Wednesday,15 August, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1136, 21 - 27 February 2013
Wednesday,15 August, 2018
Issue 1136, 21 - 27 February 2013

Ahram Weekly

Advice on development

David Malone, president of Canada’s International Development Research Centre, outlined some of Egypt’s problems to Niveen Wahish that are not making the headlines

Al-Ahram Weekly

David M. Malone has been president of Canada’s International Development Research Centre (IDRC) for almost five years. Next month he moves on to become rector of the United Nations University in Tokyo. During a recent two-day visit to Cairo he spoke about some of the challenges facing Egypt and what policy-makers need to do to go about resolving them.


From a development perspective what are the most pressing challenges facing Egypt?

Inequality has increased a lot in the last 20 years in Egypt as it has in most countries. And when inequality increases, you always have social tensions. But Egypt also has some long-term issues that it needs to address, though a revolutionary moment is perhaps not the right time. First, better management of the Nile water because it is not infinite. Climate change may change how much Nile water there is, and it probably will not increase it. And second, the countries upstream are going to need more and more water, so what Egypt is used to getting may not always be available. Third, not all of it is used sustainably.

Another problem that is more invisible but is tremendously important is the quality, not quantity, of education. Egypt has done a very good job in getting children into schools and getting lots of young people into university. But it has not invested sufficiently in the quality of what they are taught. In the rest of the world, quality is improving. In Egypt, with the qualifications people are acquiring in the big universities and in the public schools system, it is going to be difficult for them to compete in the global market place. I hope that when the political situation stabilises in Egypt there will be more focus on the quality of education. There is not just one approach to high-quality education, but ignoring the problem is a recipe for trouble ahead.


Could the political unrest trigger a brain-drain from Egypt?

Egypt suffered from a very serious brain-drain during the 1950s and 60s because Nasser, one of the great figures of the 20th century, was convinced that the people whom he perceived as supporters of the king could not have a place in the society that his regime wanted to build. Many of them left and it was Egypt’s loss.


Do you see this happening again?

Any Egyptian would rather be in Egypt, I have no doubt about that. If they leave, it is because they feel they have no option for their children. I do not see much sign of this yet. But I think if instability lasts a long time, if no solutions to the country’s challenges are designed and implemented, then people will leave. And they will not be just minority people; people from the majority will also leave.

I hope this can be avoided because I do sense from the politicians here that they have the interest of Egypt and Egyptians at heart. They do not agree on what exactly these interests imply in terms of policy, but they have a great love for their country and this is a very good sign. That is something the government and the opposition share, and it is not a small thing. So I think that the migration of highly qualified Egyptians will be avoided because I think the politicians will realise that the price paid 50 years ago during the first great migration after the first revolution was too high. I hope for Egypt’s sake that it does not lose the people it needs most.


Can the country’s challenges be tackled?

Education can be fixed, and so can water. But if you think behind these two challenges, there is also a factor in Egypt that is a bit different from the rest of the world: population growth is much higher in Egypt than in most countries with a similar level of development. Egypt is diverging from international trends in terms of population growth, and that is worrying for two reasons: how can you educate all these people and where will the jobs come from for all these people? There is a demographic bomb that is growing in Egypt that people simply do not discuss.

These are never headline issues; everybody realises they are important, but they are not like a political crisis, a bank failure, or a building collapse, so they tend not to get the attention they deserve.


Is this something that you recommend policy-makers to get started on immediately?

Yes, because it takes many years to happen and because you do not want to force people not to have children. You want to encourage people to do what is best for them and the children they will have, and that takes many years. You do not change public attitudes overnight.


You once said that social media was not the cause of the Arab Spring. Do you believe that inequality was the main cause?

I think there was a great fear that the Mubarak regime would perpetuate itself, either through Mubarak’s children or in some other way: 30 years of Mubarak would become 30 more years of Mubarak, only without Mubarak. And I think that was the trigger, but the underlying causes were probably many. I think there was a sense, partly because of satellite television, partly because of social media, that life was better in other places than here. People were asking why they were not getting better social services. Moreover, I think the spark in Tunisia was very kinetic and contagious — it reminded people that what was true in Tunisia was even truer in Egypt where people were poorer than in Tunisia. So it was a multiplicity of things. Generally speaking, sharp events do not change history: it is a slow accumulation of change that can bring about profound change and that is what I think we are in the middle of in Egypt. That is why I make no judgement about outcomes.


Most Egyptians feel that though two years have gone by since the revolution their lives have not improved.

I sympathise with their feelings, but most revolutions do take time. And we do not know yet how or when Egypt will stabilise politically, though we know it will. It is just frustrating not to know when or how and what the outcome will be. But I hope the outcome will be a government that is able to and determined to focus on economic management and the social well-being of the country.


Are there short-term solutions that policy-makers can take so people can start feeling that something is being done?

I think the dialogue among the political actors in Egypt needs to move away from political tactics to what to do about the economy and what to do to provide better social services to the people of the country. I sensed in every political figure I met that they really love and they really want the best for Egypt.


How would you evaluate efforts to obtain the IMF loan?

I do not think a loan from the IMF is the beginning and end of the support that Egypt will need. It will need much more support than that. In order to obtain that support, Egypt’s politicians need to come together because the international community has economic problems of its own. It is not just going to cough up billions of dollars to help this or that party. But they do want to help Egypt.


Some people do not trust the government with management of the money.

That is an anxiety that is not very productive. It is extremely difficult to fund development without money. Development requires economic growth, and for economic growth you need private investment and public investment. For public investment, public actors need money. Certainly, Egypt becoming heavily indebted again is not a good idea. Donors forgave Egypt’s debt 20 years ago, and I do not think they will do the same thing again because it was very expensive.


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