CAIRO: How many children will be born in Aswan in 2012? What percentage of women in Assiut will start using birth control between 2011 and 2014?
Boring statistics? Hardly. In fact, Egypt’s long-term social and economic stability may depend upon having timely and accurate answers to these questions.
In June, the Egyptian government began a collaborative, multi-ministerial effort to reduce the average number of children born per family to two by 2017. Currently, the average is three per family.
To achieve this goal, the Ministries of Health and Information launched several programs aimed at changing attitudes towards family planning, including an extensive advertising blitz and the education of women in rural areas about the medical realities of birth control.
But for the planners on Maglis Al-Shaab Street to do an effective job, they must have an accurate understanding of what is happening in the field. So the campaign’s success, or failure, will rely heavily on the Information and Decision Support Center (IDSC), the Cabinet’s official think-tank.
Normally, the center’s 120 researchers write reports on various socio-economic issues for the Cabinet. In the Family Planning Campaign, about 70 will be closely monitoring the monthly performance of the various programs.
“Our goal is to provide correct and relevant information and give the other institutions the chance to modify their programs, to redistribute resources and to refocus priorities, says Maged Osman, IDSC chairman.
There are several ways of doing this.
To measure progress in cutting the birth rate at the national level, researchers will comb through annual birth and death lists and demographic reports written by international agencies such as USAID. To measure local developments, the center’s staff will monitor 20,000 villages, collecting monthly statistics on pregnancy and use of birth control.
A survey of 7,500 households, conducted repeatedly over the next decade, will give planners a sense of the extent to which the advertising effort is changing public opinion towards family planning. For example, surveyors will periodically ask questions such as “How many children does the ideal family include?
By monitoring TV viewership patterns, the IDSC will also be making an important contribution. Because of the relatively recent appearance of satellite TV, the government faces potential competition in getting its advertising message across on terrestrial channels.
However, Osman does not believe that this is currently a problem because, by his estimate, 80 percent of Egypt’s poor, especially those in rural areas who tend to have higher reproduction rates, cannot afford satellite and watch terrestrial channels.
On the other hand “We cannot guarantee that this will continue 10 years from now, he cautions.
If viewing patterns change, having an accurate understanding of where viewers have migrated will give planners a chance to readjust their advertising resources accordingly.
The center’s mission will not be easy.
Collecting monthly statistics on 20,000 villages is a difficult task both logistically and financially, said Osman, who expects to spend between LE 5 million to LE 6 million annually on the campaign.
Furthermore, limited medical facilities in rural areas pose a challenge to researchers who are trying to gain the most accurate statistics.
Public skepticism is another potential hurdle. Osman admits that some Egyptians question the “government’s assessment that this is a real problem.
“Some might ask: what about China, which has 1.3 billion people? We have the desert which we can expand into, he said.
Others might challenge the government’s assertion that cutting population growth is the key to relieving stress on the education system. The chairman can understand why some Egyptians will question the link, wanting to see a more intensive short-term effort to improve the quality of Egypt’s schools.
But as far as collecting data, the center’s main assignment, “I really do not see this as a challenge, he said.
The National Population Council, which is headed by Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif and includes the ministers from each of the participating ministries, is responsible for running the campaign. The IDSC is expected to provide a detailed progress report every three months.
Long-term success is not a guarantee. However, having an accurate and timely understanding of which programs are effective is certain to make success more likely.