Datarrhea

“There isn’t a single job description for anyone in government! And as for figures—it’s not that there aren’t figures, but that each ministry, each government body, has a different set of figures! They even have different maps! If you’re lucky, like I was, you have access to the prime minister and you can get hold of either accurate figures, or an agreed-upon compromise of the various sets of figures.”  Egypt: The Hidden Truth, Yasmine El Rashidi, The New York Review of Books

The above perfectly summarises Egypt’s chronic data problem.  Figures on trade, finance, economy and companies are hard to come by and those that are available are often contradicting and difficult to fathom.  Just take one look at the sea of figures below to see what I mean.  These numbers  from the Egyptian central bank show Egypt’s balance of payments, a big indicator of the soundness of the country’s balance sheet (this is only a third of the page).


The country’s data matrix becomes even more undecipherable at Egypt’s main statistics agency, the Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics, or one of many “establishments of a titanic and looming administration”, as El Rashidi writes.  CAPMAS’s office is about the same size as the Mugamma (the Soviet administrative governmental building in downtown Cairo) and aggregates the main data from all the ministries.   An Egyptian businessman who works heavily in trade and bilateral relations between Egypt and other countries, told me that CAPMAS measured the number of cars exported from Egypt by weight, rather than simply by the number of cars.

“They just get the data from other ministries and churn it out; they don’t understand it,” the businessman said.  “I’m sure they just get the piece of paper faxed, copy it and send it back out without reading it or analysing it”.

I recently received four entirely different versions of Egypt’s total exports and imports from three different organisations: the General Authority for Investment (another government sponsored monolith), the central bank and CAPMAS. I decided to stick with UN figures that are universally accepted.

Incoherent data is a much bigger problem for rebuilding Egypt’s economy.  The previous parliament, before it was dissolved, complained of not having access to the same information as the ministries.  I hope the incoming parliament and cabinet does not have this issue, or we could end up with hotchpotch decision making based on a labyrinth of data.




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