It has been 10 years since Egypt last issued a Human Development Report (HDR). This year it made up for that hiatus by issuing a 2021 report entitled “Development, A Right for All: Egypt’s Pathways and Prospects”.
The report, issued by the UN Development Programme in cooperation with the Ministry of Planning and Economic Development, covers progress made over the past decade in investment in human capital, economic development, social protection, women’s empowerment, environmental sustainability, and governance.
It chronicles policies and initiatives implemented to achieve goals set by the government in each of these areas. It cites data to support the government in the second phase of structural reforms to the economy and makes recommendations on development priorities.
The situation on the ground is 10 times better than 10 years ago, economist Heba Handoussa told Al-Ahram Weekly. Handoussa led the team preparing Egypt’s Human Development Report in the years before the 2011 Revolution, and since then there have been exceptional improvements in the situation of women, young people, and the poor, and major investments in infrastructure, she said.
The upgrades of roads connecting the governorates to Cairo and to each other are making a huge difference to lifting them out of poverty, Handoussa said, noting that they had made all the difference to governorates such as Qena and Fayoum.
This year’s HDR shows that in the area of education that falls under the wider concept of investment in human capital, there have been improvements in pre-university education over the past 10 years, with increased net and gross enrolment rates at all educational levels, though the successes have been concentrated in the primary education stage. The task now is to improve enrolments in the lower secondary and secondary stages.
The data also show that the gender gap has disappeared, with net enrolment rates for girls exceeding those for boys at all levels of pre-university education by 2019/2020. Moreover, regional disparities in enrolment rates have improved significantly over the same period, though in Upper Egypt they remain lower than in the rest of the country.
Handoussa lauded efforts to reform the educational system, saying that experts had been calling for reforms for years, but they had only begun to happen because of political will. Parents used to spend as much as the government per student, she said. The government’s programme to reform the education system promotes the uptake of technology in classrooms and seeks to change the way society views it.
Regarding the health sector, the HDR tracks down various programmes and initiatives aimed at advancing public health within a framework of justice and equity by achieving universal health coverage and improving governance. They include initiatives to eradicate Hepatitis C, support women’s and children’s health, and eliminate patient waiting lists.
Another area where great strides have been taken over the past decade has been the expansion of social housing to provide adequate housing for all. Hundreds of thousands of homes have been made available for low- and middle-income earners. The number of unplanned and unsafe settlements has been reduced, and there has been increased coverage of water and sanitation services.
The number of people living in settlements classified as unsafe decreased by 35 per cent in 2019, the HDR noted. Egypt’s sustainable development strategy aims to reduce the population living in unsafe settlements by 100 per cent by 2030. The number of unsafe settlements developed between 2014 and 2020 amounted to around 296 out of a total of 357.
Funding: Despite the progress made in the education, healthcare, and housing sectors, however, the HDR emphasises that a lack of funding remains one of the most important challenges in such areas.
Government expenditure on education and healthcare is low compared to international levels. This “may negatively affect the quality of educational and health services provided, especially in the light of the need for more supplies and equipment in some educational and health sector buildings, the obsolescence of assets, and the weak infrastructure in some facilities as a result of low maintenance appropriations,” the HDR says.
But it said that Egypt’s decision-makers were working on policies to increase spending where needed, “adopting alternative financing mechanisms and increasing maintenance appropriations to overcome asset-related challenges and the weak infrastructure of service facilities.”
There are also moves to support and expand investment in community-based education and health systems, necessary for Egypt to tackle the increasing pressures on the service sectors that result from the country’s continued population growth, the HDR said.
Egypt’s economic reform programme is at the heart of the HDR, which outlines its contribution to achieving macroeconomic stability and instilling confidence in the economy. But despite the success of many economic and financial reforms, the HDR said that there were still pressing challenges, including “identifying innovative development financing mechanisms in the light of limited domestic resources, relatively low savings rates, and a temporary setback in foreign investments especially direct investments due to Covid-19.”
