Until recently, government policies hardly benefited from inputs by the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS). But, the Statistician General of the Federation, Yemi Kale, said PREMIUM TIMES’ Business Editor, Bassey Udo, the situation has improved significantly in the last five years.
In the first of two parts exclusive interview, Mr. Kale said the bureau is not only consulted regularly by various government agencies to explain its data and statistical information, but also part of the Economic Management Team. Excerpts:
PT: Public and private organizations as well as individuals rely on data and statistical information from the Bureau to make decisions. But, often it appears your data are outdated?
KALE: That sounds strange, compared to the past. Being open and engaging with the public has been one of the key successes people credit the Bureau. We are on Twitter or Facebook to talk about data. Sometimes, we call press conferences to explain the numbers, until it became financially difficult to continue. At other times, we were on TV or radio to analyze issues, because often our numbers require explanations for people to understand.
PT: Sometimes, the numbers are so horrible, particularly on poverty, labour or employment statistics. How often have politicians pressurized you to manipulate the figures to present a distorted picture?
KALE: Never! Not at all. When numbers are bad, naturally, someone somewhere would be unhappy. If it’s about a state’s disaggregated data, the governor would be upset. If sectoral data, the minister would be unhappy.
If the data are good, your boss might be happy, but the opposition would accuse us of telling lies, and vice versa. However, nobody has ever called to ask me to change the numbers.
They might try to fault the data, or disagree with certain facts they think may not have connected properly. But, to ask me to change the numbers is not possible.
In all modesty, I will never do that. My personality is well known, that I will rather resign.
I am open to suggestions. But, what is more important to me is my integrity. I have no incentive to lie. I will never throw out figures and live in that lie.
Politicians should allow the bureau to tell them the naked truth about how the situation is, so that they can seek genuine solutions. I owe the Nigerian public the responsibility to give out real indicators that would help transform our lives.
PT: But, why is the labour statistics not always up-to-date, particularly those on employment and unemployment that are always followed by controversies?
KALE: Nigeria is part of the United Nations Statistics Commission, where all heads of statistics organizations in countries decide on harmonized methodologies on jobs and employment.
We do not sit down to write. We follow international best practice, by comparing with other countries.
On employment/unemployment report, the recommendations came from a committee, of which I was not a member. The quality of those numbers had merit.
At the beginning of this administration, the argument was that unemployment figure was not 12 per cent, but as high as 80 or 90 per cent. The NBS said about 20 million were either unemployed or under-employed. People cited the Immigration job interview incident at the National Stadium and that the huge turn-out showed the unemployment situation was quite high.
The truth is that the stadium has a capacity for not more than 40,000 people. If 100,000 people applied for the job nationwide, this included some civil servants who already had jobs and wanted to try their luck. If 100,000 people scrambled for 5,000 jobs, it did not mean 20 million were unemployed.
Technically speaking, if we agree the divide between rural and urban population is 60:40, most of the people in the rural areas are farmers. So, they are working, as far as our definition of job is concerned.
PT: What’s that definition?
KALE: Once you are earning an income from what you are doing for a minimum period of 20 hours in a week, you are employed.
Under that definition, one can have under-employed, which means the work one is doing is not commensurate with what one should be doing, with one’s qualification; one is just doing something to survive.
Under that same definition, one can get properly employed, which means people who are working in line with what they are supposed to do.
To NBS, people are employed, but not the right way. You might even get people who are vulnerably employed, or temporary employed. All these are still considered employment.
People can claim they are not employed, because they are vulnerably employed. But, the truth is they are employed, because they are engaged in some work that meets the minimum number of hours in a week to qualify them as being employed.
The reason we break the categories down is that we want government to know that although majority of the population are working, a higher percentage are doing things that are not keeping them fully engaged. We cannot say they are not working.
Whether we like it or not, there is somebody qualified to be a taxi driver, but another person might be over-qualified to be a taxi driver.
Again, there is somebody out there that did not go to school, who is qualified to be a taxi driver. If that person gets the taxi driving job, in our definition, he is fully employed, because his skills matched that of a taxi driver.
When a graduate that should be working in a bank is driving a taxi instead, he is preventing the other man who has the skills for taxi driving from getting a job.
In that case, the NBS is telling government: “Please, get a job for this graduate, so he can free up that space for the person that has the right abilities to take it.”
But, if you just say there is no job and look away, we are not helping government to plan properly. Let them know how many people are doing the wrong job, so that they can move them and create openings for other people.
With our statistics, we tell government there are people over-qualified for the jobs they are doing. That’s why they are under-employed.
