A new initiative declares war on poverty, Amira El-Noshokaty
investigates its opportunities for success
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Many people choose to give money to beggars and street children. However, El-Sawy's initiative calls upon the same people to direct their charity money towards families in need, in an attempt to reach the underprivileged across the country
It's no secret that the whole world is suffering from an economic setback. Egypt's growth rate for one is expected to decrease to around 5.5 per cent down from seven per cent. Even before the global economic crisis struck, there was a dramatic increase in prices. Such conditions boost unemployment rates, which transformed into an explosion of crime, and exacerbated the presence of beggars on Egypt's streets. With the percentage of the poor reaching some 19.6 per cent of the total population in 2004-2005, according to Egypt Human Development Report 2008, came the idea of La faqr, or no poverty.
La faqr aims to coordinate Egyptian non-profit organisations' efforts to combat poverty by creating a unified online database that includes case studies of underprivileged people who have come to the rescue, a standard definition of those who are in need. Hence the initiative directs the money to those who really need it instead of giving it to swindlers and beggars who turn begging into their profession, making easy money and harassing bystanders. It also aims to protect children from making money on the streets, hence ridding them from the need to live on the streets.
This initiative was launched last month, explained Mohamed El-Sawy, founder of El-Sawy Cultural Wheel and the man behind the idea, to Al-Ahram Weekly. "We have to train our minds to re-evaluate everything around us. We always complain about haphazardness and poverty, but nobody ever asked themselves about this huge hole in our society called street beggars, one that is growing," El-Sawy added. "We deprive really needy people and spend it on pretentious beggars because it is easier for us to believe. Let's for once make use of the Internet and make it a place where do-gooders can network."
Coordination and flow of information in real transparency is the main methodology of the website. The names of beneficiaries will be replaced by their national identification number to ensure discretion.
Some 12 Egyptian NGOs have signed up to the initiative in less than a month. The Food Bank, Resala and Al-Orman NGOs are but a few of the partners. "We'll be preventing crime rates because beggars eventually turn into gangs that abduct children in order to transform them into young beggars, send them into the streets and take their money," explained El-Sawy, adding that the initiative includes a national media and television campaign for greater exposure.
To driver Ahmed Yassin, giving money to those who beg is not a routine, but then again there are exceptions. "When I see an old person, I have no doubt that they are in need hence I give them money," he said. Still Yassin agrees with El-Sawy. "I do not give money to young street children because it will only encourage them to continue fleeing their home and turn into outlaws when they grow up. That's why the idea behind La faqr is a good one."
Indeed depending on civil society in general and NGOs in particular is a global trend. The Egypt Human Development report 2008 is titled: E gypt's Social Contract: The Role of Civil Society. The report deems that civil society organisations are vital partners in the drive for development. The report also highlights the key role to be played by civil society organisations. They are viewed as catalysts for change, with an emphasis on the role of NGOs as the major players in poverty alleviation.
A commonly accepted definition of civil society is that it occupies the social space between the market and the state. A broad range of institutions occupy this space which despite their diversity, share features that make them an identifiable social sector of private institutions serving essentially public purposes, reads the report. It also highlights the history of civil society in Egypt, going back to the early 19th century, with a rich history grounded in faith-based practices such as the waqf, or religious endowment, fund for particular social causes. However, the first NGO in Egypt was the Greek Association, established in 1821, followed by the Egyptian Geographical Society in 1875, Al-Agouza Islamic hospital in 1878 and the Coptic Al-Maseeh Al-Mashkoura School in Menoufiya governorate in 1881. Both the hospital and the school benefited from waqf donations.
At the beginning of 2007, official figures provided by the Ministry of Social Solidarity showed that the number of NGOs stood at some 21,500 in Egypt. Yet despite the growth in numbers, they suffered internal and external constraints that prevented most of them from attaining their development goals.
The report explains that international networks faced a number of obstacles. Among Egypt's civil society organisations there is a general lack of familiarity with collective work as well as poor negotiating skills not only between organisations but often within each organisation. On a national level, the provisions of Law 84/2000 authorise the state to interfere in internal management of civil society organisations. Bureaucratic impediments to key administrative decisions are one factor, in addition to problems within each organisation. Problems include vague and multiple missions, a lack of democratic practice within organisations, a poor technical capacity of staff, and a top-down relationship between civil society organisations and their constituencies. Frequently, NGOs are not up-scaled and are in need of leadership, values, political constituencies, incentives and accountability, systematic monitoring and evaluation.
Yet despite all these obstacles, civil society remains our only hope. According to sociologist Hoda Zakaria, before the 1952 Revolution, social work was conducted by members of the upper class. "Combating poverty, ignorance and disease was a national project that extended to the post-revolution era, where it adopted a clearer vision and was very effective for it touched upon the social reasons behind poverty," said Zakaria.
Hence the six principles of the revolution were propagated, which included the encouragement of social mobility that encouraged national goals such as the combating of poverty, ignorance and disease. It was an accumulation of layers of development that pushed development rates up to seven per cent in 1967. It boosted numbers in the middle class until the Open Door Policy was introduced in the 1970s, after which capital returned once more to the hands of the upper class, leaving the middle class to shrink and the lower class to expand.
Zakaria added that civil society has an extremely important role in catering for the lower classes. Currently, she argued, economic policies are aimed at enriching the upper class. "There is a misconception that the upper class indirectly will help those lower down by providing job opportunities. This is very naïve thinking, given the status quo," added Zakaria. "That was in the past. Nowadays the new global economic system is a monetary one. Rich businessmen don't need to invest in people, build factories or provide job opportunities. All they need is to invest their money or capital in stock market or buy land, so there is no production or job opportunities for the poor, bar very few exceptions."
On the contrary: poverty means that a poor sick father inevitably sends his children to work instead of him, takes them out of school, and then when they can't handle it they run away from home. Gradually they turn into homeless children that grow into outlaws who are abused by corrupt businessmen or wrong-doers to do their dirty work.
Zakaria believes that in any society there is an input and an output. "Both ends are dark, and that is why nowadays the La faqr approach is very welcome and much needed, so long as it is focussed in its approach," she told the Weekly. "It needs to grow into a national movement. Unfortunately many NGOs in Egypt adopt a fragmented perspective, and call on each individual's conscience."