Statistics relating to human development in Lebanon are in a deplorable state. They either do not exist, or they are outdated. Worse yet, they are often flagrantly contradictory, reflecting the political leanings of the “official” sources that put them out. It is time to shed light on this scandalous situation.
To begin with, Lebanon is the only country in the world that has not taken a census since at least World War II. The last (and only) census was taken in 1932. This fact was embarrassingly mentioned at almost every international population meeting I used to attend or organize when I was working for the United Nations.
Practically all other countries represented at these meetings undertook censuses regularly, usually once every 10 years.
The reason for this unique situation, we were told, was that we did not wish to know the confessional distribution in the country. There are three obvious answers to this claim. First, censuses do not need to collect information on the confessional distribution of the population. Indeed, censuses that do so are very rare. Second, we know anyway, with a sufficient degree of confidence, the actual confessional distribution in the country. National random samples used in collecting household survey data by private sources, if properly designed and executed, give a fair estimate of it. We at the Center for Development Studies and Projects have collected enough of those samples to have a good idea of this distribution, as probably do other centers conducting similar household-based surveys. Finally, the Taif Agreement makes the political implication of this knowledge almost insignificant, particularly that the Christian-Muslim ratios have more or less stabilized of late.
Household surveys based on national random samples can offer much of the data produced by censuses, provided they are properly undertaken and take place at regular intervals. Neither of these two conditions is obtained by our official household surveys. In 1996 and in 1997 two national surveys were carried out. The first gave a total population of little over 3 million and the second a little over 4 million. So much for quality. As for frequency and regularity, the problem becomes clear by just enumerating the dates of the major official surveys: 1996, 1997, 2004 and 2007 and no comprehensive surveys since then. As usual, we wait for an international organization to find the financial resources for one.
Censuses and national household surveys, while essential, do not offer sufficient guidance for policy in a number of crucial areas. One of these areas, for example, is unemployment. The level of unemployment is, of course, important for policies, not only in the immediate field of labor, but also in the macroeconomic policies area. In most countries, a change of a fraction of a point in unemployment levels may necessitate changes in macro variables such as interest rates, financial liquidity and the like. In Lebanon, they have a direct relationship with the migration of our young, often skilled, population.
Official estimates of unemployment in 2016 varied between 10 percent, as given by the Central Administration of Statistics, and 25 percent as given by the labor minister. Neither of these figures was based on a credible field survey. In fact, the labor minister indicated in March 2014 that unemployment had reached between 22 and 23 percent, it presumably reached 32 percent in 2015 but, due to action by his ministry, fell back to 25 percent in 2016, all this again without an unemployment survey. In April 2016, the minister declared that we have 1 million unemployed persons in the country, which, given a labor force of some 1.5 million, meant that unemployment was over 66 percent. Apparently, the minister wrongly applied his 25-percent unemployment figure to the total population and not as should be to the labor force.
This chaotic situation in statistics created, naturally, a general distrust in numbers, whether produced by public or by private sources, even in the few instances when they are arrived at properly. Because good statistics give, among other things, a look into the future, their lack, or deficiencies, resulted in policies that are reactive instead of preventive, that is, policies that move from one crisis to another, as is obviously the case of policies in this country that deal with almost every aspect of human life.
What is needed is, first, a statistical plan that is automatically financed by the government budget. The late President Rafik Hariri formed a committee of experts to devise such a plan, and asked me to direct it, but he was martyred as the committee was finishing the first draft of the plan.
Subsequent Cabinets did not seem to be interested in continuing this endeavor. A later effort assisted by the World Bank also fizzled. Such a plan would determine the periodicity of each type of data collection.
Comprehensive household surveys might not need to be carried out more than once every five years, while unemployment surveys need to be undertaken every three months at most. The budget for these activities would be determined for the first round (say, the first 10 years), and renewed before every next round. This budget should be incorporated routinely in the government regular budget.
Second, the Central Administration of Statistics should be strengthened, not only in terms of operational financial resources, but also in terms of the proper expertise to undertake the variety of technical tasks such a plan would require.
Finally, the statistical plan needs to be developed, periodically updated and coordinated across sectors by an independent body, a High Commission for Statistics, which has the cross sectoral authority to do this task. Such a high commission would also give this activity the administrative and political importance it deserves.
Riad Tabbarah is a former ambassador of Lebanon to the United States.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on January 24, 2017, on page 7.