28 Oct. - 3 Nov. 1999
Issue No. 453
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875|
'Amm Abdallah was a casual agricultural labourer in the village of Tafahna Al-Ashraf. Today, thanks to the radical changes taking place, he has a permanent job and can afford to educate his four children. "I used to be unemployed for most of the year," 'Amm Abdallah recounts. "My daily wage was very low and I could hardly afford to feed my family. How could I think of sending my children to school?" Now that life has taken a turn for the better, the children are enrolled at the village's schools, where education, uniforms and even transportation are provided for free.
On 17 October, the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty offered an opportunity to assess the situation. The verdict? Despite global efforts to combat the phenomenon, it still encompasses a quarter of the world's population. Al-Ahram Weekly reviews the situation in Egypt
'Will, wisdom and work'Efforts to eradicate poverty in Egypt have not been entirely successful. Is this the result of a shortage in resources or inconsistent planning? Gihan Shahine and photographer Khaled El-Fiqi find possible answers in a "model village"
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Tafahna Al-Ashraf is a 500-feddan village 70km north of Cairo in Al-Daqahliya governorate. Only a few years ago, its 5,000 inhabitants were, for the most part, unemployed and uneducated. They had no access to such basic services like health, education and transportation. "We were not on the map, to sum it up," as one villager puts it. Today, the village is setting itself up as an example of how poverty can be combated successfully.
In 1984, the Islamic Centre, an NGO working in the field of sustainable development with the aim of combating poverty, was born -- the brainchild of nine of the village's relatively well-off inhabitants, who paid LE200 each to establish a small plantation that would serve the village and raise money for the centre. When the project broke even, nine more plantations were created, which meant jobs for the villagers. The profits were then channeled into setting up an animal feed factory, of which the income is dedicated entirely to the Islamic Centre, allowing it to create more development projects in the village.
"Everyone in the village contributed, building the centre's headquarters, working on the plantations and establishing the factory," says Salah Atiya, the centre's director. "People were very happy with the idea and they worked around the clock to get it off the ground. Our objective was not to eliminate poverty by handing out donations. It was to empower people by educating children, employing young people, improving the skills of the uneducated, upgrading health and living conditions and encouraging women's participation in the village economy," he adds.
Education was a top priority. Tafahna Al-Ashraf boasts four colleges, six institutes, two schools and a nursery. "Until 1966, none of the inhabitants was educated, simply because there were no schools in the village," explains Atiya. Today, the many schools are beehives of activity: classes are full, teachers are busy, and Atiya enthusiastically supervises, gives advice, and nods in proud satisfaction. "Today, as you see, all the village children are enrolled. We are the first village nationwide to have four colleges, which serve the village and its surroundings," he says.
History teacher Sami El-Sharqawi is satisfied too. "Tafahna Al-Ashraf has created jobs for its inhabitants but also for those living in the vicinity." El-Sharqawi, who lives in an adjacent village, says the village's new schools gave him an invaluable opportunity adding that "everybody here and in the surrounding villages now has access to education. This is what makes Tafahna Al-Ashraf such an excellent model. A youth hostel has also been annexed to the college for students from outside the area, and buses take students to and from school."
Health is another high priority. A 300-bed hospital has been built, equipped with an operating theatre and a small pharmacy. Regular check-ups and vaccination campaigns are carried out among schoolchildren and infants.
The villagers have also helped plant 1,000 palm trees as part of the centre's environmental improvement drive, which should also bring in profits (the target is estimated at LE200,000 a year).
For Atiya, unemployment among the younger generations has been another major concern. Training programmes have allowed young adults to launch micro-projects. Twenty stalls were built and handed over to young men keen to set up private businesses, while the women have been offered opportunities to work at the schools, the library and the hospital. Illiterate women took needlework classes and received basic equipment to start a home project.
Wafiya Khayri, bent over her sewing machine, puts it this way: "The Islamic Centre has given us a chance to work and help our husbands make ends meet. Women now have a say. They take part in making decisions." Amani Mursi, the supervisor of the sewing workshop, concurs. "Women no longer get married early. They have access to information on family planning and health. In the past, you would see women idling in the streets, doing nothing or just gossiping. Today, they have no time to waste. Women are too ambitious to sit around. Some of the village's young women are doctors and pharmacists now."
