In August, Leslie Reed took over as the new mission director of the US Agency for International Development (USAID) in Egypt, succeeding Sherry F. Carlin.
In an exclusive interview, Reed spoke with Ahram Online about USAID’s partnership with Egypt and the agency’s future plans in the country.
Reed spoke about how USAID has supported Egypt amid the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly during the current second wave of the virus.
Prior to starting her work in Egypt, Leslie served as mission director in several other countries. Most recently, she completed a year-long tour as mission director in South Sudan.
She had also served as mission director for Ethiopia from 2016 to 2019, as well as the mission director for Uganda.
Ahram Online: How do you assess the social and economic impacts of the COVID-19 crisis on Egypt?
Leslie Reed:As you know, the full impact of COVID-19 worldwide is yet to be fully understood. In Egypt, we know that many have lost their jobs and income, the tourism sector is suffering, the education sector was hit hard, and agricultural supply chains were disrupted. We also know that women and girls are especially vulnerable to the negative social and economic impacts of COVID-19, and violence against women has increased during the pandemic. Despite all of this, I believe there is reason to be optimistic, too. According to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), Egypt’s economy has performed better than expected despite the pandemic. In fact, Egypt was the only MENA and Arab country with a positive growth rate (around 3.5 percent) in 2020.
The United States government, through USAID, supports Egypt in responding to the COVID-19 pandemic and reducing the secondary impacts of it.
AO: How is USAID expected to support Egypt's efforts in fighting the pandemic, especially amid the ongoing second wave of the virus?
LR: The United States is saving lives and helping people cope during this difficult time.
Building on $1 billion in investments over the past 40 years to improve Egyptians’ health, USAID is providing nearly $27 million to support Egypt’s COVID-19 response. Mass awareness campaigns and 140,000 hygiene kits are helping Egyptians curb the spread and transmission of the virus. The United States donated 250 ventilators which are now saving lives in 24 hospitals across the country, treating patients suffering the worst effects of COVID-19. USAID also supports the Egyptian Red Crescent’s (ERC) network of 30,000 volunteers and health professionals to conduct community outreach and build ERC’s capacity to respond to future crises.
Moreover, USAID provides food assistance to 40,000 vulnerable pregnant and nursing women and children, and will also connect 500 mothers who are under the social safety net system with micro-loans and business training so they can support themselves and their families. USAID also supports Egyptian doctors, nurses, epidemiologists, and the Ministry of Health and Population to track and better understand the ongoing spread of the virus.
Additionally, our support reduces the secondary social and economic impacts of the pandemic. For example, USAID supported the Egyptian government in studying the impact of COVID-19 on the Egyptian economy and developing recommendations for economic stimulus packages to manage a potential financial crisis and follow international best practices, and supported updates to Egypt’s Sustainable Development Strategy and Vision 2030, to respond to the COVID-19 crisis. These studies helped Egypt design an effective stimulus package that contributed to alleviating the negative impact of the pandemic.
USAID is also supporting Egypt’s micro, small, and medium-sized enterprises (MSMEs) as these businesses respond to the impacts of the COVID-19 crisis. The USAID-funded Egyptian-American Enterprise Fund is providing a $10 million loan to Fawry Microfinance over a three-year period to lend money to Egyptian MSMEs, whose operations have been impacted as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. The microfinance lending will target supermarkets, telecom stores, kiosks, and other small businesses. This means more businesses, more jobs, and more stability coming out of the pandemic.
As I mentioned earlier, one of the social impacts of the pandemic and subsequent shutdowns is an increase in violence against women. Over the past five years, USAID trained more than 3,000 law enforcement officials, healthcare providers, and social workers to provide health, counseling, legal, and protection services to women and girls who have experienced violence, including at shelters in eight governorates and through the Women Complaints National Hotline. Since the pandemic’s onset, almost 17,000 women and girls have received these essential, life-saving services through the national hotline.
AO: How can the hardest-hit sectors survive and recover from the pandemic?
LR: The tourism sector, in particular, has suffered as fewer tourists travel to Egypt. Those dependent on tourism have lost income and jobs.
