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Breaking down barriers

With all odds against them, the Egyptian people’s strength provides more meaningful support to their communities, writes Sherry F. Carlin

Sherry F. Carlin , Tuesday 11 Aug 2020

The world has changed considerably between my arrival in Cairo in March 2015 and my departure in mid-August 2020. One thing remains: the strength and promise of the Egyptian people.

Last year in the El Hebeel Area of Luxor, I stood on the sandy edge of a large basin full of wastewater feeling so overjoyed that I couldn’t stop smiling.  It might be hard to imagine sewage inspiring such excitement, but over the years, I had stood on that same site as it grew from a flat expanse of desert to a busy construction site to a massive, modern wastewater treatment facility that will grow with the population and service 330,000 people in Luxor City, Beyadeya City, and all the villages and rural areas located in Luxor District. Many families in the villages will be connected to sanitation services for the very first time.  Now able to shower and flush toilets, this USAID-funded wastewater treatment plant will transform their lives.  

I’ve witnessed a similar transformation in North Sinai.  Through a $50 million infrastructure project, USAID worked with the governorate’s leadership and the Sinai Water and Wastewater Company to ensure that 450,000 residents of North Sinai have access to safe drinking water.  It’s astonishing to see desalination plants, deep wells, and reservoirs -- designed and constructed by Egyptians, for Egyptians, with American support -- emerge from the desert.

In truth, every time I visited a USAID program, I left with a new sense of admiration.  Every person I met had a different story, but with a common theme: everyone was determined to be doing what they were doing, with all odds against them.  

I have talked to young women studying renewable energy, a curriculum developed by USAID in partnership with the Government of Egypt and private companies.  They described what it felt like to tell their parents that they want to enroll in this technical school, arguing that they have innovative ideas that will support Egypt’s growth, sustainably.  I know the courage this took, and over the years, I met more and more young women breaking down barriers to forge their own path.

We are currently working in 60 vocational schools in 11 governorates to transform Egypt’s vocational education system to ensure that training will be meaningfully linked to market demand.  In the last four years, we’ve helped employ over 31,000 graduates and job seekers, 31% of whom are women.

Women’s and girls’ empowerment is at the heart of much of USAID’s work in Egypt.  To be empowered, one must be safe.  In five years, I’ve seen real progress in preventing and responding to violence against women as a result of the commitment of our partners, the National Council for Women, the Ministry of Social Solidarity, and civil society organizations.  

I’ve also seen a transformation in the role of community social workers, in part through a partnership that brought Egyptian government officials, non-governmental organizations, and social workers to the United States to meet with their American counterparts and learn from each other how to prevent and respond to violence.  

USAID supports government-managed shelters throughout the country where women and children survivors of violence can access medical, legal, and psychological services.  In these shelters, I’ve talked to social workers who are redefining their jobs to provide more meaningful support to their communities.  They persevere every day as they grapple with some of life’s biggest challenges: child marriage, violence against women, and female genital mutilation.  

I’ve had similar conversations with some of the 14,000 community health workers USAID trained who support millions of Egyptian families, never more crucial to their communities’ safety and health as during the COVID-19 pandemic.  

Of all the changes I’ve witnessed over the last five years, coronavirus has had the broadest impact.  Though both of our countries experienced tremendous suffering, we helped each other.  Egypt donated medical supplies to the United States early in the pandemic.  And USAID has supported Egypt’s COVID-19 response with a donation of 250 American-made ventilators, by strengthening the health system’s capacity to prevent and control infections in hospitals, as well as through a partnership with the Egyptian Red Crescent and its network of 30,000 volunteers and health care workers.  

The crucial transformation that underpins everything we seek to do is the partnerships between USAID and the 14 Egyptian ministries and government institutions with which we work.  Over my five years here, through honest communication and hard work at every level, I’m proud to say that our relationship is based on mutual respect, value, and trust.  

Under the current leadership of Minister of International Cooperation Dr. Rania Al-Mashat, together we have pushed for more and deeper collaboration that has translated to impactful programs that are fully in line with Egyptian government priorities.

I leave knowing that it’s because of the will and determination of the Egyptian people that in five years, I’ve had the privilege of watching desert morph into gleaming new water infrastructure, young people daring to fulfill their dreams, and the bonds between our countries grow deeper and stronger.

The writer is USAID/Egypt mission director.



*A version of this article appears in print in the 13 August, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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