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Egypt’s 2016 census: The data we need

The 2016 census is our opportunity to better understand where and how most Egyptians live.

Egypt will carry out its next census in 2016. The census, conducted by the Central Agency for Population Mobilization and Statistics (CAPMAS), takes place every 10 years and is an expensive and laborious task.

It involves thousands of interviewers visiting every household in Egypt to fill out census forms, which include a basic profile of all household members and housing conditions.

Egypt’s census forms for 2016 have been finalized and as they stand do not indicate whether households live in planned or informal neighborhoods. It’s very important that the forms are modified to allow us to better understand Egypt’s informal areas (ashwa’iyyat).

While there has been some improvement to the official count, around 8 percent of citizens were missing from the 2006 census, according to observers. The census undoubtedly omitted hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people living in informal neighborhoods. These areas, according to the 2006 census, are home to approximately 65 percent of the Greater Cairo’s population, and have grown at six times the speed of planned neighborhoods. Producing these figures is an admirable effort by researchers, who worked hard to find ways around census data, which does not clearly indicate if a neighborhood is planned or informal.

Ezbet al-Haggana, for example, which is a heavily populated informal settlement in Cairo’s eastern district of Nasr City, was listed as housing 39,432 citizens. A quick visit to the area shows how implausible this figure is. Estimates of Ezbet al-Haggana’s residents range from hundreds of thousands to a million inhabitants.

Advanced GIS technology is widely used to capture geographical data, and CAPMAS now has a good GIS unit, which it will hopefully use for the upcoming census.

Today, we have the general story, but we are missing the details. We know Egypt has over 1000 informal neighborhoods, but we do not know exactly how many. We know that Greater Cairo alone has over 100 of these areas, but we do not have a precise figure. We know that they house most of the city’s population, but we don’t know how many people that is exactly. We know that their growth has taken off since the 1970s but we don’t know the rate of change between censuses. We know that they are diverse, that they house the poor as well as the middle classes, but we have no idea in what proportions.

We also know that informal neighborhoods lack educational facilities, but what exactly are the effects of this shortcoming? We might perceive living standards to be lower than that of planned neighborhoods, but to what extent?

You get the point — we don’t have precise data. You can review some of this messy data here

Our best bet for more meaningful data is the 2016 census. If we miss this chance, we have to wait until 2026. Adding just one tick box to the census form, to indicate if the household is located in a planned or informal neighborhood, would make a big difference to our understanding of how people live in informal areas.

For this to happen, a clear definition of these areas is needed. CAPMAS should lead a discussion among urban researchers to develop this. At a very basic level, an informal neighbourhood is one built without an officially approved plan, in which most of the buildings have been erected without permits. Since this could end up including most of Egypt, using clearer definitions could help. For example, a neighbourhood is classified as being informal when 70 percent of its buildings are unplanned. 

For those conducting the census, the decision of whether to tick the planned/informal box should be based on two things: a map from a reliable satellite source such as google earth and a physical visit to the neighbourhood to determine its precise boundaries. Deciding whether a building is in an informal or planned area should, therefore, happen at the building enumeration phase. This is the phase that precedes household interviews. It is where CAPMAS teams count the buildings, number them and make detailed itineraries for their teams conducting the household interview phase. The census enumerators should thus not base such a decision on the household responses they get during their visits, simply because tenants do not necessarily know if they are living in an informal area or not.

More precise data could enable policy makers to make progress in improving people’s living conditions. We might then be able to ascertain where infrastructure and services are lacking, and how many people rent or own their houses. We could then group informal areas into different categories. Neighbourhoods, for example, could be classified as developed, undeveloped and in progress, depending on a combination of their levels of infrastructure, basic services and building legalisation data.

Good baseline data would also enable us to determine how well social policies have addressed some of these issues in 2026, and more about the growth of such areas.

In short, the census could tell us a more precise story that policy makers could use to identify where work needs to be done to raise people’s living standards.

Next year’s census, with a minor adjustment, is our chance to fill these gaps in our knowledge of where and how Egyptians live.

A shorter version of this article first appeared in Arabic in Al-Shorouk newspaper.