Several unfortunate accidents were in the headlines this week: One person died and hundreds were under observation for water poisoning in Sharqiya; part of a bridge in Daqahliya collapsed; the Abbasiya metro jumped the tracks; and a fire broke out in a train car. Clearly someone is to blame for these frequent misfortunes.
But while the prosecution is still investigating, here seems to be conflicting reports: In Sharqiya, the water was cut a few days before the poisonings to clean the tanks, but the water company says the problem is that locals use groundwater from unregulated water plants, while residents say the source of the contamination is the sewage flooding the streets.
Reporting on the metro accident, the papers said the driver was speeding; another version claims the mistake lies with the traffic controller, while a third story had it that there was a technical problem with the tracks.
In Daqahliya, the prosecution’s preliminary investigations indicate that the bridge, which the contractor completed years ago, had not been officially approved due to technical flaws; the investigations continue.
But today I don’t want to assign blame. The media has spared no effort in doing so, and in appealing to governors, ministers, and water, transport, road, and bridge officials to intervene immediately and hold the culpable parties to account. What worries me is that this typically leads to the identification of one specific person—a movie-like "bad guy" who takes the blame - and like a movie, the problem is resolved once this villain has been caught and brought to justice. Then we all go back to waiting for the next disaster and the next villain.
The truth is that public infrastructure in Egypt is in a very poor shape and requires modernisation, renovation, and maintenance to prevent further deterioration and accidents, before the problem becomes irreparable. This is obvious, but it is not enough. We need specific policies that can help stop infrastructure problems in the future at the source. And here I would like to propose three policies that can be pursued even with the state’s limited financial resources.
Firstly, public spending priorities should be reconsidered, especially now as the government drafts next year’s budget. This involves weighing the launch of new programs and megaprojects against the completion and maintenance for existing projects.
Every government prefers the former because they are visible actions that suggest the beginning of a new phase and encourage public mobilisation. In contrast, maintaining and renovating existing projects does not garner the same media and public attention, signaling instead that the current government is completing works begun by its predecessor, and rarely mobilise the public.
This, however, is a critical issue and it has repercussions in every economic and service sector. Should we establish a high-speed train network that can go from Cairo to Aswan in four hours? Or repair the existing network so the trip takes ten hours, but with punctual timetables, functional seats, clean bathrooms, and working air-conditioning?
Which is more beneficial to majority of citizens and easier on the public budget? Reclaim four million feddans in light of the coming inevitable water shortage, or fix the existing irrigation system? Build a new capital or improve services and infrastructure in historical cities? Establish new hospitals or direct the same resources to improving health services in existing clinics and hospitals?
There is no one answer to all these questions—and not all old infrastructures can be fixed anyway - but the first step is to consider the alternatives. Economic progress is not always achieved through new megaprojects; there may be more economic and social benefits in repairing existing public works.
Secondly, we should objectively reexamine partnerships between the public and private sectors (PPP) regardless of the fact that the law was issued under the previous regime and is subject to much criticism. These partnerships allow citizens and the private sector to contribute to the funding and management of public services within a sound legal framework and under government oversight that dictates deterrent penalties for offenders.
This can improve services and reduce the cost. If the relevant law was issued with severe flaws that precluded its successful application and raised concerns of corruption, the solution is not to discard the idea entirely. The answer is to fix the flaws, tighten controls, and introduce means for public oversight, as is the case in many countries that have successfully mobilised private financing for public projects without neglecting the citizenry or fostering corruption.
Finally, we should reconsider how we hold people to account for these recurring accidents, which may unfortunately persist until public services are upgraded. It’s natural for the media to point fingers, but they should not be pointed at the least powerful, most vulnerable party.
The switch worker who falls asleep on the job certainly bears responsibility. But the more culpable party is the one who refused to install a warning system, the person who disregarded relevant reports, who contracted out faulty alarm systems, who approved their functionality, and who decided that maintenance was unnecessary.
And the same is true of the water station, the metro, and the bridge. The culprit is not necessarily the worker present at the moment of the incident, but the person responsible for the flawed operating methods and faulty oversight and warning systems.
Economic and social development cannot be judged solely by the size of public and private investment, but also by the efficient use of resources, openness to varied financing methods, and a willingness to direct blame where it belongs, not only at the last person in the chain of responsibility.
Ziad Bahaa ElDin holds a PhD in financial law from the London School of Economics. He is a former deputy prime minister, former chairman of the Egyptian Financial Supervisory Authority and former chairman of the General Authority for Investments.
This article was published in El-Shorouq newspaper on Tuesday 28 April.