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A matter of perspective

Maral Tutelian speaks to Executive on the use and abuse of statistics in Lebanon

by Jeremy Arbid

In a family of medical doctors, she is a statistician. A former Lebanese University professor, Maral Tutelian has been at the helm of Lebanon’s Central Administration of Statistics for nearly 15 years — influencing public, business and societal decisionmaking through quality-driven data.


Policymaking depends upon reliable statistics; do you consider CAS’ role in providing data particularly influential for decisionmakers today in creating their policies?

It’s really a very, very interesting question. It’s not only in Lebanon, but in the whole region and in other countries like Lebanon. We have luck in the statistical culture.


Luck in the statistical culture’, what does that mean?

It means we should implement the use of statistics in our culture. It means that every decision should be based on statistics. Statistical data should be used by all stakeholders. You cannot [formulate] a political decision related to health if you don’t base your policies on figures. Education, employment, finance — it’s very important to establish every policy based on statistical data.

We’re in the 21st century and the guesstimates should be put away. We should not guess based on our own impressions — it is not a matter of perspective. Policies should be based on statistics. And these statistics should be reliable. It’s for that reason that our policy in CAS is to improve quality. And it’s for that reason that maybe we are attacked in some way — since sometimes the data will not match the feelings of the politicians.


Is it the case that the decisions made by policymakers do not always agree with CAS data?

Yes, for example concerning unemployment. Everyone is talking about an unemployment rate of 30 or 40 percent. But our results point to 10 percent. They [politicians] are not pleased with this indicator. For my indicator I use the ILO [International Labor Organization] standard, the ILO formula and the ILO classification. We have a Lebanese specificity, but this specificity should be highlighted through the scientific work rather than through what I want to highlight. So when I’m talking about the statistical culture, one of the difficulties we are facing is to deal with a specialized media, a media that knows how to interpret the indicators and explain the data. And during the 15 years that I have been in this administration, I haven’t [encountered] any political interference in the publication and dissemination of any kind of data.


At a press conference in May 2013 you stated that CAS was not able to publish the first quarter 2013 consumer price index (CPI) for unknown administrative reasons. 

Yes because we did not get the authorization of [then-Prime Minister Najib Mikati] to finish the work. This is the reason. It was really very hard for us because we stopped the fieldwork for five months. Since then we have not had any problems.


So at some level there is political interference?

You can consider it like this. During Mikati’s mandate, in general all our work was very … it was stopped [claps hands]. With the current prime minister we do not have any problems, not a single problem. I really — until now — I don’t know what the real cause of the stoppage was. But what I do know is that there was pressure from international organizations who would say: “What are you doing? We want figures and the figures of CAS are reliable.”

What I’ve heard is that the IMF put pressure on him, [telling him] that you cannot stop indicators that are published in a very good way, with very good methodology. [IMF officials asked] “Why are you stopping [this]?” He [Mikati] did not sign for five months, and then he signed and we continued. It was during the same year that he resigned.


Some critics have suggested that the new weights [introduced earlier this year] in the CPI, particularly the weights for food and non-alcoholic beverages, should be significantly higher. Do you think this criticism is justified?

On which basis are these critics making this criticism? Is it a guesstimate? An impression? If they have conducted a household budget survey on the national level based on an official database then show it to me. If you have another result, we can debate; we can argue if we have the same methodology, the same database, the same way of calculation.

Those weights are calculated through the declaration of the households. I cannot create a weight from my head. So a margin of error exists, I’m not saying that [it doesn’t]. If [CAS fieldworkers] are not convinced by the answer I cannot oblige a household to declare what I want or what I want to see. If I come and ask you what is your salary and you don’t tell me your real salary, how can I calculate it? And another thing, the highest rate of non-response is on the household budget survey. Why? Because you are going through the details of their daily expenses. Because they know very well that through this information you will calculate their line of poverty; you will calculate their social welfare; their way [of life] and the quality of their food.


There were issues though with the CPI last year, and maybe this comes back to an inability to collect the data, where the rental index was not adjusted as it should have been according to the previous year —

I think that it was analysis from the political side, because you had the [renters] and the owners. But for two years we didn’t collect. Why? Because we were preparing the new housing census, and we were waiting to have this new census to get the sample frame of houses. But once I realized it would not be so easy to have the budget and to be ready, that we made the trend over the three years. Statistically there is no problem. But you know, we are in Lebanon…

Now we publish the rental index on a monthly basis, because before 2011–12 it was published on a yearly basis. This is one of the most positive improvements of the updated CPI. The housing index is now published on a monthly basis in three sub-indexes, and the old and the new rental.


Switching gears, hypothetically, what if the public sector wage salaries were increased?

They should take into consideration any increase of salaries going through inflation rates that we have. In the CPI committee that is headed by the minister of labor — and we participate as CAS on this committee — there was a recommendation to increase on a yearly basis the salaries and the wages going from the annual inflation rate that is published by CAS.


Was CAS consulted regarding this recommendation?

They [the CPI committee] didn’t take into consideration the inflation rate. Policies should be based on statistics. It’s not a matter of point of view; it’s not a matter of guesstimation. Imagine that all these discussions between the workers and the parliamentary committees [were taking place], and no one called me. Nobody asked for details. Nobody took into consideration the inflation rate published by CAS.


When do you expect the next Census of Buildings, Dwellings and Establishments (CBDE)?

Ah, it’s related to the budget. If they give me the $4.3 million needed we will recruit about 1,000 fieldworkers. It will be a one shot action, if I have this within the cost, the preparation will take three to four months. The fieldwork should be very quick — [it] should not take more than three to four months. So within one year and a half we’ll have a new database.


So is this extra-budgetary spending?

It’s not a request for money. It’s a request [for] authorization to conduct the CBDE that will cost this amount of money which is not allocated in our yearly budget. I have asked for $4.3 million from the Lebanese government. I sent it already to his office [in August 2014]. I heard that he refused it. So from the [Grand] Serail they’ll send it to the ministry of finance. I don’t know the answer but I have heard that he is refusing to provide this money. I’ve only heard this, I am not sure.

Editor’s note: Since the interview the Ministry of Finance has declined the request and CAS will reconsider the CBDE project next year.


How does not having a [national] budget passed by the government each year impact the way CAS can fulfill its mandate of providing accurate statistics?

All the ministries are obliged to prepare their yearly budget. I don’t have a problem if the mid or long term plan is included in this year’s budget. I know that, for example, the CBDE project should take two years of preparation. I’m not asking for the entire budget in one year — I’m asking in writing that I need [for example] $1 million for this year to prepare the cartography to digitalize. Usually they give me this money. I know if I ask for all the packet I will not be able to spend it all in a single year because my work will not be finished in a year. You will freeze money, you will not give another ministry the possibility to spend money because you have already allocated this huge amount. Every ministry wants millions and millions. They do need them, but there are also some ministries that … I don’t know where or how they spend the money.

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Jeremy Arbid

Jeremy is Executive's former economics and policy editor.

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