Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
2 - 8 December 1999
Issue No. 458
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Issues navigation Current Issue Previous Issue Back Issues

A new day dawning

Has a massive campaign to develop the countryside borne any fruit? Aline Kazandjian finds high hopes, and higher obstacles
Cheer up!
(photo: Sherif Sonbol)
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It was with great pride that Hanem showed off her family's newly installed bathroom; much as an executive would do his latest automobile. In the tiny hamlet of Ezbet Al-Dali, in Fayoum, toilets, like cars, are a rarity. Hanem has been living here with her husband and eight children in a mud-brick house for the past 24 years. Eight months ago the family was able to install a toilet. "This is cleanliness. It's their best project," she says with a wide smile.

Although from a distance the village may look more or less as it did a century ago, as you come closer the signs of change gradually reveal themselves. On the roofs, hundreds of TV antennas have burgeoned. An occasional satellite dish may even be seen hovering over the fields like an electronic goddess. Children still run amok in the dirt roads, but instead of the traditional galabiyas they are wearing 'made in Taiwan' training suits. Several school buildings can be spotted, concrete proof of growing efforts to develop Egypt's vast countryside.

Although 67 per cent of Egypt's 65 million inhabitants live in the countryside, the state's investment in development has been largely concentrated in Cairo and a few other urban centres. This policy changed in 1991, when the First National Congress for Rural Development was held under the auspices of Mrs Suzanne Mubarak. A comprehensive rural development programme was launched, optimistically entitled Sherouk (sunrise). A Ministry of Local Administration was set up in 1995 with an annual budget of LE49 million. This year, the figure reached LE212 million. "This shows the government's level of commitment," according to Mahmoud Sherif, the first minister for rural development. The government is also receiving financial and expert assistance from governments and NGOs from all over the world, all working in a loosely bound network under Sherouk's umbrella. Development projects comprising infrastructure and services have started to bear fruit.

Sherouk works along three parallel lines: development of the infrastructure, provision of social services such as health and education, and economic development (organising a credit line covering small industries and other forms of small enterprises to diversify sources of income). Although the programme is directed by the government, "we are trying to give all the responsibility to grassroots actors," says Sherif. "We consider ourselves a funding agency, and this is a new approach for Egypt."

This new approach is starting to show results in many of Egypt's 4,405 villages. Electricity has finally reached all of them this year. There has been a great increase in primary schools as well as several programmes to combat illiteracy and encourage female education. Health clinics have opened everywhere, resulting in the projected eradication of polio by next year, and the world's highest level of success in the Oral Rehydration Programme.

When asked to describe the ways in which the village has changed since the 1970s, 42-year-old Eid Abdel-Fattah breathes a sigh of relief. He remembers having to go out at night to study under the light of the village street lamp because they had no electricity in their house. Today he is the executive director of the Society Development Association in his native village of Zawiet Al-Karadsa, in Fayoum. It is through the association, affiliated with the Ministry of Social Affairs, that many development projects and services are channeled.

One of these projects was the installation of toilets in houses like Hanem's. National Planning Institute statistics show that only 20 per cent of the residents of rural areas have sewage systems. With the help of CARE International, the village association launched an awareness campaign to encourage inhabitants of villages such as Ezbet Al-Dali to pay around LE100 per family, and an additional LE100 in 12 monthly installments, to have sanitary facilities built in their house. The system, designed by an Egyptian engineer, is composed of a 2x3.25m underground stone tank where sewage is collected from the houses. Waste is then filtered; solid refuse is collected to be used as fertiliser once a year. There are no machines involved and the cost per household is much less than the LE1,000 required for a sewage pipeline.

Still, it is often difficult to convince the villagers to pay the necessary sum for benefits that are not always immediately obvious. Iman Nasreddin from Zawiet Al-Karadsa, who joined the village association, says: "Sometimes it took more than one or two visits to convince people, but now, when they have a problem, they come to us. When we say something, they are convinced. And the women convince their husbands."

Perhaps even more important than the women are the religious leaders in the rural areas. On an issue like family planning, "you have to get the blessing of the sheikh, the priest" and other local leaders, says Safwat El-Shaker, spokesman for a European Union project that has set up 19 family planning clinics in Qena. National efforts to reduce the population growth rate since the 1960s have not been entirely successful. Currently, the national growth rate averages 2.1 per cent, but Qena alone has a growth rate of 3.4 per cent. The EU family planning clinics are low-cost, mud-brick buildings. The doctor and nurse are from the village itself or its closest neighbour. Dozens of women flock from neighbouring villages to the project headquarters in the town of Belyana, to consult doctors or receive treatment.

