Sunday,20 August, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1351, (6 - 12 July 2017)
Sunday,20 August, 2017
Issue 1351, (6 - 12 July 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Putting food on the table

Mai Samih learns how one NGO has been fighting to preserve the right of all to eat well despite the unprecedented inflation

Putting food on the table
Putting food on the table

Rapid price increases are now a major concern for almost every Egyptian regardless of social class, especially when it comes to government employees, many of whom are struggling to make ends meet. During and after the holy month of Ramadan inflation in Egypt reached 13.8 per cent, according to World Bank (WB) statistics.

The bank’s 2017 statistics say that the population of Egypt is now over 91 million, while the unemployment rate was 12.6 per cent in the final quarter of 2016. GDP in the first half of 2017 grew at 3.4 per cent. The poverty headcount ratio in Egypt in 2010 was 25.2 per cent, and gross national income was $3,340 per capita in 2015. The overall budget deficit declined in the first half of fiscal year 2017 to 5.4 per cent of GDP, down from 6.4 per cent in the same period last year. The report forecasts that GDP in 2019 will grow by 5.4 per cent.

The prices of commodities have increased, leaving many seeking alternatives. One NGO has taken it into its own hands to provide citizens with just these, and president of the Egyptians Against Inflation Association (EAIA), Mahmoud Al-Askalani explained how this might work to Al-Ahram Weekly.

“The EAIA started as a popular movement in 2008 after the appearance of the Kifaya (Enough) Movement against former president Hosni Mubarak. Our aim was to send a message to the government that high prices could lead to other problems. On the economic level people were under great pressure, and we were reacting to that,” Al-Askalani said.

The EAIA then became a registered organisation and started to work in the governorates to decrease the effects of the economic crisis through building outlets to provide citizens with the commodities they needed at low prices. The association made deals with cattle owners in Sudan to send meat to the shops under its supervision, Al-Askalani said.

 “We invented the idea of justice between merchants and consumers. I asked merchants to work with us provided they sold products at lower prices than those on the market as a whole. We would then support them on moral and logistical levels,” he said.  “We buy and sell wholesale so we can guarantee lower prices for the consumer. For example, the price of a kg of meat in one of our outlets in Mansoura is LE75, LE5 less than at the government outlets.”

Al-Askalani added that the EAIA now supports some 400 outlets in Cairo, Qalioubeya, Giza, Mansoura and Port Said. It markets via social media and organises a parallel market for those with limited financial resources. “Our organisation is composed of citizens and a group of merchants who work together,” he said. “We sign agreements with importers. We neither give money to anyone nor take money from anyone. We just support merchants and importers in selling their products at low prices to the public,” he added.

Al-Askalani is eager to see similar initiatives to distribute commodities at cheaper prices elsewhere, praising the efforts of the armed forces in this field. “The Armed Forces have played a major role in the past few years, and without them the country might have suffered a ‘hunger revolution’. They were able to provide meat from safe places and they have an active veterinary system and a sophisticated economic system. They have disciplined people who have been working very hard,” he said.

During last year’s Eid Adha, the Armed Forces provided the EAIA outlets with large amounts of meat to distribute after they had checked the outlets and the people who worked in them.

Al-Askalani gave the example of efforts made to resolve the problem of the increasing prices of chicken. “We asked the Union of Poultry Producers to decrease the prices of chicken, and we supported them when the problem of importing chickens occurred. We asked them to give consumers reasonable prices, and we even threatened to boycott producers asking high prices,” he said.

Among the problems they face is the fact that “we constantly have problems with the local authorities. When we want to work, we always need permits, for example. In some cases, we meet with stubbornness. But other people cooperate with us, among them the governor of Daqahleya, Ahmed Al-Sharawi, who immediately gave us a building permit for an outlet, even giving orders that it should be built quickly,” Al-Askalani said.

 

CONSUMER PROTECTION: He dismisses rumours that the EAIA has had problems with the Consumer Protection Agency (CPA).

