Last week, the media spotlighted two stories that at first glance seem unrelated. First, the preparations for the international celebration to mark the completion of the new Suez Canal and second, the surprise visit by the prime minister to the Heart Institute and the subsequent exposé of the poor condition of public hospitals and health services in the country.
In fact, the two stories are closely linked because they both stand for a fundamental issue in economic development: prioritising spending between new national mega projects versus upgrading and developing already existing public services that suffer from grave neglect, resource shortages, and degraded work conditions.
Mega projects have several economic and developmental benefits. They mobilise local and international resources and investments, increase employment, stimulate local demand for construction materials, and attract modern technologies to the country. This is in addition to the intrinsic economic benefits of a dam, a canal, millions of reclaimed acres, or a new residential city.
If chosen wisely, mega projects can spur growth, production, and employment. Moreover, the political and public relations advantages of these projects cannot be denied. That’s why every new regime launches a mega project or two, to mark the inauguration of a new era, mobilise popular support, and demonstrate that the state is being rebuilt on the ashes of what came before.
In contrast, developing existing public services and infrastructure, upgrading sanitation networks, schools, and health units across the country, and reforming government institutions that interact with citizens every day— in spite of their direct impact on people’s lives and contribution to the growth of the economy -- do not receive as much official or media attention because they are by nature incremental, slow reforms that require years of work to show tangible results.
I call them “national minor projects,” not because they’re unimportant but because they require exhaustive efforts and patience in upgrading thousands of service units, reviewing dozens of laws and regulations, and work that reaches into every village, district, and neighborhood, all without yielding quick political payoffs or occasioning major celebrations and media coverage like mega projects.
This doesn’t mean that "minor projects" are always the right choice or that every new major national project is launched solely to score media accolades. But there must be a balance between launching new mega projects, and efforts to improve, maintain, and develop existing public services, especially in light of the current national budget constraints. These make it all the more urgent to focus on priorities with the biggest economic and social returns.
This should make us question current spending priorities. Why the focus on building a new capital instead of directing the same resources to developing informal areas and villages deprived of services? Why build a high-speed train instead of upgrading the existing rail network that serves millions of citizens? Why should we reclaim millions of acres given shrinking water resources when we need to improve the efficiency of land already being farmed by improving irrigation and crop patterns?
There may be convincing answers to these questions, but the lack of information justifies the need to raise them. Little information is forthcoming about priorities, funding mechanisms, feasibility studies, economic and social returns, and their impact on income distribution.
And in the absence of a parliament and local councils—and no consultation between the state and unions, associations, parties, and other social forces—it is the government alone that is determining spending priorities, without accountability, oversight, or participation.
This style of the ruler bestowing upon his people economic development and mega projects is obsolete. The rest of the world relies on the logic of participation and polling to figure out what concerns the citizenry before making decisions that may cost billions to no good end.
Neither mega nor minor projects are the right choice every time. Both kinds of enterprises are needed for economic development. What we need are clear mechanisms for the disclosure of information and popular consultation, regardless of the presence of a parliament. We should also evaluate the economic and social impact of all projects, minor or mega. Otherwise, the gap will continue to grow, between mega projects feted by the media and inaugurated with great fanfare and the alternate reality facing citizens every time they use a clinic, school, or public service.
The writer 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 Arabic in El-Shorouq newspaper on Tuesday 16 June.