Altruism by the numb3rs

Gerry Ewert gets good use out of his suitcase and his calculator. Born in Saskatchewan, the retiring director of the Yukon bureau of statistics grew…

Gerry Ewert gets good use out of his suitcase and his calculator.

Born in Saskatchewan, the retiring director of the Yukon bureau of statistics grew up in Kenya while his parents were teachers, attending boarding school and finishing his high school courses by correspondence.

He went back to the country in 1967 to teach school at age 20.

The experiences rooted in him two complimentary drives: wanderlust, and a desire to combine morality with effectiveness into government policy.

Between his day job inside the Yukon bureaucracy — and before that, within Alberta’s government — Ewert has moonlighted as an international development consultant, helping Nigeria, Lesotho and Egypt create education and poverty strategies.

He has worked with the World Trade Organization, written articles on international development, education and poverty, and recently took a two-year leave from his stats job to help Indonesia decentralize power from its military-dictatorship tradition.

“I have an eclectic background,” he says, modestly.

As he prepares for his last day at work as director of stats on November 24, Ewert is looking forward to a few days off, but also to doing more international work, he says.

“My interest is, and my selection of projects is predicated on whether or not at the end of it I can see an impact that at least some person’s life is going to be better,” he says.

“There’s some places you can pump money until you’re blue in the face and it’s not going to change a damn thing.

“Mathematically you should be able to determine that.”

Like Robert McNamara, the genius statistician who became president of Ford, US Secretary of Defence and later, head of the World Bank, Ewert sees social problems differently than most.

Instead of being insurmountable or beyond control, Ewert, 59, sees issues as an assemblage of parts that must first be understood before the problem itself can be tackled.

Considering McNamara’s links with the Vietnam War debacle and Third World debt, however, Ewert doesn’t quite appreciate the comparison.

“I don’t know if I’m a McNamara type, because I would never design the World Bank,” he says, raising an eyebrow.

“But, yeah, by and large we know enough, if we were just to ask the right questions.

“We have all the capacity in the world to solve any damn problem that confronts us if we just get rid of the preconceptions that we have about how the world works, take an honest look at the situation, and fundamentally understand that cultural differences are really important.”

Reduced to a formula, the approach goes something like this: “What is it we need to know in order to figure out what it is we have to know,” he says.

Ewert graduated from the University of Alberta in Edmonton with an honours psychology degree in 1971.

He has collected four more degrees since, including a doctorate and masters from Harvard, and a masters from the U of A.

While in school, Ewert found a job as an intern in Alberta’s education bureaucracy.

And surprisingly, he says, he liked what he saw.

“I found it fascinating. Academic politics was sloppy and messy. But I watched these guys in government, and because I was hired as an intern, I got to sit in meetings that I probably should never have been in,” he says.

“They were terribly smooth, but very smart, and very intelligent in how they did things.

“I was absolutely impressed with the quality of people I saw. I wanted to learn how to do what they did; it was just amazing.”

During his time in Alberta, the government created a planning secretariat.

There, Ewert and other sharp thinkers crafted economic and social policies and force-fed them to departments.

“It was a wonderful time to be in government. You could do anything.”

His love of crafting policy and addressing problems logically was born.

Ewert left the Alberta government in 1991 for a job in the Yukon.

“I had been watching the Meech Lake debate. And there was this guy, Tony Penikett; I heard him give a speech, and it really impressed me,” says Ewert.

“He had a really good sense of historical context; he had a good sense of what needed to be done. I was looking for a job and the opportunity arose in the Yukon and I thought ‘Sure, why not?’”

After a stint in the territory’s Education department, Ewert became the director of the stats branch in 1995.

He is leaving the job one day before he turns 60.

And he is also leaving behind a legacy of standing up for the Yukon with Statistics Canada.

The federal statistics agency often lumps studies of the Yukon, NWT and Nunavut together, creating studies of “the North” that are misleading and sometimes damaging for the Yukon, says Ewert.

Take the recent StatsCan study about violence rates in the North, which made headlines across the country.

Among other things the study found that people in the three northern territories are three times as likely to experience violence in their lives.

“We’ve got a tight labour market up here,” says Ewert.

“If somebody down south reads that study, do you think they’re going to want to move their family up here?”

But there are other problems that he can’t quite solve when it comes to stats in the Yukon.

“We do an awful lot of different things, but we don’t have a lot of information about the communities,” he says.

“There really hasn’t been enough of a movement or a demand for an ongoing stream of funding to do community-based surveys.

“We cannot tell you, for example, whether the quality of life here is any better or worse than it was five years ago,” he says.

“We don’t have the research evidence to back it up.”

Whoever jumps into Ewert’s shoes as director of the Yukon Bureau of Statistics will have to inherit that fight.

Ewert hopes to be far away, helping a developing country or NGO address problems more effectively.

But he also hopes to work within the cultural context around him, rather than against it, he explains

In the East, “truth” is often not determined by testing, but by religious and government authority.

Western researchers and NGO workers often assume Indonesia and other places are just like the rest of the world, just brown, he says.

That needs to change.

Much of the world “fundamentally thinks differently,” he says.

“A large part of international development aid just goes wasted because it doesn’t attempt to understand the context it’s in.

“Once you understand it, you can start working around it. But then you start running into a moral problem: to what extent do we intervene to change a culture?”

“That’s not a trivial question,” he says.

“In my work, I will actively engage people in that discussion.”