Having reviewed Lebanon’s 1997 GDP figures, which were recently prepared by the Institut National de la Statistique et des Etudes Economique (INSEE), one cannot resist quoting those who inspire us in awkward times. It was Mark Twain who said: “there are lies, damn lies and statistics.” To which our instant repartee would be: “figures do not lie, but liars figure.” According to the Lebanese government figures, the GDP in 1997 was $14.9 billion. This figure was widely accepted by the IMF, the World Bank and the Lebanese Central Bank. As a matter of fact, the IMF is quoted as one of the main sources of this figure, along with the Central Bank. But, INSEE now tells us that this figure is $15.7 billion, an increase of $800 million, or 5.4% over what we were originally told. Ma’alesh say the Lebanese.

INSEE goes on to declare that the increment is even higher, reaching 20% if we add Lebanese transfers, amounting to $3.5 billion (a figure not yet confirmed by the Central Bank), thus talking about GNDI (Gross National Disposable Income) instead – and giving us a reason to celebrate and borrow. Never mind the fact that INSEE figures clash with the original government estimates. Some examples of the embedded differences include the major decline in the contributions of agriculture and industry to the GDP, as indicated by INSEE (see public sector), as well as the increase in government spending combined with the services sector, which adds up to a total of 70% of the GDP. How productive we are! Ma’alesh say the Lebanese.

To be fair to INSEE, their reporting is as good as the figures they were given. They are working in a country that, by design, does not have a population census, but has plenty of extrapolation experts – which gives us even more reason for worry when the population is 4.1 million according to the Central Administration for Statistics, but 3.5 million according to other sources. Furthermore, a look at the tourism figures shows that if INSEE was given a figure of 557,000 tourists in 1997, with average spending of $1,300 per visit (according to the Ministry of Tourism), they would arrive at a total figure of $724 million, or 4.8% of their estimated GDP figure. However, should they use the World Tourism Organization figure of $700 in average tourist spending per visitor to Lebanon, the total would drop to $390 million, or 2.6% of GDP. This is further exacerbated by the fact that the majority of so-called tourists are not really tourists, but Lebanese visitors who usually stay at their homes or those of their relatives.

We have always known that figures in Lebanon are a matter of opinion, but for those figures to be given international legitimacy by the IMF, the UN or INSEE, causes us to question the validity of those organizations’ work when it comes to Lebanon. INSEE received its marching orders, and it marches well; something the legendary Irfid mission refused to do in the 1960s, despite rumors to the contrary. It is curious how Cartesian logic can be distorted in Lebanon. The country’s inclination to ma’alesh is apparently contagious. Ma’alesh says the world.

Jawad Adra