Tuesday, 16 February 2016

Fete Over, Back to Work

The following was first published on February 11, 2016 in the Trinidad and Tobago Guardian newspaper.

Few occasions call for reprising of the late George Chambers’ famous admonition to return to work after the fete than this post-Carnival season, sadly destined for assured relapse at the onset of Easter.

Whether we like it or not (and there is evidence that we collectively don’t), the business of achieving and maintaining an even keel calls for an urgent downing of Carnival arms – whatever its perceived and in my view, mythical, value in easing the pains and tensions of the real world.

It might be that someone would finally do the honest mathematics to disaggregate temporal emotional gain from the real value of the creative products generated by the event. But that is work yet to be done.

But where do we begin? Let me have a shot at that.

It is my view, that one of the defining features of countries focused on development is a commitment to understanding the true nature of the challenges that confront them. This calls for a preference for statistics over superstition and for facts over fairytales.

Among the people who understand this best are those who occupy space in the worlds of business and applied science. The wise businessman or woman delivers goods and services to markets in which there is measurable and affirmed demand at prices that are competitive, while the civil engineer calculates the thickness of the steel required to bear the weight of the largest trucks along the bridges he designs.

Miscalculations related to market size and demand or the true strength of the bridge can yield disastrous results.

In real-world journalism training, to cite one other area in which the employing of science is being encouraged – as opposed to guessing, obeah and mere intuition – there is now an insistence on adopting standards related to what is now known as data journalism, but what has always been described as the “journalism of verification”.

It does not mean that journalists suddenly become scientists or researchers in the classical sense, but that they become more aware of the distinction between provable fact and speculation and accord them due recognition and treatment in their stories.

In countries such as ours that rely heavily on intuition, guesswork and tribal favouritism in the framing of public policy and action there is always the tendency to eschew science in favour of popular wisdom. For example, international research on the contribution of all forms of corporal punishment to the use of violence as a means of addressing conflict is ignored in favour of the pronouncement that “I get beat and I didn’t come out that bad.”

On the base of such an assertion, I would assume that (among other things) a survey of prison inmates at Port of Spain, Golden Grove and Carrera would find, as a corollary to this argument, that the vast majority of violent criminal offenders had once been “spoilt children” who had been spared the rod. But, I am only guessing. Perhaps the work of a clever UWI post-graduate student is sealed away somewhere with the information we need to deliver a judgment.  
The fete is over
There is also research elsewhere which suggests that the death penalty does not produce a deterrent effect on the incidence of homicide. Yet, with each perceived “crime wave” comes the “hang dem high” posse, led by politicians in power intent on riding the wave of public opinion based on questionable assumptions. If the rationale is revenge, then there can probably be another discussion.

Enter now the National Statistical Institute (NSI), out of the ashes of the Central Statistical Office (CSO). If there is one institution that is an absolute pre-requisite to the shaping of public policy it would be the CSO under any new name given to it - an agency that has, over the years, housed some of the country’s finest public servants.

Hopefully, the NSI will be assigned responsibility for data-driven research on a much wider scale than currently applies. There is nothing more compelling than the disintegration of the CSO over the years to prove the point that public policy is very frequently developed in the absence of hard information.

Having moderated just two of the current series of public consultations on local government reform, it seems clear to me that the design of a new framework in this important area of governance must be deeply rooted in a much better understanding of the stock of human and other assets available in the several districts and regions. Such knowledge would help address fears linked to social and economic anomalies in the assigning of fiscal responsibilities. The question has arisen time and again at the consultations.

The Centre for Language Learning (CLL) also recently launched preliminary work on the mapping of foreign language usage in T&T and its director, Dr Beverly-Anne Carter, has urged that an audit of language competencies be included as part of the next national census exercise. The CLL’s finding that as many as 40 languages are used in households throughout the country is an astounding revelation with implications for the manner in which we engage the rest of the world in the spheres of business, commerce and foreign policy.

As I have said before, though, the politicians need to allow the professionals to do their work. The seminal achievement of the CSO in developing the Human Development Atlas of 2012, including vital data on citizen security provided by the Crime and Problem Analysis Unit (CAPA) of the Police Service, proved that the agency, once provided with the resources and with politicians out of the way, is capable of producing high-quality, reliable work.

During the course of one journalistic assignment that spanned close to two years, I had to rely heavily on social and economic data provided by the CSO and by the Central Bank. Regular dispatches from the Central Bank, via its Repo Rate announcements in particular, provided very decent, basic information while the CSO staff were always willing to offer clarification and verification to the extent bureaucratically possible.

I am yet to receive an explanation as to why my name eventually slipped off the Bank’s mailing list, but thankfully the assignment had by then ended and the requirement of very specific data was no longer as urgent as it was before. Sourly, I noted then the bottoming out of a descent occasioned by politically-inspired mayhem.

It should have taken much less than a Moody’s downgrade in 2015 to signal to policymakers the importance of national statistics as the bedrock of official decision-making. The shameful “recession” debate was rooted in routine negligence related to official use of facts and data and an absence of public, and in some regards journalistic, vigilance.

Now that the fete is over and we are back to work (for the time being), what happens to the CSO/NSI remains a much more urgent headline in my book than the points earned by the Band of the Year.

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