Al-Ahram Weekly Online   28 December 2006 - 3 January 2007
Issue No. 826
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

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Dena Rashed hopes the national census will yield the benefits it promises

photos: Al-Ahram archives and Dena Rashed Click to view caption
Clockwise from top left: Ramadan hoping the remaining resident at Al-Zawya Al-Hamra would open the door; Egyptians are estimated to reach 73 million next January; Salah writing down Badreya's information accompanied by her supervisor photos: Al-Ahram archives and Dena Rashed

As she knocks on the door of a residential flat in the low-income neighbourhood of Al-Zawya Al-Hamra, 20-year-old Asmaa Ramadan looks apprehensive; this is the last such house she must enter to gather information for the national census.

A student of the Higher Academy of Social Service, this is part of her coursework. Along with thousands other students, she is charged with the task of recording the name, educational background, job, social status and, through a new set of questions (number of electronic devices, cars and mobile phones owned by each household), the financial status of a certain number of citizens. But the job has not turned out to be as easy as it sounds.

It was Ramadan's second attempt at approaching this flat, this time in the company of a colleague and a supervisor. The first time, the housewife had literally slammed the door in her face. "I had only said I was 'the census person'," she recounts with a timid smile, "but yelling that she had nothing to say, she just banged the door shut. I was so embarrassed."

Many people who refused to divulge information were thus tracked down and told that they were in fact risking a six-month prison sentence -- since the census is classified as a matter of national security legally requiring the cooperation of all citizens.

Happily, this time, the housewife, an elderly woman in galabiya and headscarf, simply let everyone in, explaining that her husband generally forbids her from opening the door to strangers.

As far as the Central Agency for Public Mobilisation and Statistics (CAPMAS) is concerned, an accurate register is the aim. The first difficult year is over, having yielded comprehensive information about millions of households, but the next year and a half, during which that information will be processed, is an even more daunting prospect.

Founded in 1964 with the mandate of producing and disseminating statistical data on the country and the region to help with planning and decision-making, CAPMAS is in the process of completing Egypt's 13th census; preliminary and final results should be announced in March 2007 and February 2008, respectively. Since the first census in 1882, the population has risen, according to CAPMAS, from 6.5 to 72 million; according to the last, 1996 census, it was estimated at 60 million.

This year the challenge has been to supplement figures with facts, as it were, forming the basis of a nationwide database to be available to public workers. CAPMAS head Abu Bakr El-Guindi, who has held the position for a year and a half, explained that there is an attempt to avoid "the mistakes of the past" and "ensure we won't miss a spot."

To prepare for the 2006 census -- a four-phase process comprising the numbering of roads and blocks (many villages lack streets as such), then that of buildings and enterprises, then determining the nature of the activities undertaken by these, and finally moving onto the actual people taking up each of them -- El-Guindi concluded work begun in 1993 to catalogue CAPMAS publications and bring GIS (Geographic Information System) efficiency to the process of map making, relying on all available sources including Military Survey maps as well as new surveys -- numbering.

As of 2004, the form used was tried out on 75,000 families in nine governorates to determine which questions would yield the most valid information and determine the pace of the work to be done.

Worth noting is the fact that Egypt is working with one of the lowest census budgets worldwide (LE150 million), 80 per cent of which goes to personnel. No more than four out of ten of these are employed directly by CAPMAS, though all have received training there; each recruit like Ramadan earns LE2 per form completed, as opposed to $16 in America and the equivalent of LE6 in Yemen.

Before input, information must be double-checked -- the task of the auditing and supervision department, headed by Mahmoud Megahed who, having contributed to three censuses in the past, developed what he calls "a statistical hunch".

Complete transformation notwithstanding, all parties concerned agree that one thing has not changed since 1882: the difficulty of gathering reliable statistics, whether they involve mere numbers like the 1966 census or some additional facts, like the 1917 census, which included information about sects. The introduction of five levels of supervision as well as training and recollecting information from a random sample to be checked against information already obtained all helped. Such stringency was required because, according to Megahed, "we have dealt with employees who have had no conscience before now."

