Fictio Statis

Unreliable numbers, Private Statistics and Economists’ careers in Lebanon (1950-1990)

Although many researches have dealt with the political economy of Lebanon, rarely have they tackled the way statistics and economic information are gathered and constructed in the first instance, despite being in a country notoriously known for having few capacities in this regard. Relying on a French-inspired body of works on statistics (Alain Desrosières) and the recent debate on poor numbers (Morten Jerven), I intend to adopt a different approach and to unfold problems that are widely known among Lebanese economists as part of a daily routine but rarely addressed per se, despite their wide-ranging implications. This research does not focus on the Lebanese economy and does not draw on economy as a discipline, it deals with economy as a form of knowledge, economic indicators as professional practice, economists as a profession, and statistics as a policy. economic indicators as professional practice, economists as a profession, and statistics as a policy.

The first common assumption this work will question is related to the construction of an institutional vacuum of statistical services in the Arab world and what this involved at a broader political level. The rise of national statistics’ services from the 1920s to the 1960s had symbolic value as a way for newly formed states to assert their independence from former colonial powers and to get rid of the colonial imagination with numbers. How come data then became so scarce? The case of Lebanon might seem to stand out at first sight, because the statistics bureau was one of the only public institutions directly targeted at the very beginning of the conflict in 1975. Yet at the same time, data collection services equally crumbled in other Arab countries and without the interference of wars. Today, in most Arab countries the question is not to have “open” or “big” data but reliable data. 

The second less known phenomenon we want to shed light on is that data scarcity has created a new market for statistics, which in turn makes it even more difficult for state actors to produce data. In Lebanon, many economists and statisticians opened their own consulting firms, while banks also set up private research teams. They took the initiative to compile, aggregate, and publish data in place of the state, creating an interplay between data providers, the state, but also international institutions (until today, those private entities are the main data providers international institutions turn to for reliable figures about the country). 

On a whole, the point of this project is not so much to prove the existence of “poor numbers” in the Arab world through the case of Lebanon, or the absence of reliable institutions, but to shed light on the social constructedness of this absence, as well as its substitute, the network of data providers. Lastly, the depiction of how the information they handle is being used is also at stake. In doing so, I will first look at the chain of supply and demand for data about Lebanon—thereby mapping out an arena of providers, consumers, experts, and offices. Secondly, I will analyze how key stakeholders use those numbers on a daily basis.

Methodologically speaking, the key idea is to combine archival work with interviews with key stakeholders that will provide valuable insight into how they made and/or used these documents and figures. I will meet economists and experts who worked under their own name or on behalf of the EU, OECD, IMF, World Bank, in and on Arab countries from the 1970’s until the present. I will also conduct in-depth biographical and informative interviews with Lebanese and Arab economists I have already started to meet over the  years. These economists hold usually a lot of archives that I hope to gain access to (I repeatedly succeeded in doing so for my doctoral research). As such, the frontier between the search for archives and interviews is thin and stands as an interesting methodological challenge in this fieldwork. 

Author: Dr. Pierre France