INTERVIEW: Transforming the Egyptian countryside

Ahmed Morsy , Friday 12 Mar 2021

Khaled Abdel-Fattah, director and official spokesperson of the Decent Life initiative, tells Al-Ahram Weekly about the ambitious national project

A decent life for all
Abdel-Fattah

“The Egyptian countryside will be transformed in three years’ time,” President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi said in January when the second phase of the Decent Life initiative to develop 4,500 rural villages was launched.

The plan to develop rural areas is the most ambitious for decades, says Khaled Abdel-Fattah, official spokesperson and director of the Decent Life initiative at the Ministry of Social Solidarity. The programme aims to improve the standard of living, infrastructure, and basic services, of vast swathes of the countryside.

The Decent Life initiative dates back to 2019 when the Ministry of Social Solidarity was put in charge of developing Egypt’s poorest 1,000 villages by the president. The then minister of social solidarity Ghada Wali said the programme would “target the most underprivileged sectors and individuals in the most impoverished and remote areas”.

According to the Central Agency for Public Mobilisation and Statistics (CAPMAS), 29.7 per cent of the population — 30 million citizens — were living below the poverty line in FY 2019-20.

Abdel-Fattah told Al-Ahram Weekly that in the earliest stages of the initiative 1,000 villages were evaluated. The first group included villages where 70 per cent of the population was living below the poverty line. Out of the initial 1,000 villages, 143 in 11 governorates were assigned to this group.

In December 2020, the initiative was expanded from 1,000 to 4,500 villages to be developed within three years.

The 4,500 villages, says Abdel-Fattah, are home to 50 million citizens, and are being developed at a cost of LE515 billion. The volume of work required to develop so many villages necessitated they be divided into three groups of 1,500 villages each, with work on each group proceeding in consecutive years.

“By the end of FY 2023-24 the entire Decent Life initiative will have been completed,” according to Abdel-Fattah.

Work on the 143-village first phase, covering an estimated 4.5 million citizens, was executed by three ministries in collaboration with NGOs, and cost LE4 billion.

The ministries of planning and local development were responsible for managing 616 infrastructure and public service projects, sharing a joint budget of LE3.4 billion, while the role of the Ministry of Social Solidarity was to support the most vulnerable families to the tune of LE670 million, including a LE100 million contribution from NGOs.

The Ministry of Social Solidarity oversaw improvements in housing standards and took charge of free health provision, providing surgeries, medical treatment, equipment for those with special needs, and optician services, and offered financial support to brides who would otherwise be unable to afford to marry.

 Egyptian countryside
Egyptian countryside
29.7 per cent of the Egyptian population — 30 million citizens — living below the poverty line (Photo: Reuters)

“The work of the Social Solidarity Ministry is complete in 99 per cent of the villages of the first phase,” Abdel-Fattah said. There are just a few remaining houses in four or five villages where work is expected to be finished and the properties handed over in two weeks’ time.

“The second phase is more diversified, having expanded to encompass infrastructural development alongside economic and social empowerment,” Abdel-Fattah told the Weekly, and instead of the three ministries, 15 are now involved.

“With 15 ministries working in tandem, the results will be much more impressive than if each ministry was working in isolation. And the entire project has been granted an unprecedented budget.”

While most of the Social Solidarity Ministry’s interventions in the first phase were focused on support for families and health services, the aim now is four-pronged. It includes the economic empowerment of village inhabitants, including female-headed households, providing job opportunities and vocational training for the young, and support for those seeking to launch micro-projects.

Egypt’s unemployment rate was 7.2 per cent during the fourth quarter of 2020, according to CAPMAS.

All Decent Life projects now target the creation of village-based jobs, and a presidential directive to give priority to locally-produced raw materials in order to revive local economies and benefit workers in local companies and factories is being implemented, Abdel-Fattah explained.

The second prong, social empowerment, targets all family members, but especially women, through family guidance and counselling offices and reproductive health clinics. The third extends social safety nets by providing health, social, and financial care to people with disabilities, including health convoys for the early detection of health problems among children, while the fourth prong focuses on offering education services to villagers.

Since the December 2020 presidential mandate to expand the initiative to 4,500 villages, Abdel-Fattah says the ministry has identified the bulk of work sites and plans and budgets have been drawn up. During the last two months meetings have been held with 50 NGOs to discuss coordination on projects, and ministry undersecretaries in 20 governorates have been consulted.

The second phase’s first stage, due to be completed by the end of this year, covers 18 million citizens in 1,500 villages, and will cost an estimated at LE153 billion. The funding of the entire second phase is, says Abdel-Fattah, being covered by the state.

The Decent Life initiative has a partner organisation, the Decent Life Foundation, which recruits young volunteers in the targeted villages who then receive vocational training.

“The foundation received 18,000 applications from volunteers within the first three days,” says Abdel-Fattah.

The National Training Academy (NTA), founded in 2017 by presidential decree, is also taking part in the initiative by providing training programmes. Young people who want to volunteer can apply through https://www.hayakarima.com/api/register

The NTA has issued a statement saying it will provide a comprehensive education programme to furnish volunteers with all the skills and requirements needed to create a young creative workforce.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 11 March, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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