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Leader of the Opposition wrong, misleading on SVG’s Human Development Ranking

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16.NOV.10

EDITOR: I crave the indulgence of your publication to allow me the space for a comprehensive analysis of St. Vincent and the Grenadines’ absence from the United Nations’ 2010 Human Development Index.

With General Elections in the air and Vincentians of all persuasions girding themselves for the so-called “silly season” of electoral posturing, opportunistic politicians are often forgiven for taking some poetic and political license with the facts as they compete for voter favour.{{more}} However, even by this relaxed standard, I am compelled to respond in a fulsome manner to recent comments attributed to the Honourable Leader of the Opposition on the issue of St. Vincent and the Grenadines’ (SVG) absence from the latest issue of the United Nations’ Human Development Index (HDI).

The comments attributed to the Hon. Leader of the Opposition were false, misleading, and demonstrated a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of the Human Development Index, and the manner in which countries are assessed and the relevant data are gathered.

Reputable reports indicate that the Hon. Leader of the Opposition had much to say about the fact that SVG was not included in the 2010 issue of the United Nations’ annual Human Development Report. (The Report is available online at: http://hdr.undp.org/en/)

The Hon. Leader of the Opposition is reported to have stated that SVG’s absence on this year’s list is a “disgrace to the country,” and that “it’s as if we don’t exist as a people, as a country.” He reportedly went on to attribute SVG’s absence to his assertion that the United Nations “can’t even accept the information we have sent and they deem it unreliable and now we are off the index.” The Hon. Leader of the Opposition also asserted that Prime Minister Gonsalves “just went to the United Nations and tell them how well we are doing. But they don’t believe them (government officials),” hence, apparently, our non-inclusion on the HDI. He reportedly went on to say that “it is a day of shame … when our country has been brought to the point where the United Nations Development Index says what we [are] telling them, that information we [are] giving them, is unreliable.” He also suggested that, based on his analysis of past Reports, SVG is “worse off under Ralph Gonsalves than when it was under the New Democratic Party.” Further, and predictably, the Hon. Leader of the Opposition reportedly claimed that “We gotta wait for the NDP to come back there to go back on the list.”

Each of these reported assertions by the Hon. Leader of the Opposition is false.

I. UN EXPLANATION

Just as the Human Development Report is available online, so too is the United Nations’ (UN) explanation for why St. Vincent and the Grenadines is not included in the list this year. The UN’s 5-page analysis of SVG’s human development indices can be viewed at (http://hdrstats.undp.org/images/explanations/VCT.pdf).

So, the first of the Hon. Leader of the Opposition’s falsehoods is immediately exposed: If we “don’t exist as a people,” why would the United Nations Development Programme devote five pages to explaining SVG’s development data?

According to the UN, “this year’s Report introduces three new composite indices on an experimental basis.” The reason that SVG – and all other OECS countries – were left off the list is due to missing data used by the UN to measure these new experimental indices.

If the Hon. Leader of the Opposition had taken time to read the UN’s Report properly, he would have seen that the main reason that SVG was not included from the report was that the UN “lacks data on [SVG’s] mean years of schooling from our primary source – Barro and Lee.”

Allow me to explain: A key component of the UN’s new experimental indices is measurement of education data. The UN does not get this data directly from the countries themselves, but from an annual document produced by two noted scholars, Professor Robert Barro of Harvard University and Dr. Jong-Wha Lee of the Asian Development Bank. (Their website, and their annual document, are available at www.barrolee.com). Barro and Lee, in turn, don’t get their data directly from the countries either. They make mathematical estimates on education, based on data “collected from census/survey information, as compiled by UNESCO, Eurostat, and other sources.”

This year, the Barro and Lee document did not include estimates for any of the OECS countries. Since Barro and Lee was the UN’s “primary source” for certain education data, it was impossible for the UN to calculate the new experimental indices that would have allowed OECS countries to appear on this year’s list.