El-Guindi concedes that coming up with an effective form was the most challenging task. "It took us three and a half years to develop the form we are using now," recounts Ali Shahin, a computing manager at CAPMAS, "which is designed to overcome a most interesting problem. Because it turned out that 15- 20 per cent of our problems had to do with illegible handwriting." Proudly, Shahin explained how software was developed to enable the digitalisation of information, "we were the first country in the Middle East to produce an effective system; delegations from Iraq and Saudi Arabia have since visited with the aim of drawing on our expertise."

The census was widely publicised in the media and the vast majority of people were aware of it. A cleaning lady like Um Abdallah, mother of six, had seen a billboard advertising the census before recruits came knocking on her door. "I answered all their questions," she says, "I thought maybe their finding out about my unemployed son would help them find jobs for people."

Illiteracy was accommodated through school children, who were handed "easy forms" to fill out at home after consulting with their parents -- simply as a means to raising awareness. As El-Guindi explains, these forms were subsequently destroyed, to be replaced by recruits' forms.

"I am aware that there is some distrust between the government and the people," he says, "besides which there is apathy which is rife. We are trying to change that. We tried our best to establish our credibility, stressing the fact that any information gathered was strictly confidential, would not be used by any government institution other than CAPMAS and could not be used in court. An employee proven to have let out information is subject to a six- month prison sentence."

But irrespective of how cooperative people were willing to be, the procedure was far from perfect. Many, like Ahmed Mahmoud, a resident of Haram -- an area where there were complains -- said that no one from the census showed up at their house; even in their absence, Mahmoud added, the doorman would have known. Told that CAPMAS offers a hotline service, another Haram resident, Galal Ahmed, retorted, "why should I have to take the initiative to phone?" People were visited in the period 9am-5pm, and so many were at work when recruits showed up.

Nor were low-income neighbourhoods alone in resisting the census. According to Mohamed Abul-Magd, the Greater Cairo central management director, at least 20 residents of Zamalek, perhaps the highest-income neighbourhood in Cairo, would not cooperate until they were reported to the police.

The reasons behind this vary: sometimes it is lack of time; more often it is simply reluctance to share personal information with strangers.

One supervisor, Salah Mansour, complained that "a female minister" in Zamalek required several visits before she divulged any information, and then, on the pretext of lack of time, refused to answer questions related to financial status. Since then she and her family have been out every time the recruits went back to finish those questions off, but Mansour is determined to be persistent. "Please inform them that we will be back," he told the doorman.

Many not only feared but ridiculed census personnel. According to Ramadan, who dealt with 200 families, the experience was revealing of the Egyptian character: "Egyptians are very funny in general; some people invited us in for tea and a chat, while some mothers tried to set us up with their sons." People were frequently scared of the evil eye, whether it would target their possessions or their children; others were concerned about the taxman.

Ramadan's colleague, Asmaa Salah, says some expressed extreme frustration: "One very poor mother refused to say a word, arguing that since all her children were unemployed and received no help from the government, she saw no reason why she should share information. She kicked me out, that's how frustrated she was. But on seeing her living conditions you can understand."

Happily this was not always the case. As with the old woman who initially dismissed Ramadan, Badreya, people became receptive once they realised the census might actually help resolve their problems. Responding to the supervisor's efforts to put her at her ease -- here too it was Mansour -- Badreya not only gave the required information but spoke of having a 10-year-old grandson, a boy with special needs who had not been accepted at any school.

"There are no schools for people like him in the vicinity," she pleaded, "but I really wish he would learn something."

Mansour was quick to seize the opportunity to explain CAPMAS's mission: "When we write down what you tell us about the condition of your grandson, then we know how many people need help, making it possible for those who are responsible to provide it."

There were problems besides people's reluctance to give information. The female recruits' parents, for example, were initially unhappy with the idea of their daughters knocking on strangers' doors, but since recruits worked within their own neighbourhoods, "Once work started, they got over it soon enough. Many people were actually protective: sometimes they said not to knock on a certain door unless the doorman accompanied them because it was a single man's flat."

Yet another Asmaa, Asmaa Ismail, 21, found the census an eye- opener: dealing with 300 families, she went through numerous first-time experiences: walking a woman, who was late to work to her car, while writing down her information, and conspire with a young man to provide his family's data while his bad-tempered mother was busy. The door was slammed in her face twice, but all in all it was fun: "I thought it was going to be a tough job; it was actually amazing. This work taught me to control my temper, to be articulate and to always find a way out. In the end I think I'm going to miss it."

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