|Al-Ahram Weekly Online
21 - 27 June 2001
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No rubber stampTempers flare and accusations fly when USAID agreements are debated in parliament. Gamal Essam El-Din reviews a decade of controversy
If parliament is in an uproar, charges of corruption are being hurled and nationalist sentiment runs high, chances are there is a USAID agreement on the floor. Few laws and international agreements cause the controversy which accompanies any discussions of USAID agreements or fund allocations. During the last decade, the People's Assembly passed dozens of agreements for USAID grants, but discussion of these seldom proceeded calmly as MPs expressed their doubts about various aspects of the agreements as well as the very principle of accepting US financial assistance.
Parliamentary approval of USAID projects was never smoothly won. (From top) Nour, MPs Farghali, Azmi and Serageddin -- all have had their day in the House, criticising USAID
In many cases the concerns raised were strong enough to warrant the formation of fact-finding committees or referral of the agreements to the Central Auditing Agency (CAA). Criticisms of USAID by MPs have typically included allegations that projects are rments in the country's infrastructure and an increased role for the private sector in the country's economic development.
In an interview with Al-Ahram Weekly, MP Ayman Nour said the assembly's major point of contention regarding US grant assistance is that it generally helps the donor more than the recipient. Added to this, Nour said, the continued acceptance of large grants by almost all the sectors of society has created a widespread culture of dependency.
"T accept them uncritically.
"This is completely wrong. These grants are in one way or another politically motivated and detrimental [to Egypt] while the Americans get substantial benefits in return," Nour argued. USAID, he claimed, is primarily aimed at boosting American exports to ment," said Nour.
In debating the CIP, one of the most controversial programmes among parliamentarians, MPs have often charged that most of these grants tend to further the interests of a select group of businessmen who have close ties to the US. In January 1998, Yassin Seraggeddin, then-leader of the Wafd Party, suggested that members of the American Chamber of Commerce in Egypt were the main beneficiaries of the CIP and other USAID grants.
Within the same context, MPs have also raised issues of transparency regarding the state's use of aid. Programmes for population and family planning, health care and privatisation have been cited in this respect.
In May 1996, the People's Assembly referred to the CAA an itemised account of how the state had spent a USAID grant for population and family planning projects, asking it to investigate an alleged misuse of LE511,000. MP Ayman Nour charged that much of the moneys for these projects were consumed by generous financial bonuses for senior officials at the Ministry of Health and employees of family planning projects.
Nour, who is considered one of USAID's sharpest critics in parliament, also targeted the Cost Recovery Programme for Healthcare. He charged that misuse of funds disbursed under this programme to the Ministry of Health, as certified by CAA, accounted for 44.5 per cent of the approximately LE78.5 million given by USAID for the programme. These funds, Nour claimed, were used for huge bonuses, excessive expenses, unjustified incentives and sleek cars. A parliamentary fact-finding committee later confirmed many of Nour's allegations.
P from MPs, some of whom questioned the privatisation programme itself. At that time leftist MP El-Badri Farghali said that its main thrust was its support for "a new class which comprises a handful of businessmen, employees of consultancy offices, pretty sec having been "sold for peanuts."
Moreover, Farghali charged that the privatisation grant gives US experts and consultancy offices easy access to classified economic information about public sector companies and their assets. "The method of the Americans in such a grant and in many others sectors," he added.
One important sector about which the Americans collected such information, said Farghali, was the strategic sector of agriculture. A USAID grant allocated to the National Agricultural Research Institute (NARP) was used primarily to gather information about the potentials of Egypt's agriculture, he claimed.
In another assembly session, in January 1996, parliamentarians' discussions about a grant for the Alexandria Sewage Project revealed that some $130 million of a $405-million grant had been used to pay for feasibility studies conducted by an American consultancy firm.
But the most stinging criticism levelled by MPs at USAID grants was that their terms infringe on the assembly's prerogatives and contravene Egyptian law. In June 1997, Zakaria Azmi, director of the presidential cabinet and a prominent MP, sharply criticised six USAID grants to various sectors. Charging that disbursement of USAID often begins prior to approval by the People's Assembly, Azmi asked, "Are we here to approve US agreements that are already being implemented?"
The question of sovereignty was highlighted by MPs when the assembly debated an $8.3-million grant for a project called Decision Support Services. This grant, which is aimed at improving the effectiveness of the legislative and administrative processes of the People's Assembly and Shura Council, was strongly criticised by MPs. During discussions on the second tranche of the grant, many MPs -- many of them leftists and Nasserists -- said the funds should never have been accepted.
"In principle, foreign funds, especially from the Americans, should not be offered to parliament at all," said Nasserist MP Sameh Ashour. "Parliament should not accept foreign money because, in one way or another, it is aimed at influencing -- not supporting -- decision-making in parliament," he said. In making his argument, Ashour explained that the Decision Support Services grant was earmarked for use by three influential parliamentary committees; namely, the economic affairs, planning and budgeting, and legislative and constitutional affairs committees. "The grant stated in clear terms that it should be directed exclusively to these three committees because of their lead role in passing market-economy laws," Ashour argued.
Mohamed Quweta, another parliamentary critic of US economic assistance, cited US grants to the energy sector as an infringement on Egypt's sovereignty. He argued that these grants exempt US contractors from a 10-year building safety guarantee stipulated by Egyptian construction laws.
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