Leaving the village, it is impossible to miss the sleepers the villagers have laid. "We built them ourselves. All the government did was allow the train to stop in the village," says Atiya. Today, the train makes 11 stops in the area. The villagers have also upgraded the infrastructure and put in telephone connections. They have established a factory for manufacturing ovens and washing machines, and the centre is currently building a new small village, along the same lines, where 100 families will live. "In the past, we would blush when we told people we lived in Tafahna Al-Ashraf. Now we take pride in it," Atiya says.
Tafahna Al-Ashraf is one example of how self-help can alleviate poverty. But for one such success story, how many failures are there? In Egypt, 4,591 NGOs work in development, representing 31.5 per cent of civil society organisations. Islamic and Christian institutions represent almost half of these NGOs. The government's efforts to combat poverty are represented by the Ministry of Social Affairs and the Ministry of Al-Awqaf (religious endowments).
Despite these efforts, however, poverty is still rampant in the country -- and the world. In a recent statement, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan deplored the fact that, "despite the unprecedented prosperity that technological advances and the globalisation of production and finance have brought to many countries, neither governments, nor the United Nations, nor the private sectors have found the key to eradicating the persistent poverty that grips a majority of humankind." Recent UN estimates of the number of people living below the global poverty line indicate that, while the overall incidence of poverty in the world appears to be declining, it still encompasses one quarter of the world's population, and in many regions is actually on the increase.
The UN World Social Situation Report also indicates that although poverty exists everywhere, the situation is particularly severe in the developing world. Approximately 1.3 billion people currently live on less than $1 a day. Almost one billion are illiterate; over a billion lack access to safe water. Nearly 850 million people do not get enough to eat. Women make up 70 per cent of the world's poor. And one third of the people living in the least-developed countries are not expected to live past 40.
In Egypt, official statistics are equally alarming. Five million people, representing seven per cent of the population, live in severe poverty, spending less than LE1 a day on food. An additional 14 million, representing 16 per cent of the population, live below the poverty line, spending less than LE2.5 a day on food and basic services. A quarter of the population is above the poverty line, but does not have the resources to guarantee average living standards. In other words, half the population is poor.
Poverty attacks children and young people most severely: they are at a higher risk than their wealthier peers in terms of health risks and mortality, often because of unsafe housing, malnutrition, low birth weight, chronic illness, lack of medical care and stress.
Who are the poor? A recent survey was conducted at the National Planning Institute to profile Egypt's poor, the country's most impoverished areas, and the causes of poverty. The survey reveals that 60 per cent of poor people live in rural areas, and that Upper Egypt has the highest rates of poverty. Most of those categorised as poor are unemployed or have occasional, marginal jobs -- that is, they have no specific economic activity. Thirty-six per cent of poor residents of rural areas are from families whose breadwinner has no specified job or economic activity, while 40 per cent belong to a household whose head is an agricultural labourer. Twenty per cent of the poor in urban areas were also found to come from families whose breadwinner has no specific job or economic activity.
Education and poverty are strongly interrelated: poverty breeds illiteracy, and vice versa, in an unending vicious circle. Recent statistics indicate that half the number of poor families living in urban areas and 70 per cent of those living in rural areas have an uneducated breadwinner. At least half the poor were found to be unemployed.
In Egypt as elsewhere, however, the problem remains puzzling: is poverty the result of a shortage in resources or inconsistent planning?
This question was one of the main themes raised at a seminar organised by Al-Azhar University last week. Researchers reviewed and discussed the recent achievements of the Ministries of Social Affairs and Awqaf, the Social Fund for Development (SFD) and the Nasser Social Bank. These achievements suggest part of the answer: resources are not altogether lacking.
The Ministry of Awqaf combats poverty through different programmes, according to ministry official Malak Mustafa. It designs programmes to help the poor and civil servants with marriage and burial expenses, offers financial support to underprivileged students of Al-Azhar and helps employ youths through micro-project grants and vocational training.