Soon after my arrival in-country as the new mission director, on my first project site visit I accompanied US Ambassador to Egypt Jonathan Cohen to Luxor in September to see US-funded cultural heritage restoration and conservation work at Karnak, the Valley of the Kings, and Theban Tomb 110. With these magnificent sites, I am confident the tourism sector will recover quickly. The Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities does fantastic work making these sites accessible virtually and making them safe for visitors. They have done an unbelievable job attracting international tourists by implementing effective safety protocols. Maintaining the current practices of reduced occupancy rates, increased safety measures, and cleaning procedures in airports, hotels, and restaurants will further enhance tourists' confidence.
To prepare for this rebound and mitigate the effects of the pandemic, USAID has focused on restoring sites and boosting tourism’s role as an engine of economic growth and employment. Tourism creates millions of jobs and injects billions of dollars in hard currency into Egypt’s economy. To this end, over the past two decades, USAID provided $100 million to conserve monuments and masterpieces spanning Egypt’s long cultural heritage. Through our current programs in Cairo and Esna, USAID balances cultural preservation with economic empowerment, thus supporting sustainable livelihoods. Since 2000, USAID has invested in eight large-scale engineering systems to protect dozens of Egypt’s most important archeological sites from rising groundwater, such as the Sphinx, Kom Ombo, and Kom El-Shuqafa in Alexandria. Without this partnership between USAID and Egypt, the Sphinx would have continued to suffer damage from rising groundwater. Now, it’s preserved for tourism today and for generations to come.
AO: Are there any changes in USAID’s action plan in Egypt amid the ongoing crisis?
LR: In the age of COVID-19, many of our projects have adapted to overcome the challenges of the pandemic.
For example, USAID is investing $21 million in Egypt to establish 21 career centres at 13 public universities to reach 1.5 million students. Of course, for most of the year, students have not been able to enter university campuses. The University Career Centres for Development are now offering their services and courses online; they even hosted Egypt’s first ever virtual career fair. We didn’t envision online services in the project, but we have learned that this is an excellent tool for expanding access to these highly sought-after skills. We are now contemplating using more e-learning platforms in our Career Centres even after students return to campuses.
Similarly, USAID has supported the Ministry of Education and Technical Education’s IT platform to digitise some curricula and communications between teachers and students in the technical education sector.
USAID launched a new Sustainable Services Activity to help incubators, business development centres, startups, and MSMEs survive the hardships caused by the pandemic over the short and medium-term.
Our agricultural activities adapted. We shifted agronomic support for farmers to virtual platforms. USAID provided virtual training on farming practices, health and hygiene; and convened WhatsApp groups to offer targeted support. We installed handwashing facilities at rural collection and sorting centres to prevent the spread of COVID-19 among the laborers and farmers.
AO: In your perspective, what kind of procedures does the government of Egypt need to adopt amid the crisis?
LR: The government of Egypt should continue to expand budget relief initiatives by creating alternative funding sources for important programs. The recent Green Bond initiative is a good example. Continued development of “Sukuk” offerings for Islamic banking would provide additional relief. The recently approved Sarwa Capital EGP 2.5 billion Sukuk issuance is a great example. Sarwa is an investment of the USAID-funded Egyptian-American Enterprise Fund.
Similarly, increased collaboration between the public and private sectors would help the government with infrastructure projects such as desalination facilities, which would relieve current budget strains.
AO: How could Egypt's sustainable development goals (SDGs) agenda be affected by the COVID-19 outbreak?
LR: As in countries around the world, Egypt’s progress toward the SDGs has been impacted by the pandemic, but the United States is committed to helping Egypt recover.
In fact, USAID is currently finalising our new five-year strategic plan, which we developed in consultation with over 20 Egyptian government entities.
USAID’s five-year strategy (2021-2025) supports and builds on the government of Egypt’s Vision 2030 and the SDGs. It will focus on many issue areas, including economic empowerment of women, open commerce and creating a business enabling environment, water services, basic education that improves the quality and access to education, and more!
The strategy will alleviate the impact on some of Egypt's SDGs, including goal 8 (decent work and economic growth), goal 3 (good health and well-being), and goal 2 (zero hunger), among others.
AO: What are the future plans of USAID in Egypt?
LR: COVID-19 impacted our work but we are proud to say it has not slowed us down. We are reaching our target audiences and finding creative solutions to these challenges through online platforms and other innovative solutions.
I cannot overstate the importance of USAID’s 40-year partnership with Egypt; it is central to US foreign policy, and we will continue all of our programs to support both the government and the private sector as we adapt to the economic shifts from COVID-19.