Chilean president accused of cooking poverty data

No one can deny that President Sebastian Pinera has made real efforts to combat poverty, fostering job creation.

Santiago (Chile): The Chilean president`s efforts to squeeze political advantage from his campaign to reduce poverty have backfired, opening him up to accusations that he distorted statistics to show progress on a campaign promise.

No one can deny that President Sebastian Pinera has made real efforts to combat poverty, fostering job creation and providing cash handouts to the poorest Chileans.

But his claim that his government has lifted one of every four people out of extreme poverty led to an embarrassing clash with a prestigious UN agency, which publicly distanced itself from the government`s numbers. Doubts grew as well because officials let 49 days pass before explaining on Friday how they calculated the figures for the once-every-three-years household income survey.

Pinera himself had ratcheted up the pressure in May when he reiterated his campaign promise to defeat extreme poverty before he leaves office in 2014.

And so when the preliminary numbers arrived in July, he made them a cause for celebration. Presenting charts and graphics, he said that extreme poverty had dropped from 3.7 per cent in 2009 to 2.8 per cent in 2011 and that overall poverty had fallen from a stubborn 15.1 per cent to 14.4 per cent of Chile`s 16.5 million people.

"It`s very good news," Pinera said then.

He was still celebrating weeks later, claiming the numbers show he turned around a country in decline. "I know that it bothers some that a center-right government shows advances in things like equality of opportunity (and) the fight against poverty," he told a group of small business owners.

But Pinera spent much of the Chilean winter trying to fend off questions from economists, congressmen and reporters about how reliable the statistics were.

Pinera and his backers insisted the numbers were certified by the United Nations` Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, a prestigious organization that has been helping Chile`s social development ministry crunch its statistics since 1987. The Santiago-based commission does this for no other country, and its stamp of approval has been a major confidence-builder for investors in a region as volatile as Latin America.

"The great guarantor of the data is ECLAC, an institution respected by all," Social Development Minister Joaquin Lavin said as suspicions mounted.

But the technical details finally released Friday night said the error margin was 0.8 percentage point. In other words, rigorous mathematicians would insist that the gains he`s been boasting about for weeks are statistically insignificant.


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