If there ever was a time for solidarity, it is now

Azza Radwan Sedky
Sunday 20 Nov 2016

Given the challenges facing Egyptians, now is the time for solidarity — subsidising people not products

The term solidarity conjures up meanings such as unanimity, like-mindedness, cohesion, and mutual support. Though not exact, it is the closest meaning to the Arabic word, “takaful.”

While “takaful” can mean solidarity, it also translates to burden sharing, joint responsibility, and guardianship. Having found no English word to befit the term “takaful” exactly, I’ll just have to make do with “solidarity.” Now back to our issue today: why, if there ever was a time for solidarity, is it now?

In yonder years, I got frustrated with those who, in the hopes of getting a tip in return, thanked me profusely or wished me well unnecessarily. Complying would’ve meant I participated in creating an exponential range of panhandlers. 

This notion hasn’t changed, though it has developed. Yes, we must help those in need, but we must do it prudently and rationally.

Egyptians are facing dire challenges. The latest economic measures of floating the pound and cutting fuel subsidies will benefit Egypt in the long run. However, it is today that is worrisome.

Subsidising electricity, fuel, and other commodities such as bread, allowed Egyptians to live in an impractical world. High time the ivory tower is shattered and Egyptians face down-to-earth realities. No, electricity does not come so cheap anywhere in the world and neither does bread cost five piasters.

The pound flotation will bolster exports but will increase inflation, affecting industries and imports such as medication and other necessities.

The planned value-added tax will reduce tax evasion and bring in the needed liquidity but will hike prices further.

Despite the government’s effort to protect the needy by keeping power subsidies intact for those who consume less, and by including even more food items in the subsidy formula, everyone will be hit hard.

So setting the government’s effort aside, today it is up to those who have to help those who have not, not only regularly but also wisely.

Egyptians, be they Muslims or Christians, pay their religious dues of “zakat" and “oshoor" and tip generously. The successes realised by Magdi Yacoub’s hospital and the Tahya Misr Project, whose sole aims are to alleviate the suffering of the poor, rely on donors’ solidarity.

All this is commendable but insufficient as the anticipated hardships edge closer.

Giving to simply anyone creates freeloaders; handing out “baksheesh” indiscriminately is dangerous. A sudden 20 pounds in someone’s pocket will not leave a substantial mark, but setting aside a sum of money, a monthly allotment, that goes to a particular person in need will.

“Sponsor a child” charities are known all over the world. Similarly, you can give a parent a sum of money that would sustain a child, keep the child at school and avoid him or her the threat of child labour. This should continue until the child graduates.

Also, choosing whom to support is key. Giving to those who already receive support because they are around us is futile. It is easy to give to the janitor, who also receives support from other tenants, but a weekly allowance to the street cleaner is more justifiable.

“In kind” donations are more useful than simple cash. “In kind” means giving in the form of goods or services. Give a smoker 100 pounds and he will spend half of it on cigarettes; give him food — a chicken or two kilogrammes of sugar — and it will go further. Buy him a blanket in the winter. Pay his child’s tuition fee early in the school year — it is only 60 pounds per year. Take him to see a doctor and pay for the prescribed medication, or even help him apply to get a government pension. Better yet, every month give a young mother a supply of birth control pills.

If out of “in kind” ideas, donate to charities that won’t spend your donations on television ads and salaries. Do your homework; learn about the charities that receive your donations. At best 20 percent should be what goes towards running a charity, and the rest must go to projects that serve the needy.

The saying, “Give a man a fish and he will eat today, teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime” applies here. Buying a rural poor mother a sewing machine or a knitting machine can be lucrative. Buying her a cow would render her self-sufficient. She would sell the butter, cheese, yogurt, and milk and satisfy her hungry children. Giving her 100 pounds every month for years will make her dependent, but a once-and-for-all campaign to buy her the cow or the sewing machine will leave her empowered.

If it is in your capacity to teach or train someone, go ahead. Teaching someone to weave kelims or carpets, embroider pillows or cushions, crochet quilts and tablecloths will give them control over their lives.

The concept of the Grameen Bank of Bangladesh, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, is worth repeating in Egypt even if at a small and individual scale. Originally supported only by donors and charity agencies, the Grameen Bank is a micro-credit programme that lends impoverished, no-collateral women enough money to start small businesses.

In Uganda, a study conducted by IPA (Innovations for Poverty Actions) gave a group of 20 youths 10,000 Ugandan dollars each, which amounts to $400 a person, equal to their annual incomes. Surprisingly, most recipients started new skilled trades like metalworking or tailoring. “They increase[d] their employment hours about 17 percent. Those new hours [were] spent in high-return activities, and so earnings [rose] nearly 50 percent, especially women’s.”

If I have made a mere handful of you go out of their way to help others, I have succeeded. Now is the time to give, even if prudently, so “subsidise” people not products.

The writer is author of Cairo Rewind: The First Two Years of Egypt's Revolution.



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