|Al-Ahram Weekly Online
21 - 27 June 2001
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875||Current issue | Previous issue | Site map|
Give and takeTo judge USAID merely through the prism of US foreign policy is unfair, argues Mohamed Shafiq Gabr*
My experience with the United States Agency for International Development is a first-hand one. I clearly recall when the first USAID office opened in Cairo. There were only five American employees then and they were still recruiting Egyptians to assist them. Let me share with the reader where Egypt stood at the time. I vividly remember that the window panes in most buildings were either painted navy blue or broken. Most building entrances were hidden behind protective brick walls or piles of sandbags.
In the streets of Cairo, the sewerage often overflowed. Telephones did not work. I witnessed how my late father, when he wanted to conduct business at his office, would resort to couriers on motorcycles to go around Cairo to deliver messages scheduling appointments with his associates because making one simple local telephone call was, more often than not, almost impossible. If he wanted to make international phone calls, he would travel to Athens, Greece, solely for that purpose.
A large number of Egyptian industries at the time did not have access to needed raw materials. Public service utilities, such as fire- fighting stations and garbage collecting facilities, in many cases did not have the basic equipment necessary to accomplish their tasks. Between 1967 and 1973, national resources had been devoted to the war of attrition and rebuilding the Egyptian army. The Egyptian economy was, if not at minus, then at least at zero growth levels. A few years later, the Arab countries severed their ties with Egypt following its conclusion of the Camp David peace accords with Israel. It was in these circumstances that USAID started to operate here.
In retrospect, I believe that it was a mutually beneficial relationship. The benefit to the United States was that it created jobs in the American market for US suppliers, contractors and consultancies. Through Egypt, the US was able to gain a better understanding of other markets in the region.
For Egypt, the benefits were manifest in its ability to access American products and services, in supporting its current account expenditure and in receiving major capital investments in its infrastructure. By acquiring Western technology and products, Egypt could diversify and, hence, balance the sources from which it imported goods and products, which, prior to that time, had come exclusively from the Soviet Union or the Comecon countries.
For the first time, for instance, Cairo Airport was able to secure advanced technological landing systems from the West.
I would like to respond to the argument that USAID has, in itself, promoted a dependency on US imports. It would not have done so, in all cases, had the Egyptian economy been strong. There was a point in time, in fact, (prior to the Luxor massacre and the Asian financial crisis) in 1997 when the Egyptian economy was about to take off. The internal and external conditions were conducive to this happening. Had investments come to the Egyptian economy, it would have begun, ultimately, to eliminate whatever dependency existed. We could have turned our backs on USAID then.
Another point of criticism directed to USAID is that the American and not the Egyptian side has guided the programme in the directions which it has taken. Such arguments overlook the fact that this programme has been a joint responsibility of both Egypt and the US. The Egyptian government plays a critical role in determining the components of the programme and what is, or is not, acceptable to it.
In many instances, as the programme progressed, the US side would express its desire to undertake further studies on one aspect or the other in the economy. The question here is, why did Egypt accept? Why did we not take the initiative to conduct our own research on the relevant sectors? We should have refused such situations and offered to pay for the cost of whatever research was needed, limiting the American side's contribution to goods and services. But we did not do that. If there is dependency, then we are at fault. In the final analysis, the programme is ours.
One shortcoming that I would, nevertheless, like to point out is that USAID in Egypt, within the context of bilateral consultation on its priorities, has not involved the private sector. I also feel that its programmes need to concentrate more on training public sector bureaucrats in matters related to finance, taxation regulations and so forth. Some of USAID's money needs to go into technical assistance for the government sector -- in educating the civil servant who deals with the public at large to understanding that when obstructions are set up in the face of business, this is an impediment to the smooth running of the economy as a whole.
To say that USAID did not play a social developmental role is unfair: I do not understand how this can be said when USAID funds have been used to extend potable water to villages, have improved the national sewerage and power infrastructures, have helped reduce infant mortality and have launched disease prevention programmes. We must make a distinction between criticising US policy, where we think it is at fault, and criticising for criticism's sake.
I do not believe that, in assessing Egypt-US relations, we should restrict our vision of those ties and perceive them only through the prism of the Middle East conflict, the peace process and relations with Israel, important as these are. I think that it is in the interest of the US that there be a strong, stable and secure Egypt in the Middle East region. While the US interest lies integrally with that of Israel, experience shows that it is not the only criterion by which it has assessed its relations with Egypt .
Some would like to stress that USAID extended to Egypt is totally linked to the Israeli issue. It is partially so, but this economic assistance has been extended as well because of the US's realisation of the importance of Egypt. If not, we would have seen USAID cut every time Egypt did something that the US or Israelis did not like. This did not happen.
In the coming phase, the remaining years of AID, I believe that the linchpin will be the sustainability of Egyptian and American interests. To explain what I mean, I would like to cite the instance of a country like Mexico, which receives no assistance funds from the US, but which has, through its free trade contracted within the context of NAFTA, been able to solicit billions of dollars from all over the world. These investments have been utilised to set up industries benefiting its national economy. Mexican exports to the US used to be $6 billion a year. After NAFTA, they became $16 billion a month. I hope that after US economic assistance to Egypt subsides, we will find a formula, as Mexico did, to increase trade and investment with the US and with various other partners.
* The writer is head of Egypt's International Economic Forum and former head of the American Chamber of Commerce in Egypt.
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