Behind the News: Poverty and the truth

Not too long ago, in fact, in June 2016 to be exact, the Attorney-General and Minister for Economy, Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum said the Fijian economy, on the back of unprecedented economic growth, was in a very good position compared to what it was 10 years prior.

He made that bold statement while speaking at the Pacific Leadership Programme at Kaunikuila House in Flagstaff, Suva, adding that the country’s poverty level had dropped by a little more than three per cent. “…We have done it by way of having targeted assistance to people below a particular income level,” he said, among other things.

Since then the government has been reiterating the same “unprecedented growth” achievement, even on the floors of Parliament when attacked for the country’s burgeoning national debt.

But many outside government, including opposition parties and those in civil society, have for some time believed otherwise.

They generally agree that those in authority have simply been glossing over the truth — that Fiji was a financial mess and poverty was rife.

An Opposition MP, Salote Radrodro, once described the situation as a “waffling attempt at justifying ineptitude”.

She pointed out that the government was strong in “warmed-over servings of the usual platter of promises”, but as a framework for the way forward, “it failed miserably to address any of the major issues facing Fiji today”.

Then came 2020, and together with the catastrophic COVID-19 pandemic that continues to plague the world with mind-boggling tenacity.

Fiji’s financial woes were exposed more, beyond politicians’ capacity to conceal its disturbing shape.

Now, Fiji’s government debt stock stands at over $8 billion.

By the way things go, it is expected to reach around F$9 billion by 2022.

Our exacerbating financial burdens have reached a point that no amount of optimism from the government can easily sway opposition politicians and certain sectors of civil society, away from feeling Fiji is in a dire straight.

News in the media of snowballing unemployment numbers, poverty, basic food prices, reduced wages and stalled work hours illustrate the struggle many Fijians have to encounter.

This week, talk on the country’s poverty situation spread like wildfire following the release of the Fiji Bureau of Statistics’ 2019-2020 Household Income and Expenditure Survey (HIES).

It mentioned that 258,053 of Fiji’s total population of 864, 132 were living in poverty, with another 129,313 classified as near-poor who could fall into the absolutely poverty category.

Among the poorest were iTaukei and Christians. In its response, the government questioned the survey’s reliability, saying its data on ethnicity and religion was based on a flawed system.

As a result, an expensive nationwide exercise that has been going on for years and its concluding insights are now being dammed. But that wasn’t all.

Less than 24 hours after the survey findings were released, Fiji’s Bureau of Statistics CEO, Kemueli Naiqama was sacked for breach of Section 5 of the Statistics Act 1961.

Mr Naiqama’s misdeed was collecting and announcing ethnic and religious data while conducting surveys, which according to the government was against its policy.

“By exceeding the scope of data collection and ignoring fact-based methodology, Mr Naiqama breached the terms of his contract with the ministry,” Mr Sayed-Khaiyum explained.

News of Mr Naiqama’s firing launched a fierce public outcry, similar in magnitude to the fuss surrounding the controversial Bill No.17 that was sneaked into Parliament in July.

Experts say nothing was wrong with the HIES methodology and the use of demographics such as ethnicity was common. Political parties agree the government wants to hide the truth and had acted unjustifiably.

A political activist, Shamima Ali, condemned the “undemocratic style of leadership” espoused by the government and has again called for the A-G’s resignation.

The government had stated once, its intention of building a smarter Fiji, a future where knowledge would be the foundation for discussion, discourse and resource allocation.

The swift termination of Mr Naiqama and the government’s distrust in the HIES brings that statement and the government’s disciplinary process, if any, into disrepute.

If anything, the survey findings on ethnic and religious demographics would have been a gainful tool for debate, designing appropriate intervention strategies and influencing policy direction.

The uproar over the recent sacking showed a huge section of society believes the government did not institute disciplinary action fairly and equitably through a transparent process that the Fijian civil service should uphold.

It also shows the general dissatisfaction with authority in the manner it treated a senior civil servant and doubted its own data bureau.

Furthermore, it brings back vivid recollections of how University of the South Pacific Vice-Chancellor, Professor Pal Ahluwalia was unceremoniously removed from his home with his wife and deported in February this year.

That deportation and the ensuing conflict between the government and the USP Council continue to apply strain on the relationship between Fiji and other countries of the region who jointly own the university.

The government owes USP close to $60m in grants.

In its August sitting, Parliament heard the government’s decision to withhold its funding assistance to USP because it “does not accept Ahluwalia as the vice-chancellor”.

This was despite the fact that he was reappointed by the council as a VC after his deportation.

The USP Staff Association supports the university council’s appointment and has joined others in criticising the government.

Last week we learned from various media outlets some of the reasons that may have sparked the USP VC and government debacle in the fi rst place. These were highlighted through a tabled report in Nauru’s Parliament.

Back to the HIES issue. The government’s action this week, like many other unpopular decisions made over the past months and years, and the audacity with which it punishes dissidents, demonstrate it will not give in easily to people’s whims.

This is a stark contrast to the genuine brand of democracy it professes to engender and support.

And as we move closer to 2022, the year in which Fiji’s democracy will demand its citizens to choose an alternative government, the government’s unwillingness to listen, reach rational compromises, tolerate opposing viewpoints and treat people with the dignity they deserve, may come back to haunt it.

Only time will tell.

Before I end, please continue to observe COVID-19 safety and hygiene protocols — wear your mask when you leave home, wash your hands regularly with soap or an alcoholbased hand sanitiser and practise social-distancing rules.

Until we meet on this same page at the same time next week, stay blessed, stay healthy and stay safe.