“The CPA completes our job and is a very important body. We may disagree on the law, however, as we want the law to have more ability to protect consumers. The CPA has neither claws nor fangs, and it should be able to do more to benefit consumers. I believe the CPA is doing a good job despite these circumstances, and its chairman Atef Yacoub is doing a very good job in particular. It has been very important that the CPA has had someone like him, since he has developed the CPA and made it able to be involved in cases concerning consumer protection.”

Economic expert Hani Tawfik shares the same thoughts. “The EAIA must have more claws in law. It should be given the power of seizure and to press charges against those who do not abide by the law. It must be given an effective role in filing cases against monopolists who control the prices of commodities in the markets,” Tawfik commented.

He added that NGOs also have a role to play in representing consumers on committees so that their recommendations are binding on ministries like those of finance, social solidarity and supply. For example, if these NGOs find that some commodities are not subject to free competition, they should call for importing them to prevent monopolisation, he said.

“The doors of competition should be opened and corruption prevented by importing commodities. These NGOs must be able to make binding recommendations to the minister of finance to have him decrease customs and the minister of supply to open the doors to importing these commodities, and so on. Paving the way for free competition is the main thing such NGOs should start with to escape such problems,” he added.

Al-Askalani agrees, saying that the “CPA has no role in taking legal action according to the law. But when there is a law that states that it has the right to take legal action it will be able to do so. At the moment, it does not have the right to confiscate products or take other legal actions,” he said.

Popular power has been used by the EAIA, he noted. “We have organised initiatives such as the We Can Live Without Dried Fruits and Nuts campaign in Ramadan. Prices of yameesh, or dried fruits and nuts, decreased as a result. At the same time, we were able to make it clear to merchants that we refuse to pay high prices. Boycotting is a form of refusal, and it is a democratic act that does not use violence. We also organised the Meat is not a Must campaign, which was very successful for a time, though obviously we cannot tell people to stop eating meat. Some products people cannot boycott, like petroleum and electricity, however, even though these are expensive and may increase in price the future,” he said.

Professor of economics at Cairo University Farag Abdel-Fattah believes that instead of trying to cure the disease of high prices, greater rationalisation is needed. “The issue of high prices or low prices is a relative one. In the example of the increasing price of one commodity, someone could simply do without it in response. In the example of the decrease of the price of another commodity, someone may not need this commodity so the increase or decrease in its price does not concern him,” he commented.

Abdel-Fattah explains that there are two pillars controlling prices. The first is demand and the second is supply. He said that people should try to rationalise their consumption of commodities to bring down prices.

“Rationalisation will come with the high prices of commodities and the decrease in incomes. For example, people have started to decrease buying imported bananas in favour of local ones. This was one of the aims of the floatation of the currency — to allow commodities to be sold at their real prices,” Tawfik said.

“We must not support foreign producers at the expense of local producers. When the dollar exchange rate was LE6 or LE7, we used to support Chinese and Korean producers instead of local ones, which is not the case today because of the rising prices of imports. Transforming a society from a consumer society to a producer society will not occur overnight, however. The floatation occurred [in November 2016], and it will be some time before there will be local production of cheap commodities that can compete with imported products,” he added.

Al-Askalani gave a glimpse of future plans at the EAIA. “I would like to build a restaurant that feeds people free of charge. The chairman of the Awareness for Social Development NGO, Tamer Shihawi, and I are planning to build a restaurant like this in an extremely poor area, perhaps Ezbet Al-Haggana in Cairo. I want both the poor and the rich to eat in the restaurant, so that the latter can fund it through paying for their meals,” he said, adding that he would like to imitate the restaurants that former Brazilian president Lula da Silva built in Brazil in which people were also given jobs and training.

“Despite the fact that the country is facing unprecedented inflation, it is on the path to development… To have stability in the country there should be a functioning social safety net. A few days ago, I read that the Ministry of Supply would subsidise meat, which is good as this decreases prices, solves the problem of inflation, and enables the poor to eat meat. There are also important programmes like the Takaful and Karama programmes,” he said, referring to welfare programmes that transfer cash to poor mothers provided that their children get health exams and/or demonstrate school attendance.

“In order for President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi to be able to work quickly and without barriers on future projects in the fields of agriculture, industry and urbanisation, he should help secure the welfare of poor people at the same time,” Al-Askalani concluded.

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