So, the second of the Hon. Leader of the Opposition’s falsehoods is laid bare: SVG’s absence from this year’s list has nothing to do with his claim that the UN does not believe the Hon. Prime Minister’s information about our national progress. Instead, it is simply because two scholars did not provide estimates for our levels of education.

As the Hon. Leader of the Opposition is well aware, SVG has made tremendous strides in educational access over the last 10 years. This indisputable progress would have enhanced our development ranking considerably. I certainly hope that Professor Barro and Dr. Lee utilize this impressive and enviable data in their future estimates.

II. PROGRESS ON ALL INDICATORS

Far from the Hon. Leader of the Opposition’s reported claim that Vincentians “are worse off under Ralph Gonsalves than when it was under the New Democratic Party,” the UN stated that “a review of trends in Saint Vincent and the Grenadines’s income, health and expected years of schooling indicators shows that the country has made progress on all three indicators.” According to the UN, “between 1980 and 2010, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines’ GNI [Gross National Income] per capita increased by nearly 200 per cent.” That 200% increase was the largest reported for any OECS country over a similar time period.

The Hon. Leader of the Opposition reportedly made many references to the Hon. Prime Minister’s recent speech to the United Nations, which detailed SVG’s progress towards achieving the Millennium Development Goals. The Hon. Leader of the Opposition seemed to suggest that the UN did not believe the Hon. Prime Minister’s claims. However, the UN has plainly recognised, in black and white, the progress achieved by SVG in all of the categories for which it has current data.

When the Hon. Prime Minister visited the United Nations in September, he specifically mentioned SVG’s progress in education, poverty reduction, HIV/AIDS, infant mortality, potable water and Internet connectivity. Not one of these areas of progress has been challenged or questioned by the UN Report or by its explanation for SVG’s absence from this year’s list.

III. OECS COUNTRIES NOT INCLUDED THIS YEAR

As indicated above, none of the six independent countries of the OECS are included on this year’s UN list. Those six OECS countries form part of the 24 countries that were not included on this year’s list for various reasons.

Because of Barro and Lee’s neglect of the OECS, none of those countries are on the list this year. If one compares the UN explanations for the other OECS countries, it becomes clear that the missing data is identical to SVG’s in all cases. (Some OECS countries also had additional missing data. Grenada, for example, did not provide “labour force participation rate” broken down by gender).

So, the third of the Hon. Leader of the Opposition’s falsehoods is disproved: SVG’s exclusion had nothing to do with anything Dr. Ralph Gonsalves did or did not say. The omission of SVG was part of the wider omission of the OECS. Unless the Hon. Leader of the Opposition is suggesting that Dr. Gonsalves’ statement to the UN – by itself – resulted in the exclusion of the entire OECS from the Report, I am at a loss to understand the reported assertion that “We gotta wait for the NDP to come back there to go back on the list.”

Since the publication of the UN’s Report, I have not read reports of any other OECS politicians making claims similar to the reckless assertions by our Hon. Leader of the Opposition. Whether his statements were made in ignorance or malice, I find them most regrettable.

IV. NATIONAL DATA INTEGRITY

The new, experimental indices used this year by the UN are part of a wider effort to make development data more up-to-date and meaningful. As the UN stated, “past reports . . . presented the [Human Development Index] on a two year time lag.” Many countries have complained that the UN data was outdated. In our own context, for example, recent UN Reports listed our secondary school enrollment in the 50-55% range, when the modern reality is much closer to 100% enrollment. Within the UN, large developing countries, most notably Brazil, have complained for years about the accuracy and timeliness of the UN’s development data. These large countries have made a fundamental point: How will we assess our achievement of the Millennium Development Goals at the 2015 deadline, if all the data in the UN’s possession is at least two years out of date?

If the Hon. Leader of the Opposition had taken the time to read the entire 236-page Human Development Report, instead of just scanning the Index, he would have learned that the Report “is primarily a user, not a producer, of statistics. It relies on international data agencies with the mandate, resources and expertise to collect and compile international data on specific indicators.” (page 137). As such, can he seriously suggest that the Human Development Index considered and rejected claims by the Hon. Prime Minister? No. The Report gets its data from “international data agencies.”