Government needs to create opportunities for them in their skills area, so that they can free up the space for other people who are actually meant to be there.
But, if we just say that is not a job, government would not even know that some people have taken other people’s jobs.
That’s why the NBS tells government through its data that people are working and earning certain pay, but their earnings are not enough.
When government has that information on the number of people doing jobs that are not in their qualification area, and those doing jobs that the income is too small for their survival, it is better government sees the details and take decisions based on that, than not having that information at all.
If the NBS lumps graduates and those who did not go to school together and say they don’t have jobs, it would not help the government to plan for the skilled and unskilled population.
PT: That sounds technical. It requires deliberate planning by government to create jobs to meet certain requirements?
KALE: Absolutely! When the number of jobs – doctors, teachers, nurses, engineers, etc. required in each sector are known, government would know the gap and begin to work towards creating policies to generate the jobs required.
When I was in Ethiopia, they had almost 100 per cent graduate employment, because they would do a study, first, to identify the employment gaps in the economy and what can be absorbed over three to five years.
Next, they would restrict their universities’ intake to match that number identified. When those graduates finish after four years, they are almost guaranteed automatic employment, because government had already planned the number they wanted in various sectors and ensured the exact numbers were offered admission to study courses relating to those sectors.
In Nigeria, we have a mismatch between labour and education policies. Universities are opened just to admit people without any consultation with labour to know the gaps the economy and the capacity of the economy to absorb them over at any period.
If government knows the number to be admitted into the university and the number the economy can absorb, it can plan. To meet the number the economy can absorb, there would be competition, for the best to get the opportunity.
Otherwise, throwing the admission open to all would be that only those with contacts in high places would get the jobs, whether they are qualified or not. We are running a contact-based system, not a merit-based system.
Usually, the ones with the highest contacts in high places are the ones with poorest grades, and the ones with the best grades would end up disadvantaged.
PT: You are sounding as if government don’t make use of most of the data the bureau comes out with?
KALE: No, don’t get me wrong. When the data are out, to be fair, sometimes government is not particularly happy. Nobody would be happy that indicators for his country are negative. But, since I came on board, things have improved significantly. I believe it can still be better.
Suddenly, they now call the NBS to join in the Monetary Policy Committee meetings, to explain to the Central Bank of Nigeria governor and the committee how the numbers look and why.
For the first time, government is making the Statistician General of the Federation a member of the Economic Management Team. Many government committees ask NBS to come and explain the numbers.
Although Nigerians are yet to fully appreciate the value of the data the NBS brings out, there is a huge change. We are not going to get there overnight.
Every quarter, I am also there with the Economic Management Team chaired by the Vice President, to provide the economic statistics update about the latest numbers on the economy; to offer guidance and analyses on what the numbers are saying.
In other cases, ministers or heads of agencies always call the NBS to give details on the data they want to use, either on trade or such things.
We give these information. What they are using them for is a different case. But, there is an improvement. Their understanding of how to use the data we make available is what we are still trying to grow.
PT: In most advanced economies, employment data for the previous month are available in the first week of the new month. Why is that not possible in Nigeria?
KALE: For instance, the U.S. statistics agency’s budget of over $400 million per annum is about 2,000 times higher than the NBS’ budget of about $500,000 per annum. South Africa has about $20 million per annum, almost 50 times Nigeria’s budget. Nigeria is not on the same level.
Their methods of data collection are even more automated. On top of that, they are still spending $4.5 billion every year to gather data. They take their data collection seriously.
Our processes are still very manual. We can’t gather information on employment on the internet. We have to go and meet the people.
Every time we do employment or job creation survey, we send about 2,000 staff to the field for about 10 to 15 days across the 774 local governments to gather the data from sample households.
If each staff gets N10,000 per day to cover transportation, feeding and accommodation, it means each staff will get N150,000. Sometimes, they go to remote riverine areas that require hiring of boats.
Multiply N150,000 with 2,000. It means N30 million will be required for just one survey. In one quarter, N90 million, and in a year, N360 million, which is more than half of the NBS’ annual budget. That is why we do everything on a quarterly basis and not monthly.
What we pay our staff to do the work is grossly inadequate. But, we give only what we have.
The NBS spends about N4 million to send our staff to 10,000 locations to gather price information on over 700 products for the monthly inflation statistics. In a year, we spend about N48 million.
Our budget last year was about N700 million. That’s why we can’t have as much data as we should. The NBS’ data may not be world class, but we have improved tremendously. We still have a lot of challenges and a lot of things we have to improve upon.