While the visits may save lives and instill basic principles of health care, they do not always change attitudes, however. Fatma Abdu has three girls. The youngest is barely a year old. Fatma is pregnant again, hoping for a boy. Abdallah Ghazali, a guard at the Temple of Dendera, a few kilometres from Bilyana, starting sending his wife to the EU clinic two years ago - after she had borne him four boys and two girls. "I can sleep peacefully now," he says.

The quiet fields around another Fayoum village, on the other hand, are witnessing an awakening of a different sort. Information Technology has found its way to the local administration offices there. A few months ago, local university graduates started offering computer literacy and programming courses funded by the government. Mohamed Galal, who is originally from Fayoum, left his job in Cairo to become an instructor at the centre. He claims that there is a market for computer companies in Fayoum and that "there are better opportunities and less competition than in Cairo." The industrial zone of nearby Kom Oshim is a viable market. Along with some friends, Mohamed has applied for a loan from the government to start their own computer firm. Under the Sherouk programme, small loans are offered ranging from LE5,000 to LE10,000 over two to four years at an interest rate of seven to nine per cent. He is still waiting for an answer on the loan just as he is waiting for the computers to arrive for the centre. Until now, the friends have been using their personal computers. "We are still not earning from this job, but our ambitions are great," he says.

Where ambitions are high, obstacles should be overcome easily, but it seems rural Egypt will witness many more sunrises before Sherouk attains its goals. "We admit that there was a real development gap between the rural and urban sectors, and it was a real challenge bridging this gap," says Sherif. The problems are intimidating. One of the most pressing issues is the cleaning of 62,000km of irrigation and drainage canals, a major environmental hazard. That is the responsibility of the Ministry of Public Works and Water Resources. It currently spends some LE400 million annually for that purpose. And recently a LE1 billion plan was submitted to the cabinet to cover some of the canals and build a network of underground pipelines. The maintenance of such projects may be the real issue here, however. Abdel-Rahman Shalabi, undersecretary of state at the ministry, thinks it may be better to relocate the canals. "If we build pipes, people can still throw garbage or dump sewage in them, and it will be harder to supervise than open canals," he says. The funds allocated for these and other development projects also need closer supervision. According to a recent report by the Central Auditing Agency, LE200 million were lost in 1998 because of fraud, corruption and mismanagement in local municipalities.

Samir Sabbagh, CARE project manager, says the people "are usually very aware of the problem. When you ask them 'why are you dumping garbage in the canal?', they say, 'what are our options?'" Sabbagh believes the options must be presented from within the community itself: "Normally, people are receptive, but change must be dictated by insiders. Outsiders must understand that they are just that." The inhabitants know their needs best, so if a garbage truck works for one village, a donkey cart might work better for another. In both cases, the community must be involved in decision-making as well as the implementation of the projects. The local administration unit to which Zawiet Al-Karadsa belongs bought a tractor to collect garbage from the villages a month ago. It has been standing unused ever since. Eid contends: "If it was up to us, we would have started using it the same day."

Such tugs of war are being played out on many levels, seriously hindering the development process. Although there are dozens of national and international NGOs working all over the Egyptian countryside, their efforts are not concerted. "They are working in different fields, with small resources," says Sabbagh, adding that CARE and other organisations are engaged mainly in "pilot projects". He believes the government should adopt experiments that show good results. In the field of drinking water, for example, a huge effort was made through a grant by the Dutch government to install drinking water pumps in villages. But bringing the water inside the house is the villagers' responsibility, and that costs some LE300; so "villagers buy a refrigerator [which they can pay for in installments], but don't have running water in the house," says Sabbagh. One of CARE's projects has dealt with this problem by lending money on a 12-month payback system for that purpose. It costs a lot less, and solves the problem much more quickly than if the villagers applied to the authorities individually.

Installing a drinking water pipe or a sewage facility is still a lot easier than instilling ways of thinking that must accompany the development process. Change in traditional values is taking a long time, but it is happening. Women's participation in the decision-making process, for instance, is on the rise. Iman is one of the 14 women who serve alongside 382 men on the village association. She regrets not having had a university education. "I want my daughter to go to university," she says. "It's too late for me now, so I've found myself in volunteer work with the association." Iman will not speak out against female genital mutilation, on the other hand; according to her, it is a religious duty.

In outlining the duties of the new Ministry of Local Administration, Minister Mustafa Abdel-Qader told Al-Ahram Weekly that the government should "encourage small projects in the villages and expand the construction of industrial zones as well as activate the role of national associations." He emphasised the importance of communal participation with the aim of embracing a more decentralised view of development.

Whether or not the watchword is decentralisation, development may yet take place. One day, Hanem's six-year-old son may not have to walk 20 minutes every morning to go to school. He may even grow up to become a computer scientist. With the enthusiasm of people like Eid and Iman, Egypt's villages may not only witness the dawn of development, but also find their place in the sun.

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