Chair of BPS: I Don`t Mess Around with the Numbers

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  • Central Statistics Agency (BPS) head Suhariyanto (center). Tempo/Fajar Pebrianto

    Central Statistics Agency (BPS) head Suhariyanto (center). Tempo/Fajar Pebrianto

    TEMPO.CO, Jakarta - For the first time in its history, Indonesia has finally nailed a single digit poverty rate. Quoting the results of the latest survey in March, the Central Statistics Agency (BPS) on Monday announced that the number of people living under the poverty line has declined from 26.58 million, or 10.12 percent of the total population, last September to 25.95 million, or 9.82 percent.

    Several factors contributed to these statistics. First, a healthy inflation rate which was maintained at 1.92 percent during the period between September 2017 and March 2018. Meanwhile, the average monthly per capita expenditure among 40 percent of the poorest households grew by 3.06 percent, as the government’s social assistance during the first quarter soared 87.6 percent compared to that of the same period last year, which only increased 3.39 percent. Moreover, the rice welfare and non-cash food aid programs in the first quarter were also right on schedule.

    Nevertheless, the positive news was met with criticism. Some view that the BPS used weak thresholds to define the poverty line. Some even allege that the positive rate was achieved through social assistance by the government seeking a favorable image ahead of the coming legislative and presidential elections.

    Suhariyanto brushed aside assertions that his data were politically motivated. “The BPS tells it like it is,” said the BPS chief, who holds a Ph.D. in agricultural economics from the University of Reading, United Kingdom, during his interview with Tempo in his Central Jakarta office last Wednesday.

    He also told Tempo’s M. Taufiqurohman, Reza Maulana, Angelina Anjar and Nur Alfiyah that the new report was not void of bitter realities, such as the vulnerable position of the population which barely hovers over the poverty line, and the increased Gini ratio in rural areas. The Gini ratio is an income inequality indicator with ‘0’ for perfect income distribution and ‘1’ for absolute income inequality. “This is a serious warning,” reminded the Blitar, East Java, native who is familiarly known as Kecuk.

    What is your rationale for calling 9.82 percent as the lowest poverty rate in Indonesia’s history?

    Because this is the first time we achieved a single digit rate. The BPS began to measure the poverty rate in 1988; however, it was only done once every three years. When the economic crisis hit, the BPS fine-tuned the methodology. So, if we trace it up till now, this is the lowest rate. The highest was in 1999 with 23.43percent, or around 47.97million people. Since then, it declined steadily except in 2006, when the percentage of the poor increased by 4.5 million people due to fuel price hikes.

    What is the most defining factor?

    The distribution of social assistance. The welfare rice (Rastra) program was realized 99.65 percent in January, 99.66 percent in February and 99.62 percent in March, much better compared to the first quarter of 2017. Last year, Pak President was rather stern towards his ministers because BPS data showed that Rastra was not distributed.

    Did the poverty rate increase then?

    It went down 0.06 percent in March 2017. But the number of poor people increased from 27.76 million to 27.77 million. So, when the BPS released the report in July 2017, the President asked, ‘Why, it’s stagnant! What’s the problem?’ I informed him that it was due to the unrealized Rastra program in January, February and March. Since he felt he hadn’t been informed accordingly, he was quite indignant during the cabinet meeting.

    Did President Joko Widodo reproach the BPS in that meeting?

    Not at all. I didn’t feel I was reproached because I didn’t feel I did anything wrong. The warning was in fact directed at the ministers.

    Rumor has it that the President asked the BPS to adjust its surveys in line with the Rastra program.

    That’s not how it went. Since Rastra wasn’t realized, he pointed out that all social assistance must be distributed equally starting in January. BPS surveys are conducted every March and September. It was just a reminder. He didn’t say, for instance, ‘Since BPS surveys are in March, let’s boost the assistance in March.’ Learning from experience, it was improved this year.

    Meaning the timing of the aid distribution was aligned with the BPS survey?

    We conducted the survey in 82 towns, and the government knows that. But they don’t know which communities we would visit, and when we would go there. Let’s say they distributed the Rastra on Monday, and we come to do the survey on Thursday. The prices are already different.

    If the Rastra was distributed before the survey, what are the parameters that show improvement?

    Only the expenditure for rice. Others are not affected. Therefore, the number can’t be fiddled with. We did the poverty survey on 300,000 households that were randomly selected. Only the BPS knows their locations. Even the minister wasn’t informed. We can’t possibly alter the survey at our whim either. 

    Read the full interview in this week's edition of Tempo English Magazine