Further, on page 138 of the Report, the UN clearly states that “In some cases international data series may not incorporate the most recent national data. All these factors can lead to substantial differences between national and international estimates. . . . [The Report] continues to advocate for improving international data and actively supports efforts to enhance data quality.” Plainly, the Report is not the definitive authority that the Hon. Leader of the Opposition wants it to be. It recognises that international estimates may not incorporate the latest national data. Does that mean the national data is wrong? No. It simply reflects the time lag involved when a single agency tries to compile data for 192 different countries.

V. COMPARISONS FROM ONE YEAR TO THE NEXT

Reputable reports also indicate that the Hon. Leader of the Opposition claimed that SVG was ranked in the mid-70s developmentally under the NDP, while last year’s ranking had our country listed at 91 out of 194 states and territories. The Hon. Leader of the Opposition apparently suggested that this reflected a developmental decline under the ULP administration.

Let us set aside, for the moment, the fact that some significant developmental data relating to SVG are out of date and/or inaccurate (as explained above), and that our tremendous educational advancements have not been adequately reflected. The very act of comparing a pre-2001 ranking with a 2009 ranking is misleading and disingenuous.

According to the UN itself: “it is misleading and inappropriate to compare values and rankings across published reports, because the underlying data and methods have changed.”

The UN Report goes further. On page 138 of the document, it says: “International data agencies continually improve their data series, including periodically updating historical data. The year-to-year changes in the HDI [Human Development Index] values and rankings across editions of the Report often reflect these revisions to data rather than real changes in a country. In addition, occasional changes in country coverage can affect the HDI ranking of a country. Thus, for example, a country’s HDI rank could drop considerably between two consecutive Reports, but when comparable revised data are used to reconstruct the HDI, the HDI rank and value may actually show an improvement.”

Thus, the last of the Hon. Leader of the Opposition’s falsehoods is upended: It is “misleading and inappropriate” to compare the ranking of one year to the ranking in another year, let alone between one decade and another. Rather, one should look at the trends. And as the UN itself said, SVG has made progress on all indicators for which data was available.

VI. A PATTERN OF FALSEHOODS BY THE HON. LEADER OF THE OPPOSITION

These latest reported utterances attributed to the Hon. Leader of the Opposition demonstrate a troubling continuation of his apparent inability to speak accurately on issues related to the United Nations, international affairs, or multilateral diplomacy. I recall, for example, that earlier this year, the Hon. Leader of the Opposition made the blatantly false assertion that SVG could not be a candidate for the Security Council while simultaneously recognising Taiwan, because – as he put it – “China has a veto” over which countries could enter the Security Council! The Hon. Leader of the Opposition then used this naked falsehood to inaccurately imply that SVG was on the eve of renouncing its recognition of Taiwan.

It is clear today that the Hon. Leader of the Opposition has not absorbed a key lesson from that earlier blunder, namely that his false or reckless statements about international matters can potentially damage the standing of St. Vincent and the Grenadines in the international community, and its relationships with friends and partners.

The Hon. Leader of the Opposition’s claims that data regarding our national development is false or not believable can potentially damage our standing in the United Nations, and with donors, development partners and international financial institutions. It is a serious claim to make, and made all the more serious by the fact that it is blatantly false, inappropriate and misleading.

Even at the height of the so-called “silly season,” it is important that mature politicians refrain from inflicting long-term damage to the international image of SVG in the pursuit of the short-term excitement of the political platform. The office of the Leader of the Opposition is endowed with a Constitutional legitimacy that carries with it a responsibility to be factually accurate on matters of national importance; and an expectation of veracity in international affairs.

As such, in these and in similar matters, I would respectfully encourage the Hon. Leader of the Opposition to utilize the services of his taxpayer-funded Research Officer to verify the accuracy of his underlying facts before making such statements.

Camillo M. Gonsalves
Permanent Representative
Mission of St. Vincent and the Grenadines to the United Nations
[email protected]

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