“I wanted to have a good house, and here it is,” Samah Mansour, a 35-year-old housewife living in the Haj Sallam village near Farshout in the Upper Egyptian Qena governorate, told Al-Ahram Weekly, providing concrete testimony of some of the results of Egypt’s “Decent Life” initiative.
Mansour said she used to feel shy about inviting anyone to her house. “The charity in the village improved the house by building ceilings, painting the walls, and building a proper bathroom and kitchen. Life has totally changed for the better as a result of the ‘Decent Life’ initiative, and things will never be the same as before,” Mansour added.
“Decent Life” is an initiative launched by President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi in 2019 to improve the standard of living and quality of life for the neediest villages in rural Egypt.
The second stage of the initiative, launched in December 2020, targets a total of 1,500 villages inhabited by 18 million people. The National Project for the Development of Egyptian Villages is part of the larger “Decent Life” initiative.
Mansour’s husband, Abdel-Rahim Ahmed, 44, added that he benefits from the government’s Takaful and Karama cash-transfer programmes. “I receive LE430 a month,” he said.
Ahmed used to work in construction in Libya, but returned after a head injury. Now he is no longer able to work and visits a doctor in Cairo. The charity in his village helps him pay the physician’s fees, and it hopes to be able to offer his wife a sewing machine so that she can work from home and raise the income of the family.
According to the Ministry of Planning and Economic Development’s mid-term report monitoring and evaluating the impact of the “Decent Life” initiative, “Egypt’s total appropriations directed to the villages of the first phase of the ‘Decent Life’ presidential initiative amounted to LE5.5 billion directed to 1,901 interventions, including LE3.3 billion in the fiscal year 2019-20 and LE2.2 billion in the 2020-21 fiscal year.”
The first phase of the initiative, until the end of 2020, included 143 villages in 46 centres in 11 governorates, and the number of beneficiaries reached 1.8 million.
Minister of Planning and Economic Development Hala Al-Said said that 255 medical convoys, 1,335 surgeries, the provision of 538 prosthetic devices, 5,420 eye operations, 16,500 pairs of glasses, the establishment and development of 12 health units, with 56 more to be completed by 2020/21, were all part of the initiative.
The idea is a partnership between Egyptian civil society and the Ministry of Social Solidarity. Doaa Mabrouk, founder of the Baseera Foundation for the Visually Impaired, a NGO, participated in the first phase of the initiative and is looking forward to the second phase.
The foundation participated in some of the villages in Sohag governorate in Upper Egypt, where it examined around 35,000 people and all school children, offering 5,000 glasses and 2,000 eye operations.
University professors of ophthalmology donated eye operations for patients, and equipment and physicians were sent to villages that suffer from 90 per cent poverty rates, according to the Central Agency for Public Mobilisation and Statistics (CAPMAS), she said.
“We offered them the best medical services and raised awareness about eye health among rural health visitors and school and nursery teachers,” Mabrouk said. Civil society played an important role in improving the villages.
The report also indicated improvements in educational services by about 12 percentage points, with such services being provided in three deprived villages and the development of seven nurseries.
“Forty-five schools were established or developed under the initiative, including 717 classrooms. Some 127 schools operated for 1,493 semesters during 2020-21,” the report said.
For Mansour, education is a main way to development and a better life, and she herself spent five years in a one-classroom school after preparatory school. “We need a secondary school in the village to send my daughters to, because we feel worried about them if they go out of the village alone,” Mansour told the Weekly.
A Development first: The “Decent Life” initiative is a first in Egyptian history.
“It is the first comprehensive programme for rural development in the whole of Egypt. Developing the countryside is based on institutional social dialogue through committees that represent citizens — youth, women, NGOs, and all the active people in the local community — organised by the relevant governors,” Walaa Gad, manager of the central unit of the initiative at the Ministry of Local Development, said.
“The first aspect is infrastructure and social services, such as roads, gas, clean water and sewage, public lighting, and communication facilities,” Farid Abdel-Aal, a professor at the Institute of National Planning, told the Weekly.
“The first stage is determining the needs of each house and street in the village and then deciding priorities and planning the budget and timescale for implementation. This also requires determining implementation standards accurately. Every two weeks a meeting is held, and a monthly report is sent to the Ministry of Social Solidarity,” he said.
“The second aspect is economic development and creating new job opportunities. The third aspect is social security and social development,” Abdel-Aal said.
In the first phase of the initiative, sanitation coverage improved by about 46 percentage points. This was achieved through the installation of 706 domestic sewage tanks, 1,559 domestic sewage connections, and water networks 7km long.
Some 1,637 household connections have been installed, 49 groundwater wells have been constructed and developed, and sewage services connected to 21 villages. Such services will be delivered to 55 villages in 2020-21.
Regarding decent work and economic growth, the report indicated that small projects worth LE438 million and 71,000 job opportunities had been provided in the governorates of Assiut, Sohag, Qena, Qalioubiya, Minya, Aswan, Luxor, and Al-Wadi Al-Gedid.
The report also reviewed the impact of the initiative on sustainable cities and communities. According to indicators, 11,600 houses were improved, 160km of roads were paved, and 11 veterinary units were established. The initiative installed 11,000 lamp posts, established and developed 21 youth centres and playgrounds, and established and developed nine social units.
“Cooperation between the private sector, civil society, and the Ministry of Social Solidarity succeeded in working for the good of the people in rural areas. The prime minister manages the committee responsible for implementing the initiative and insists that all the materials used in the development should be locally made,” Gad said.
Choosing the poorest and neediest villages in the initiative’s first phase depended on measuring the rates of families depending on women, the rate of poverty, the size of the population, and the rate of services coverage, especially clean water and sewage.
Villages that witness social problems like sectarian problems and illegal emigration were also targeted.
In the second phase of the initiative, 51 centres have been chosen according to development indicators, and a further 1,500 villages will be covered. Housing Minister Assem Al-Gazzar is following up on the second phase and preparations to provide sanitation services to the villages covered while giving rural residents opportunities to participate in implementing them.
“The initiative covers 174 centres from a total of 189 in the three years to 2023-24. In the second phase, 51 centres will be covered, which means developing all the villages in them,” Al-Gazzar said. The rest of the centres are border governorates that have special development needs, he said.
One main challenge that faces the initiative is time, he said. “The good news is that this is a national project, and all ministries are cooperating with the whole community to achieve targets and finish by due dates,” Gad told the Weekly.
“Fifty-five million people will benefit from the ‘Decent Life’ initiative,” Ali Fathi, chair of the comprehensive development sector at the Misr Al-Kheir Foundation, a NGO, told the Weekly. He added that when people find that their rights are respected and their needs fulfilled, their loyalty to the country will increase.
The first phase of the initiative included 143 villages in 11 governorates. Misr Al-Kheir participated in developing 37 villages in the four governorates of Minya, Sohag, Assiut, and Qena, Fathi said.
Developing human beings was an essential aspect of this initiative, he added, and had been taken into consideration when implementing the initiative. “Job opportunities were offered to young people, and residents were willing to participate in all activities, including cleaning and planting trees.”
Ismail Abdel-Galil, a former chair of the Desert Research Centre in Cairo, told the Weekly that the “kinds of trees that used to be planted in Egyptian villages should be planted by the banks of canals,” to a depth of six or seven metres.
“Rural residents should have trees like sycamores and other trees to add a romantic atmosphere and help reduce water evaporation from canals. They will also help to clean up the canals and bring back the beauty to Egyptian villages,” Abdel-Galil concluded.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 4 February , 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly