Reports on poverty rates, poor living conditions and dire economic and social crises are a daily fact of life on planet Earth.
Countries issue statistics, organisations carry out research and studies, UN bodies issue statements and suggest solutions, and the world goes on trying to improve situations, lift people out of poverty, sustain development and make positive change.
But positive changes do not just happen. And they do not come as by-products of conflicts or as lucky outcomes of non-stop arguments. They occur after being documented, analysed and supported with plans that are well-devised.
Devising a plan to answer the dozens of foreign media reports on Egypt does not mean relying on local Facebook posts and the false conclusions circulating on social-media platforms as the right prescription for bringing many Egyptians out of poverty.
Yet, the past few days have seen endless attempts to analyse the results of the recent biannual government survey of household income in Egypt, known as the Income, Expenditure and Consumption Survey.
A 4.7 per cent increase in poverty since the previous survey, resulting in a staggering 32.5 per cent of Egyptians categorised as living below the poverty line, has caused a lot of concern.
But concerns in the aftermath of the Arab Spring have become coloured according to political affiliations. Those who follow Political Islam and its organisations deal with such findings as evidence for the prosecution. The Qatari TV network Aljazeera has been dealing with the results of the Egyptian survey as if they were the results of deep investigative journalism or top secrets affecting state security.
Headlines such as: “Egypt’s Poor Worse Since the 2011 Revolution” “What is it Like Living below the Poverty Line in Egypt?” and “Social Negligence in Egypt Leads to More Poverty” are being circulated, trying to make political capital out of the survey. Those who view the Muslim Brothers and other Islamists as the ideal rulers of a “pious” and “ultra-conservative” Egypt circulate such figures in the belief that they may help to retrieve their lost dream.
Other dreamers, namely those who oppose any economic reform and yet expect higher living standards with a continuity of heavy subsidies for millions of Egyptians, also consider the survey and its results as proof that the current economic reforms have been a failure.
It has to be noted, though, that these same voices have themselves long called for radical economic reforms as the only way towards economic prosperity.
It goes without saying that being faced with an official survey announcing that the poverty rates and the numbers of poor people have increased is alarming.
However, one should consider two important facts.
One is the transparency of making such numbers available, knowing that they will lead to controversy.
Another is thinking of ways to deal with the rising rates of poverty, despite the indications that Egypt is on the right track.
The right track in an Egypt struggling to rebuild its economy after eight years of social, political and economic turbulence does not necessarily mean improving living conditions and upward social and economic mobility at once.
Economists know that expecting such outcomes instantly after economic reforms have been carried out is too good to be true.
The truth is that we need a regular and systematic assessment of the impact of the economic reforms on the lives of ordinary people, knowing that direct effects and positive outcomes are not expected to be immediately observed in the near future.
What is to be observed are the social and economic protection measures that have been taken by the government, in addition to other steps that should be taken to improve Egypt’s economic competitiveness, attract more foreign investment, enable private investment and commercial financing for infrastructure, and encourage equitable and sustainable growth.
The IMF’s own recommendations tell us that austerity measures should be accompanied by socio-economic support plans to ease the effects of these on the least-privileged members of society and low-income sectors, especially since 27.8 per cent of Egyptian were already living below the poverty line before the economic reform plan was devised.
It is only logical to hold the government responsible for executing economic reforms that will be capable of not only extending social-protection measures for the most needy, but also of sustaining a thriving economy that is capable of shifting Egypt from a needy, badly educated, under-served and consumerist society to an advantaged, well-educated, well-served and productive one.
However, one needs to take into consideration a number of social and cultural problems that aggravate the situation and make the road to affluence a lot bumpier.
Our poverty tradition runs deep in Egypt. As the American anthropologist Oscar Lewis once contended, of the presence of the “some 70 interrelated social, economic and psychological traits, when it comes to the tradition or culture of poverty, the principal ones include fearfulness, suspiciousness, apathy, fatalism, cynicism about social institutions, and distrust of the police and government officials.”
According to a study conducted by the Social Research Centre of the American University in Cairo entitled “Poverty in Egypt: Concepts, Reality and Research Agenda,” apathy and fatalism are particularly important in that they inhibit the motivation to work or change.
The long presence of poverty also sometimes leads to a lack of impulse-control, a strong present-time orientation and relatively little ability to defer gratification and to plan for the future, it says. The lack of work motivation limits earnings, and concerns for immediate gratification precludes savings.
These maladaptive values and attitudes are socially transmitted from one generation to another.
Getting used to poverty is not a justification in order not to hold the system responsible for increasing poverty rates. However, it is a cultural and social obstacle that should be tackled.
The situation is made worse by the “religious additives” that have beautified poverty in Egypt.
Over the past five decades, and with the chaotic Islamist colonisation of the minds and hearts of many Egyptians, poverty has been manipulated in such a way as to serve the Islamisation of society.
Heavily building on the notions that poverty is a blessing that God bestows upon His loved ones in order to test their patience, endurance and strength so that they will have their front seats in Paradise, that the Prophet Mohamed, Peace be Upon Him, was himself poor and being like the Prophet is a great asset, that real wealth does not lie in money but rather in giving birth to as many children as possible in order to make Islam stronger, such ideas have found religious bases for poverty.
This last argument that the Islamists have been using to prohibit family planning has led to the population bomb. A poor farmer is made to believe that he should go on having children because each is a work opportunity and thus an investment that generates income.
And what happens to his children? Too often, they drop out of school, or do not enrol to start with. One works as a tuk-tuk driver, another works in a workshop, a third runs away, a fourth cleans cars, a fifth becomes an addict, a sixth tries his luck with illegal immigration on a boat sailing to Italy, a seventh learns how to beg, an eighth is born weak and incapable of working, a ninth becomes a maid at the age of seven and a tenth dies during birth because of the lack of medical care.
The culture of poverty is deeply rooted in Egypt. And the most difficult part of tackling poverty and the poor is not the proper application of social and economic security measures, but rather changing the mindset that treats poverty as a tradition that has to be preserved and continue from one generation to another.
* The writer is a journalist at Al-Hayat.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 22 August, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: The mindset of poverty