Lebanon needs a new census

But in the meantime, the new government must improve statistics

The need for a new census is pressing

As part of Executive’s ‘10 Ways to Save Lebanon’ issue, we asked leading experts from a range of fields to put the case for one major policy for the country. In this article, pollster Kamal Hamdan puts the case for a new census.

 

No wonder Lebanon is falling behind. In a world racing towards greater and more accessible economic data, our country is standing idle, having firmly refused to conduct a census for 82 years. This is not just a technical issue for economists. The census is such a basic analytical tool that its absence impairs the ability to make sound, informed decisions.

Every day economists, executives and labor leaders rely on mountains of economic data to plan policies, strategies and investments. What is the optimal fiscal policy? The yearly demand and supply of labor? Which parts of the economy and the country show the best investment potential? What raises will workers need to keep up with inflation and changes in consumption?

The fundamental basis for much of this data is a full, up-to-date count of people. Unemployment rates and figures, for instance, are meaningless without knowing how large the population is to begin with. Even seemingly unrelated measures — like oft-cited GDP numbers — use population size in their calculations. For detailed surveys, researchers need a base to build representative samples and get reliable results.

Without a census, there is no comprehensive way to know for sure whether a sample is representative of the entire population. And perhaps most importantly, knowing how many people live in which locales is a sine qua non for economic planning and forecasting.

In short, the census is a very basic and necessary economic tool. But there are numerous reasons as to why there has not been a census since 1932. Within the ruling class, the balance of power depends in part on the perception of each community’s pull. A census might disrupt the status quo — a prospect that is rarely viewed favorably by the political elite.

The civil war and concomitant mass migration have created a related issue: how do you measure residency? How should expatriates be counted, especially those who left the country in the last two or three decades? Should migrants vote in their place of residency or place of registration?

While a census is necessary, it’s simply not in Lebanon’s political cards. Nothing short of revolution would make it a practical possibility.

Making do with smaller measures

Failing that, what can our new government do to make up for the lack of the most basic statistical tool in existence, the basis of all per capita indicators? While there are no direct substitutes for a census, there are smaller changes the new cabinet can make to boost Lebanon’s statistical base.

First, the government can make the Central Administration of Statistics (CAS) truly independent. Currently, the CAS, Lebanon’s official statistics body, is housed under the Prime Minister’s office. This causes problems of political interference and conflicts of interest. When official inflation numbers edged higher than 10 percent year-on-year in late 2012, then-Prime Minister Najib Mikati allegedly refused to fund data collection for five months. The CAS was forced to stop producing the headline-friendly but government-hostile numbers.

Second, the government can increase the CAS’s funding. This would allow for two major improvements to the quality of Lebanon’s statistical base: more surveys and a higher quality of staff and training. The current periodic surveys the CAS carries out could be refined, expanded and conducted more regularly.

This applies to the entire survey process: conceptual framework, sampling methodology, questionnaire design, surveyor training, and analysis and interpretation of results. You cannot expect high-caliber data if you pay the same salaries as other government ministries — instead, you need to attract a team of top-flight economists and statisticians.

Finally, the CAS can make its data more accessible and its methodologies more transparent. Earlier partial surveys have not been released in full to the public. For example, the CAS released data for its census of buildings in 2004 only at the regional level; it withheld the much richer cadastral-level data. If private institutions had access to such granular data, it would go a long way towards filling the census gap.

It is unfortunate that such a basic, necessary economic tool is outside Lebanon’s reach. But, with a little imagination and policy know-how, the incoming government can mitigate some of the effects of a lack of reliable statistics while at the same time building the institutional capacity to conduct a thorough census once political obstacles fall.

If the new government takes the economy seriously, it must take economic and demographic data seriously.

Kamal Hamdan is managing director of the Consultation & Research Institute, a Beirut-based consultancy that produces the city’s leading consumer price index.

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