How many Egyptians are there? Do they have enough hospitals and doctors to serve them? How many kilometers of paved roads cover the country? How many children will start school next year?

National statistics are the foundation of government policy and planning. But the quality of Egypt's statistical data is so poor that officials are in many cases driving blindfolded, a government think tank says.

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"Information Gaps in Egyptian Statistics and the Quality of Basic Data," a report released by the Egyptian Cabinet Information and Decision Support Center (IDSC), argues that policy makers are unable to use locally published data to analyze and devise social and economic policies.

"We asked researchers, businessmen and decision makers whether the information they receive suits their needs," Muhammad Ramadan, executive director of IDSC, told The Media Line. "The producers of statistics always say there is no problem, but clearly there is."

Egypt is ruled by a sprawling bureaucracy organized in 37 ministries and scores more agencies, but the armies of officials often fail to deliver on basic services. The World Economic Forum annual competitiveness report ranks Egypt 79th among 139 countries worldwide for excessive regulation and 68th for government transparency.

The report’s authors questioned 51 local experts in fields such as economics, management and statistics working in both the private and government sectors. It was the first time anyone questioned the users of statistical information, rather than the people who produce them.

The experts criticized not only the low quality of available data, but also the legal and bureaucratic difficulties in obtaining official information.

The information gap in Egypt runs very deep indeed. According to the report, no reliable data exist on Egypt's population; with some government studies claiming there are as few as 80 million and others estimating it at 85 million. The World Bank, for instance, claims that Egypt's population is 83 million, while the United Nations World Health Organization puts it at just under 77 million.  

The Egyptian health sector seems to be a statistical black hole. No reliable information exists on the spread of disease throughout the country, on the prevalence of public health risks such as AIDS, or the effectiveness of government-funded health services, the report notes.

In many cases, experts must rely on data provided by international organizations such as the UN, since official Egyptian statistics are often kept from the public on national security grounds. Sometimes, government clerks demand exorbitant amounts of money for disclosing information, the report said.

"We believe in evidence-based policy making," Muhammad Ramadan told the Media Line. "Without reliable information, it is impossible to make good decisions."

The new report revealed three major information deficiencies: it is often out of date, its quality is low and the public has limited access to it. 

"We should treat information production as any other industry," Ramadan said. "The number of companies producing statistics in Egypt is very small. Government should encourage the private sector and universities to produce more statistics."

Walid Kazziha, a political scientist at the American University in Cairo, said he wasn’t surprised by the finding, which he said indicated a deep-rooted cultural problem.

"Egyptian society is in a deep crisis," Kazziha told The Media Line. "Having a government without statistics means we could end up with a semi-failed state."

Kazziha said government policies were often flawed, not only because of bad data but also because people don’t provide reliable information to government survey takers. He added that Egyptians didn’t give much weight to statistical information.

"People need to become more responsible," he said. "They need a sense of purpose and more satisfaction with their job. We don't have this in Egypt right now."

However, not all sectors in Egypt suffered from information deficiency, Kazziha said.

"The security apparatus seams to be very aware and alert," he said. "I don't think we're going to have a 9/11 in Egypt."               

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