Make the numbers count, without breaking the bank

The announcement by the UAE National Bureau of Statistics that the planned 2011 census was cancelled in favour of administrative data compilation, received mixed reviews within the policy research community. But with careful planning the decision may actually work to the UAE's advantage.

Originating from the word censere, "to estimate", the world's earliest census pre-dates the Roman Empire. The Romans, however, were amongst the first to use it as a tool for policy making; as a register of citizens and their properties, it helped the world's first governments administer their affairs. Preserved demographic records from Egypt covering the period from 11 AD to 258 AD show the device was used in Roman Egypt, with detailed accounting of Egyptian households, the population's age and gender distribution, and the patterns of marriage, mortality, fertility and migration.

Today, the need for statistical collection goes beyond historical accuracy. Each day decision makers are faced with a myriad of policies which they must select from for the benefit of the country's citizens and residents. They are tasked with answering questions critical for the present and future.

How many people should be granted work permits in the UAE? What can be done to ease traffic in Abu Dhabi and Dubai? How can Emirati students be encouraged to attain higher qualifications? Why are obesity and diabetes so prevalent in the country? From the customer service officer to the minister, how does one determine which policy is optimal for the largest proportion of society?

The key, says the OECD's model of effective governance, is to let data guide the decision. Evidence-based policy making is a science that sees decisions stem from robust and representative statistics. The United Nations recommends that at least one census be conducted every decade. Its results should then inform planning in infrastructure, health, education, workforce and environmental planning. The benefits also extend to the private sector which gains from a better understanding of consumer demographics, occupations and household composition.

Nevertheless, any such exercise is bound to be costly; estimates for the UAE census hovered around Dh65 million. The critical mistake however would be to refrain from any data collection, a pitfall that the government has pledged to avoid by using administrative data instead. As Paul Dyer of the Dubai School of Government recently noted, this may fail in most countries but is not altogether a bad idea in the UAE.

Through a stringent residency system, data exists on the overwhelming majority of the population. Further information is additionally collected through the Emirates Identity Authority as the National ID becomes a universal requirement; it has the potential to be a valid substitute for a census.

The attractive feature of censuses for researchers and policymakers is the ability to investigate household traits. Therefore, any aggregation of administrative data must do the same by linking data for individuals from the same family.

This will be a banner year for censuses around the world. In the region, the Kuwait census count commences next week while results of censuses held last year in Oman, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Bahrain are scheduled for release in the coming months.

Yet even the most developed economies realise the limitations of census data. The breadth of its scope means a census can only collect summary information from individuals. This is where in-depth surveys can help fill the information gap.

There may yet be a silver lining in the UAE's decision not to have a census. Part of the resources saved can now be directed to the construction of the Arab world's first robust longitudinal study - where people volunteer to participate and remain in a study over several years.

The classic adage has always been, "you cannot manage what you do not measure". Areas in need of further understanding are plentiful but perhaps none is as pressing as the education, labour market and life experience of the country's youth. The country faces a unique opportunity to help its leaders and the public make more informed decisions in the future by making the numbers count.

Dr Mike Helal is a Research Fellow at the University of Melbourne and the regional director of the Education, Economics and Labour Market unit at Parkville Global Advisory

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