bound on me to produce poverty statistics after every five years. So, it is there already enshrined in the programmes of the bureau. We carry out our work independent of any government interference and we release the information. So, it is one thing to fund an organisation and it is another different thing entirely to get yourself involved in the technical operations of the organisation which in our own case the government does not.
What about international bodies?
It is the same thing. The international bodies have a mandate. The majority of them are coming from the United Nations Organisation and a few of them from the European Union Commission. So, part of their mandates is to support developing economies. The United Nations agencies control the United Nations commission and as result of that the United Nations Statistical Commission is being guided by them. We are using a framework produced by the United Nations Statistical Commission. So, theirs is perhaps to provide funding where it becomes necessary and then the technical guide as far as the operation is concerned. But they have no business in dictating what the result will be.
Relationship with other MDAs in data generation
The Statistics Act of 2007 empowers the National Bureau of Statistics to produce official statistics on regular basis and in the course of producing that it should be collaborating with other agencies that are equally saddled with the responsibility of producing statistics. That provision alone recognises the fact that there are some other agencies that are to produce some other statistics either treated as official or those that are peculiar to their operations.
That is why the role of co-ordinating
the production belongs to NBS. Yes, I agree, National Population Commission has the mandate of conducting the population census as well as producing vital statistics. The Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) has the responsibility of producing financial statistics. The Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation has the responsibility of producing petroleum and oil statistics. So, all these are co-ordinated by the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS). And that is why you see all these agencies now collaborating with NBS in the course of carrying out their activities. I can assure you that there is no single agency that operates in isolation. As long as your statistics is to be treated as official statistics the law says that you must collaborate with National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) on that. But you are free to produce statistics that are to be used internally in your organisation but not to be referred to as official statistics. You can do that but as long as the statistics is to be made reference to as the subject matter in Nigeria, the production of such had to be in collaboration with NBS. There is no single agency that is carrying out statistical operation and at the end of the day the data will be treated as official statistics.
But unfortunately, people are not properly informed. So, they assume that all statistics that are being produced by different agencies are to be used as official statistics. Go through our budget you’ll see all the estimates that are being used there. Go through the reports from the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), nearly 100 per cent of the information are coming from NBS. Even if people collect information from CBN, they still have to confirm from NBS.
Do you have the powers to discipline errant organisations?
The Statistics Act of 2007 empowers NBS to adopt a system of persuasion instead of discipline. However, there’s a provision of N100,000 in the Statistics Act that in the event anybody refuses to provide you with information such a person should be levied N100,000. You know we are a developing economy. I know for a developing economy, for you to get the desired result of almost everything, you should not be said to be applying force. Again, also as a country that is a federated state definitely you have to take it gradually. And that is why the act provides that we adopt more of persuasion than coarcion in collecting information from individuals.
Are you encouraging people to produce and use data?
You are free to produce data to be used to run the affairs of individual firms or organisation. But such a data cannot be quoted by government as data representing the position of Nigerian society as far as that subject matter is concerned. So, that is the difference. Individuals are free to carry out research work and come up with information. But as a government such information cannot be made reference to because they were not provided by the NBS. Mind you the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) carries surveys on annual basis. I am sure there is no any government agency making reference to such information. At the end of the day, it is the survey conducted by NBS that government makes reference to. So, there is always that distinction between what is official statistics and what is not official statistics.
Explain the sharp developmental difference between you and your predecessor.
Well, it cannot be an indictment and I cannot see a miracle there because I have been part and parcel of the system. Having started from here and grew up here, I know how the system has been going and where the problem lies.
So, when I took over, of course I was following the trend of my predecessor who really worked tirelessly to ensure work progressed seamlessly. You might be calling it a sharp one but I don’t think it is a sharp one. Rather, I consider it as a consolidation of what my predecessor did and that explains why when I took over, my first briefing to the entire workforce of the bureau was that I was going to focus majorly on three broad areas. One, the area of infrastructure. Two, the area of human resource management and development and three, the area of technical operations.
For us to achieve the third area, we must ensure that the manpower is well- developed. And then we must ensure that there is enabling environment for people to operate and effectively deliver on their services. So, immediately I took over, I started focusing on ensuring that we have a very decent environment within which we are going to operate. And so with the little resources provided and as somebody who actually has a stake in the system, I ensured that these resources were optimally put into use to start transforming the working environment gradually. So, that is why people are seeing a new facelift in the organisation not because we borrowed money from somewhere but with the little resources available, we were able to do some of the things you are seeing. I know in management if resources are optimally put into use definitely they will be able to make some impacts.
So, the issue of indictment does not arise. Rather, it is a matter of priority. For me, my priority was, one, there must be constant power supply and I think since I assumed duty on August 31, 2021, there has never been a blackout for even one minute. As soon as light is off, our generator is on. We are also working to ensure that we have holistic installation of solar power so that NBS will be a fully modern organisation where staff will be proud to belong to.
Also, in the area of infrastructure, our offices were almost decayed. Our central air conditioner was not working. So far, we have been able to achieve almost 70 per cent of it. So, as staff come to work they are comfortable in their offices. There is nothing like heat anymore because there is constant supply of light and then the air conditioners are working. We are trying to change the lighting system in their offices. We are painting the entire environment with the little resources that we have so that everybody will belong to a system where when you’re in the office you’ll not in a hurry to go back home. Rather you feel that the working environment is comfortable for you. So, why do you need to close and go back to a place, probably there will be no light . That to me is considered as a priority for us to able to deliver on the mandate of the organisation which is that of producing statistics. So, the area of cycle production we have started strengthening the data production framework in the area of GDP, in the area of unemployment, in the area of trade, in the area of prices some that all of them will be in conformity with modern realities. And this is an agenda that certainly very soon we are determined to achieve. So, to me that is it should be. We must impact on the system, we must impact on the workforce for people to see value in what we do as producers of statistics.
Do you think appointment of SG’s should come from within or outside the system?
Definitely, experience in both administration and technical operations is not something you just come up overnight and acquire it. It is something you have to grow up within, learn from so many people and the process. Without you learning from the process there is nowhere you are going to apply it. That is why as much as possible we encourage government to
ensure that technical agencies, professional organisations are headed by people who grew up within the system so that the legacy that has been built up will continue to be built upon or consolidated. So, the Buhari’s administration is already toeing that line to ensure that people are picked from the system to take over the administration. And to a larger extent, because of the concern government has been showing on that government had to issue a circular encouraging all ministers to make sure that officers succeeding or taking over the administration are those that are grown up from the organisation, know the nitty gritty of the operations of the organisation and they can really continue to operate effectively so that the organisation will achieve its mandate. So, for me, it is a welcome development and it will help this country to a greater extent to grow faster.
What will be your legacy in this organisation?
Well, my legacy is simple. I would want to ensure that I leave the National Office of Statistics of the Federal Republic of Nigeria as a leading organisation within the African Continent that can equally compete with the best in the world.
And that is in line with the vision of this administration for NBS to complete favourably with the best national statistics office in the world.
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