If policy-makers are keen on research, they may wish to earmark some of their time for protecting and enabling researchers and for addressing the misguided suspicions of research that pervade the public imagination.
The Survey of Young People in Egypt 2014 and the launch of its reported findings exemplifies this confusion.
The survey was implemented by the Population Council in partnership with the Central Agency for Public Mobilisation and Statistics (CAPMAS) and funded by a broad array of international and bilateral donors that include USAID, UNDP and the Ford Foundation.
While this particular survey was welcomed and celebrated, the difficult conditions under which researchers work and which threatened the survey’s viability were ignored.
The launch, held in a Cairo hotel, was well-attended by an interested audience and by an impressive number of current ministers who committed their precious time to attend this launch. But does their attendance indicate a high regard for research?
Several panelists, including General Abu-Bakr El-Guindy, who heads CAPMAS, Minister of Planning Ashraf El-Arabi, and Anita Nirudi, the UNDP country representative, emphasised the importance of “statistical” research to development and for ensuring that policy-makers are well-informed and so able to implement sound policies and programmes.
The other ministers were also very keen on the findings and their implications. Minister of Youth and Sports Khaled Abdel-Aziz was so keen that he kept interrupting the presenter and challenging the numbers, although not on the basis of any empirical evidence!
The zeal for research findings reached even higher levels when one panelist took the research findings as a “ready-to-implement” list of actions and policies as if data collected is the be all and end all of social reality.
The slight drop in unemployment levels and in sexual harassment, for example, indicates success, while the increased desire for larger families and the low levels of civic engagements are a challenge that is to be placed on the to-do list of the relevant policy-makers.
But how can the world of officials like these numbers so much but ignore the restrictive environment in which this data has been gathered?
How can ministers base their work on evidence and measure their successes by metrics but ignore the research ecology of Egypt?
There are a few unforgettable facts to keep in mind when pondering such a paradox.
For example, the impossibility of getting a research licence, the reluctance of donors to fund research unless it is under the auspices of an official body, the harassment and suspicion faced by researchers in field cites and which can and does translate into confrontations with local security and can even lead to temporary incarceration.
But worst of all is the lack of clarity on what is permissible and what is not.
Locals who, thanks to the flame-fanning zealotry of the media and of political elites are fully aware of the “conspiracies to destroy Egypt” which can take the shape of a research questionnaire, have chased some researchers out of villages and towns.
Rania Roushdy, the principal investigator of this very survey has in a previous conversation said that some of her own enumerators had found it hard to continue their data collection due to such altercations and despite having with them all the correct, stamped proof of identity and other relevant paperwork.
The fact of the matter is that research in Egypt is a crime unless the researchers are “big” coalitions of official agencies and their partners. You have to be big and strong to get the necessary approvals, funding and, above all, protection.
The Survey on Youth is a very important source of information of sound and scientific information. But if policy-makers are serious in their concerns and committed to evidence-based work then it would be nice if they acknowledge that this data will age and atrophy if left without more research that explains its reported trends and findings.
It is incumbent on government to recognise the value of a free and dynamic research environment and to facilitate research in general so as to ensure the viability of its policies and the impact of programmes. Large statistical surveys are expensive and few.
Qualitative, archival, and action-oriented research are all equally relevant to policy and need the support of forward-looking politicians and executives.
Sharing research findings and reaching a broad readership is the most effective and affordable process by which quality is assured and accountability is established.
Rather than restricting researchers, the state would do well to encourage publication and dissemination and have readers and research users establish the veracity and reliability of evidence.
In fact, the more the merrier, as in that way there will no longer be a need to glamorise, exaggerate or politicise bits of information. There will no longer be suspicions of official data or dogmatic defence of non-official observations. The audiences will be informed and able to judge for themselves without resort to gossip or scandal.
Research also needs proper regulation. Whether conducted by official, civil or academic bodies the proper procedures for informed consent, protection of subjects and ethical review should be established.
Current security interference and fear-mongering are not appropriate forms of regulation. They are restrictions that do more harm than good.
The government should protect citizens, maintain state security and observe public order, for that is its duty. Regulation can speak to these concerns without need for restrictions. Regulation means having clear guidelines that favour the creation of an environment in which serious researchers are accountable for the safety, confidentiality, and wellbeing of individuals and communities but where they are neither held suspect nor criminalised for pursuing their work.
So if the officials at the survey of young people launch are keen on research, they may wish to earmark some of their time in protecting and enabling researchers and to breaking the monopoly of officialdom on the social world.
Hania Sholkamy is an associate professor at the American University in Cairo's Social Research Center.