“A problem well stated is a problem half solved.” This maxim, attributed to the American inventor Charles Kettering, has a lot of merit. We may sometimes assume that people and their governments automatically act rationally and base their actions on logic, but unfortunately this is not always the case. As Egypt moves through a turning point in its history, Kettering’s words of wisdom are rarely heeded. Rather than working on clearly identifying and recognizing problems, many Egyptians seem to prefer a different approach based on denial, and pointing fingers at others. This reminds us of the proverbial tale of the ostrich burying its head in the sand.
This faulty approach has been around awhile. When the Shanghai academic ranking of world universities excluded Egyptian institutions from the Top 500 list for many years, some Egyptian faculty and university administrators criticized the criteria for being subjective. The criteria depended mainly on published peer-reviewed research without taking into account research published in the Arabic language. Some argue that Egypt has very high quality research in Arabic that was not considered, and therefore complained that the ranking was unfair.
Then, there was the strange case of the State of the Environment report in the mid-1990s. The report was issued by the Egyptian Environmental Affairs Agency in compliance with the then new Environmental Protection Law. But, after the government discovered that the report included a critical assessment of the country’s environmental condition, officials took a decision to retrieve all copies that had been distributed and prevent any further dissemination of the report. Rather than deal with the environmental problems cited in the report, it was quicker and easier to hide them.
I recall my own experience upon writing a research paper in 1998 entitled Accountability and the Evaluation of the Role of the Administrative Control Authority. This is Egypt’s anti-corruption watchdog agency. I was invited to meet with some ACA officials afterwards. Among their objections was that I had cited the work of Transparency International and its ranking of nations based on perceived degrees of corruption. The officials argued that the rankings were not a valid measure of corruption but were based on surveys conducted in different countries that could not be taken seriously. Rather than facing the problem, the officials preferred to look for an excuse.
After the January 25 revolution in Egypt, we would expect things to have changed. Yet, the same attitude is still adopted by some. Recently, many civil society and human rights organizations published reports and cited evidence on serious violations of human rights in Egypt. However, the first official reply, before any conclusive review could be done, was to accuse journalists of being “traitors” for publishing the reports, and to accuse international organizations of exaggeration, and of violating Egyptian sovereignty.
Another recent example concerns an Egyptian military announcement that military-related research centers had discovered a “complete cure” for both AIDS and hepatitis C. The assertion was questioned, not least on the grounds that nothing had been published or discussed about the discovery in medical journals and scientific conferences. In response, some military officials, and some commentators on pro-government media channels, stated that voicing doubt about the claim was unpatriotic, and unacceptable questioning of the integrity of the military establishment.
The process of problem definition is the heart of policymaking. We have to know what the problem is, its scope and parameters, and collect as much evidence as we can about its symptoms, causes, and impact on various stakeholders, before we can move to the next step of contemplating potential solutions. Difficulty with this crucial first step can be found in many countries, where pressure and advocacy groups try to exert their influence on government decision-making. Even statisticians can manipulate the presentation of data to serve specific interests. However, blatant denial of the existence of problems does not get us anywhere, and will not benefit us in the least. We must look our problems straight in the eye and stop burying our heads further into the sand.
Laila El Baradei is the acting dean of the School of Global Affairs and Public Policy at the American University in Cairo.