According to SFD Secretary-General Hussein El-Gammal, the fund has made considerable advances, particularly since 1993. "It has achieved its objectives: providing income- and employment-generating activities for those most vulnerable to the negative effects of the economic reform programme. It has also provided essential physical infrastructure and public services in the poorer regions of Egypt," he stated during the seminar.
'Tafahna Al-Ashraf provides a clue to how poverty can be eradicated. The village has succeeded in eliminating poverty. This is what we need to do. People should not feel ashamed to get any job that would help raise their income. In Tafahna Al-Ashraf, everyone contributed: the doctor treated people for free, the teacher gave lessons for free, the engineer did not feel ashamed to work in the factory or lay the railway. In short, the eradication of severe poverty can be only achieved if there is will, wisdom and work'
The SFD, he added, has taken positive steps toward meeting municipal and community service needs through local delivery mechanisms. Women have benefited considerably, whether as direct or indirect beneficiaries. The SFD, he said, has created an average of 100,000 jobs a year and provided basic services through 119 projects, benefiting around 26 million people.
Abdallah Abdel-Aziz of the Nasser Bank was equally confident that efforts had been successful in alleviating poverty. In 1999, he said, the bank spent LE50 million on social care for the poorest, including disabled and elderly people. It has also provided 30,000 low-income families with loans to help them set up income-generating projects, according to Abdel Aziz.
"Looking at all these achievements in addition to those of NGOs and the Ministry of Social Affairs, we must conclude that the problem lies in planning and not resources," observed Osman Mohamed Osman, head of the public planning centre affiliated to the National Planning Institute. Many experts concur that efforts have not been entirely successful in eradicating poverty in Egypt because there is no clear strategy binding them together.
"There should be more coordination between the government and NGOs on one hand, and charity and income-generating programmes on the other," Osman explained. Coordination, he suggested, could be fostered through a nationwide database, which would allow networking and avoid duplication.
"Coordination will also help create legitimate outlets for charity donations," Osman added. The services provided by the Ministry of Social Affairs, for example, do not cover more than 20 per cent of its target group, allegedly because funds are lacking. Official estimates indicate that the Ministry of Social Affairs needs another LE300 million to help the seven per cent living in extreme poverty. According to Osman, this money would be available from charity alone if resources were well managed, "but we never have that sort of planning," he lamented.
The government, many experts agree, should focus on upgrading infrastructure, providing education and fostering economic growth in its poverty-combating strategies. Poverty, Osman explained, is defined not only as lack of resources, but also as lack of access to basic services like health, education and a healthy environment. "This category should be taken into consideration when tackling poverty issues," he noted, adding that "inhabitants of informal areas, for example, may not fall below the poverty line in terms of daily income. But they have no access to clean water, sewage and a healthy environment. Again, due to inconsistent planning, the government has supplied 70 per cent of residents of rural areas with potable water, while only 20 per cent have sewage systems. The lack of drainage is a serious health hazard."
Unemployment should be viewed as only one side of the poverty issue, according to Osman. Not all job seekers are poor, perhaps; but the poor are mostly unemployed. "There are qualified adults who don't work because they can't find a job to match their qualifications," explained Osman. "NGOs and the SFD should make sure that those who benefit from their programmes are poor, not just unemployed. This point is often overlooked; that's why there's not enough money, and unemployment is still a problem."
Unequal distribution, then, seems to be the root of the problem. "Only the destitute should receive urgent, constant financial aid to help them survive until they find jobs," Osman argued.
"Poverty-alleviating strategies should focus on providing the poor with income-generating projects that would guarantee their future independence," agreed Zeinab El-Ashwah, professor of economics at Al-Azhar University. "Tafahna Al-Ashraf provides a clue to how poverty can be eradicated. The village has succeeded in eliminating poverty. This is what we need to do. People should not feel ashamed to get any job that would help raise their income. In Tafahna Al-Ashraf, everyone contributed: the doctor treated people for free, the teacher gave lessons for free, the engineer did not feel ashamed to work in the factory or lay the railway. In short, the eradication of severe poverty can be only achieved if there is will, wisdom and work."