Following up my post about the mismeasurement of urbanisation in Egypt, I would highly recommend anyone interested in this area to read David Satterthwaite's article on 'Urban myths and the mis-use of urban data' (pdf).
Satterthwaite's article covers a lot of ground, including alarmism over 'out of control' urbanisation in Africa, the extreme paucity of census data in some areas, and problems in measuring city size and therefore various indicators of city performance. But I'm going to focus on his discussion of how the comparability of the UN's urbanisation statistics is undermined by the use of different definitions of urbanisation at country level. For example:
China’s level of urbanization in 1999 could have been 24 per cent, 31 per cent or 73 per cent, depending on which of three official definitions of urban populations was used. India appears to be a predominantly rural nation, but most of India’s rural population lives in settlements with between 500 and 5,000 inhabitants, which are considered as villages and therefore classified as rural; many more live in settlements with more than 5,000 inhabitants, which are still classified as rural. If these were classified as ‘urban’ (as they would be by some national urban definitions), India would suddenly have a predominantly urban population.
And then there's Egypt:
in 1996, 18 per cent of Egypt’s population lived in settlements with between 10,000 and 20,000 inhabitants that had many urban characteristics, including significant non-agricultural economies and occupational structures. These were not classified as urban areas – although they would have been in most other nations. If they were considered urban, this would mean that Egypt was much more urbanized, causing major changes to urban growth rates.
Remember that Egypt's central government had an incentive to systematically under-estimate its urban population, as granting city status to an area meant allocating it more funding and representation in parliament.
The lesson here is that people should be careful about using data on cross-country comparisons, they should be extra careful when it comes to data on topics like urbanisation where there is no standard definition, and they should probably be extra extra careful about data that is produced by governments like Egypt's. After all, if your argument is that the Egyptian government is dysfunctional, then shouldn't you be at least slightly sceptical about the data that government produces?