There is also a need to increase growth rates in the manufacturing sector and of public and private investments given their importance for growth and employment, the HDR says.
Noting the decrease in poverty rates to 29.7 per cent in 2019-2020 from 32.5 per cent in 2017-2018, the first such decrease in 20 years, the HDR said more programmes were needed to support the downward trend.
The policies Egypt implements in the future should aim to create a stronger role for the private sector to redress the lack of public resources, it said. It added that there was a need to reduce the negative effects resulting from Egypt’s rising debt obligations by strengthening the management of public debt to slow the increase.
Egypt’s total debt, both domestic and foreign, is projected to stabilise at 114 per cent of GDP in fiscal year 2020-21. Prior to the Covid-19 crisis, the authorities had made significant progress in reducing public debt from nearly 104 per cent of GDP in 2016-17 to 85 per cent in 2018-19.
Handoussa stressed the need to focus on three engines of reform, namely “industry, self-sufficiency in carefully chosen crops, and everything digital”.
In the area of social protection, the HDR shows that the policies pursued see it as an inclusive right. “These transformations represent a qualitative shift in the functions of social protection, from the protective function characterised by relief efforts to preventive and reinforcing functions,” the HDR said.
Empowerment is an essential component of programmes related to social protection, and cash transfers have been linked to economic and social empowerment programmes with a focus on vulnerable social groups as well as the poorest and most marginalised areas through programmes such as Takaful and Karama (Solidarity and Dignity) that are conditional cash-transfer schemes that provide income support for poor families with children under 18.
Nearly 90 per cent of their targeted beneficiaries are women.
The Ministry of Social Solidarity has also started to work on economic empowerment programmes aimed at providing job opportunities and qualifying the poor to engage in the labour market. The HDR lists legislative reforms carried out in the area of social protection, one of their aims being to ensure that the social insurance umbrella is extended to irregular workers.
According to Handoussa, currently the managing director of the Al-Nidaa Foundation (ENID) which runs projects in Upper Egypt, the fact that the government is prioritising social protection is making the work of NGOs on the ground much easier.
Women: Women and their role in society is one of the topics highlighted in the HDR, which shows efforts made in recent years to promote the integration of women and the mainstreaming of women’s issues into various policies and to enhance their political, economic, and social roles.
The HDR points to ongoing efforts to support women in leadership positions, whether in judicial bodies or government institutions.
As result of such changes, Egypt’s ranking on the political empowerment index of the 2021 Global Gender Gap Index was 78th out of 156 countries, the highest ranking the country has achieved in the past 10 years. A set of programmes related to the protection of Egyptian women is also being implemented, bearing fruit in legislation aimed at combating issues such as Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) and violence against women.
In the area of the environment, the HDR said Egypt was taking steps to improve the quality of the environment in order to protect the health of millions and improve the quality of their lives. Upcoming policies the government is seeking to implement aim to change consumption habits and encourage recycling.
The HDR points out that directing government spending and purchasing towards green services and products can be an effective tool in stimulating sustainable consumption and production patterns in Egypt.
Governance is another area examined closely, with the HDR looking at efforts towards administrative reform and steps to combat corruption. The government views these issues as the basic building blocks of reform with a view to creating an effective system of managing the state and society.
To enhance steps already taken, the HDR recommends supporting digital-transformation efforts and electronic services, while strengthening cooperation with the private sector and securing information infrastructure. “These issues have proven to be of great importance during the Covid-19 crisis, and the decision to invest in them during recent years has proved wise,” the HDR said.
It also highlights the importance of empowering local administrations. It said Egypt was seeking to expedite the issuance of laws in support of decentralisation and to ensure that local councils are elected, in addition to increasing investments in the governorates.
It says the government is intent on putting in place legislative reforms intended to strengthen governance, including laws on freedom of information, the protection of whistleblowers, a single budget, state planning, and local administration.
For Handoussa, it is important to create capacities in local administrations to better serve all citizens. There was a need for more young, educated, and forward-looking staff to listen to people’s needs, she concluded.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 23 September, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly