1 - 7 July 1999
Issue No. 436
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875|
Egypt Region International Economy Opinion Culture Profile Features Special Interview Travel Living Sports Time Out Chronicles People Cartoons Letters
Egypt's 'third way'The new NGO law may have stolen the lion's share of the public's attention over the last few months, but the Ministry of Social Affairs has not been letting its other activities lie fallow. High on their agenda is the strengthening of relationships with other partners, and especially the business community -- a choice that is also controversial, even if it has raised less of an outcry. Is the "social responsibility of capital" a white elephant, or the face of the future? In the second instalment of her two-part interview with Al-Ahram Weekly, Minister Mervat Tellawi tells Mariz Tadros how it is possible to build a corporate culture of compassion
Go to the first part of this interview
You said that the NGO law was part of a more general strategy for social reform. What is that strategy? And how close is it to being translated into law?
We already have a series of laws that have been substantially amended. These are now waiting to be put before a new session of the parliament. They include laws covering such areas as public service, health insurance and pensions.
The procedural codes of the Personal Status Law will also be presented to the People's Assembly for their approval during the next session, and this too will be a progressive law, as you will see.
Together, these laws will help push forward our social reform agenda.
You have also said that you will be introducing major reforms in the area of social development. What will that entail?
We are already engaged in reforming all those associations which work with juvenile delinquents. We have also begun to focus our efforts on improving services for the handicapped, women's clubs in rural areas and centres for victims of drug abuse.
These are all specific measures. On a more general level, we are currently preparing a national conference on social development. This will be a landmark event. Our aim is nothing less than to change the whole culture that surrounds these issues, the way people think about them. The conference should take place towards the end of the year.
What exactly do you mean by social development? And how does it fit with the more classical concept of industrial development as an end in itself?
The social dimension should be a major consideration in any development project. It should be looked at even before you get to the planning stage. You should think first about what the social consequences will be, rather than just go and build a cement factory in a heavily populated area, for example, because it is geographically convenient.
A first step will be to endow social experts with a specific legal status. That way, it will be obligatory to consult with them and ask their opinion before proceeding with anything.
We would also like there to be greater emphasis on the social dimension of development, both in terms of priorities and of budgets.
You talked about business as a partner in development together with the government and NGOs. But in many developing countries, the business sector has manifestly failed to play this role in any adequate way. Why should we expect Egypt to be an exception -- a land where businessmen really do assume their responsibilities?
We have already held two meetings between the ministry and the private sector. It emerged from these meetings that many businessmen presently donate money to social causes only in a haphazard way, or when the occasion arises. Our aim is to see this become an integral part of their corporate culture.
But we also want to emphasise the social dimension of corporate activity, so that when they set up their projects, they automatically look at the social consequences. The idea is to move beyond performing isolated acts of charity, to see business become an effective player in promoting social development. This is part of the advocacy work that we are involved in here at the ministry.
On a more practical level, vocational training is a crucial issue. The ministry oversees some 70 vocational training centres, where people come to learn the skills of 12 professions. Recently, I have been asking the business community what new skills we should be integrating into those curricula, so that the young people can keep pace with developments in modern technology. That too is part of social development.
But are there ways in which business can contribute more directly to social goals, such as fighting unemployment or enhancing the incomes of the underpaid?
Take, for example, the Productive Families Project. This is an activity which could benefit very directly from closer links with business. Instead of just producing things and then finding we cannot sell them, why not start by linking up with businessmen? That way, instead of their having to open whole factories to assemble a certain product, the products can be assembled in people's homes, without the firm paying taxes or incurring huge management charges, and people can earn money while staying at home.
One of our aims, therefore, is to modernise the Productive Families Project, to bring it into the mainstream of the industrialisation process in this country. At the same time, we are trying to use it to reduce the costs of manufacturing for the businessmen. This is the kind of interrelationship we are striving to create between business and social development.
But the private sector is essentially profit-oriented. How can that be compatible with the idea of social development as a process which encourages greater equity and wider distribution of social goods, rather than downsizing and cost-cutting?
That is a very old fashioned way of looking at things. As a businessman, you can be as successful as you like, but if the country is in upheaval, you will lose your factory all the same. Therefore, it is part of your responsibility, as a businessman, to ensure social stability and equity.
Of course, we are not saying that the way to ensure equity is through socialism. But the idea that business is motivated purely by profit is very out of date. Few business people think that way anymore. Instead, you will find that many today think in terms of what we call "the social responsibility of capital". This is the third way, which combines the need to make money with the demands of greater equity.