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Interview with Keith Mitchell, Prime Minister of Grenada

1 June 2017 No Comment
David Marker

    David Marker, Mary Marker, and Keith Mitchell in the prime minister’s office in Grenada

    Keith Mitchell is the only head of state with a PhD in statistics. After earning his PhD in the 1980s, he worked as a statistician. We worked together at Applied Management Sciences, providing statistical support to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. I left to work at Westat, and he returned home to Grenada after the U.S. invasion in 1984. We met again at the prime minister’s office in Grenada in late February. Below are answers to a few questions I asked him about the intersection of Grenada and statistics in his life.

    What led you to earn a PhD in statistics?

    The basics started when I was in primary school. While I competed well with my peers in most subjects, I was always at the top of the class in arithmetic. This continued into secondary school, where I developed an even greater love for mathematics and all its applications in life.

    While I was studying for my Bachelor of Science degree (at the University of the West Indies) in chemistry and mathematics, I developed a much better sense of mathematics and its role in solving life’s problems, so I decided I wanted to specialize at the post-graduate level in applied mathematics, specifically mathematical statistics.

    Why did you select American University in DC?

    After completing my Master of Science degree in mathematics at Howard University and having decided I wanted to do research in statistics, I applied to various universities with the sole aim of securing a postgraduate scholarship or teaching assistantship. After receiving several offers, the program at American University offered me the best hope of achieving my dream while supporting my family in America and Grenada.

    How did you get involved in politics in Grenada?

    The foundation for getting involved in politics might have been established since I was a child. I was always fond of people, and having come from a very poor background, I was always concerned about unfairness in our society and how little input the ordinary people had in governance of their country. I wanted to make a difference by speaking out against injustices. As a young man, I had a great platform to do so in the classroom, being a teacher at the secondary-school, high-school, and university levels, where I felt I could positively influence the lives and thinking of many young people.

    My active role in sports—cricket in particular—was also a major avenue for influencing social issues in my society. In the early 1970s, a number of my influential friends pleaded with me to take part in the general elections of 1972.

    It was therefore a natural consequence and no surprise when, in 1984, I give up my professional responsibilities in Washington, DC, to answer the call for patriots to help rebuild Grenada after the revolution.

    You are the longest-serving prime minister in Grenada’s history (1995–2008, 2013–present). Has your statistical background been helpful in this role?

    In making decisions that affect the lives of others, it is important that those decisions are made with consideration of correct historical data, proper analyses, and the best conclusions possible.

    My statistical background has helped influence the establishment of a proper and professional statistics department, which can collect, store data on government activities, and analyze them appropriately. Before the establishment of this department, low priority was given to science and data collection when making far-reaching decisions that affect the lives of others.

    You also serve as minister of finance, in which role you oversee your national statistical office. What are the special challenges that confront a statistical office for a small island nation?

    There are many challenges faced by the National Statistical Office (NSO) for a small island nation relative to the production and dissemination of statistics required by decision-makers. These include the following:

    • Limited human and financial resources, reflected in a lack of capacity that affects the quantity and quality of data produced and disseminated.
    • Institutional weaknesses that lead to the inability to keep up with internationally recommended data requirements and standards. For example, a weak IT infrastructure to handle the increasing demands for data, to exploit Big Data while at the same time ensuring data security.
    • Inadequacies in the legal framework, which affect the entire operation of the NSO, including its positioning as a central institution in the National Statistical System (NSS) to exhibit effective guidance of the NSS, technical independence in the performance of its work, and lack of coordination in data sharing for the compilation of statistics across all producing agencies of the NSS.
    • The lack of management and leadership training to effectively address the demands and challenges facing the NSO and NSS in general, which require leadership that can exhibit flexibility and innovation in driving the change process required to improve the production of statistics.
    • Low response rates, especially from establishments, which undermines the quality of critical statistics like GDP and balance of payments. Often, key suppliers do not have the confidence that their data will be treated as confidential, despite the provision in all statistics legislation prohibiting the disclosure of individual-level data.
    • Inadequate user orientation, which affects the relevance of the statistics and the integrity of the systems of statistics produced.

    Who are the most interesting political leaders you have met as prime minister? Any interesting stories about meeting them you wish to share?

    While I have met many interesting political leaders in my more than 30 years in politics, and even before, I must say my top two political personalities are the now deceased Fidel Castro and Nelson Mandela, in that order.

    I was impressed with Fidel from the first moment I met him because it was clear to me he was not the person he was painted to be. I spent many hours with him, and those moments I will always cherish. In my opinion, he was a man who cared deeply about people much more than the propaganda made it out to be. I got into politics because of my love for people and, in him, I saw the same passion for people.

    He was a very interesting man to sit with because he had such wide-ranging interests and knowledge. We spoke at length about politics, his doubts about religion (he never said to me he was not a believer, just that he had his doubts). He was also engaging on my particular passion: sports and mathematics. And he was also very candid in discussing his upbringing and passions and choices in politics, especially his belief in socialism.

    In Nelson Mandela, I admired the simplicity of the man and his human touch and spirit. We first met at the Heads of Government of the Commonwealth meeting in 1997 in Scotland. On meeting him, I could not help but be impressed and inspired, knowing his history and the sacrifices he made personally toward the liberation of his people.

    Do you have suggestions for statisticians interested in going into politics?

    My suggestions here are not only for statisticians, but scientists in general. Politics must be based on logic, so if you want to be involved in governance, your decisions must be based on serious logic, not only on feelings or whims. That’s where statistics come in. Good statistics must be the basis for good governance. You get into politics to improve people’s lives. The only way to do that is to gather information to make informed decisions.

    The statistics generated must be understood in the context of how people’s lives must change. Then you need to adjust policies to ensure you make better decisions. In addressing a lawyer friend in parliament once, a long time ago, I said to him playfully, “My brother, the problem with you guys is that people pay you to create confusion. Those like me, statisticians, they pay us to find solutions.” In politics, it should be the same.

    Grenada is a beautiful island. Please tell ASA members why they should visit.

    I invite everyone to our beautiful country, Pure Grenada, Isle of Spice. Our country is not only aesthetically beautiful—but I assure you will find the friendliest people you have ever met in Grenada.

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