SANTIAGO — The fallout from the failed 2012 population census in Chile is huge, even though the country has yet to grasp its full impact. A recent report from an investigating committee advises that the results shouldn’t be used for official figures, and recommends that the census be repeated correctly in 2015.
Though the government characterized it as “the best census in the history of Chile,” it left almost 10% of the country’s inhabitants (more than a million people) unaccounted for. The number of errors was so high that, when the National Institute of Statistics (INE) started to process the data, the professionals tasked with producing the results immediately voiced their complaints. Their dissatisfaction reached the ears of the press, and the scandal has snowballed ever since.
INE’s director was forced to resign, and was subsequently appointed to the investigating committee that has advised the country to start the whole process all over again, throwing the results of the 2012 census — which cost $33 million — out with the garbage.
In practical terms, this means that Chile has no official population figures for the time being. When it comes to budget allocations that are assigned proportionally according to regional, provincial or municipality population, estimated figures will have to be used based on updated versions of the 2002 census. What’s more, there will have to be some agreement on which estimates to use.
The census catastrophe also means that Chile’s per capita income is completely unknown. If actual population figures matched those from the disputed 2012 census, per capita income would be hovering around the $20,000 mark. If, however, the real population is closer to pre-census predictions, per capita income of $18,000 would be more accurate.
The significance of a census that provides unsound information is clear: If a country uses these erroneous figures to assign resources, it will do so incorrectly. But in Chile’s case, the national disaster that is the 2012 census will have much more serious consequences. At a local level, it calls into question all the INE’s figures, such as inflation and unemployment rates. And internationally, it throws a veil of mistrust over all the country’s data.
Within Latin America, Chile has traditionally been seen as a trustworthy country with solid institutions, a stable regulatory framework and meticulous national accounting. Its statistics have always been, as far back as most can remember, one of the pillars upon which this reputation of stability was based.
As statisticians well know, statistics require an act of faith or, in the best-case scenario, social consensus. The methodology is defined, the steps carried out, and the result delivered as an approximation accompanied by established margins of error. And society accepts that result because it trusts that proper methodology has been used and the investigations have been carried out in the best way possible. There are inevitably inaccuracies in population figures, unemployment and poverty rates, and inflation, but society agrees to use the figures available because it trusts that as inaccurate as they may be, there are no better ones available.
That social consensus has been shattered in Chile. And, tragically, it was shattered not because the INE tried to alter the statistics to give Chilean President Sebastian Piñera’s government a political advantage — nothing of the sort. Instead, Chile lost its credibility because, in an act of arrogance, INE authorities decided that the methodology used for previous censuses was faulty and changed to what they supposed would be a better one.
But the outcome of the so-called best census in Chile’s history has been a loss of faith in the national statistics, which at the end of the day amounts to a loss of faith in Chile.
To regain its credibility at this stage of the game, the only option left to Chile is to eat some serious humble pie, throw the results of its 2012 census away, and redo it all over again.