Pause for a second and visualize this – poverty in Egypt

Three years after a nation took to the streets demanding bread and social justice, poverty in Egypt has been increasing at alarming levels. A recent report published by the United Nations’ World Food Programme (WFP) and CAPMAS indicates that in 2011, 48.9 percent of Egyptians were below the Upper Poverty Line, up from 40.5 percent in 2005. This basically means that in 2011 almost half of Egypt’s population was counted as poor. Visualize this figure: approximately 40 million people. Recent reports by CAPMAS point to further increases in poverty in 2013.

Even more alarming are child malnutrition figures presented in this report. Child stunting, measured by a height-for-age ratio for children under five and an indicator for long-term malnutrition, rose from 23 percent in 2005, to 29 percent in 2008, to 31 percent in 2011 for children between the ages of 6 months and 5 years.

Pause for a second and also visualize this figure: one third of Egyptian children are suffering from long-term malnutrition, which has affected their growth. These children, at the very beginning of their lives, are already at a massive disadvantage that they might never be able to recover from. These figures are high by international standards and, given that poverty has increased since 2011, they have also undoubtedly increased.

Both poverty and malnutrition have been worsening long before the revolution, so the reason for their increase is not only the ongoing instability Egypt has been facing since then. They have been worsening due to various reasons: inflation, devaluation of the Egyptian pound, the avian influenza epidemic, and the various episodes of the food, fuel, and financial crises of the past few years.

Poverty and malnutrition were on the rise in the late Mubarak years despite high economic growth rates. They were on the rise due to corruption, a lack of adequate response to the crises being faced, and, most importantly, the direction in the economic agenda that was being pursued – an agenda which society has not yet actively discussed an alternative for.

Despite how large Egypt’s poverty figures are, the reality is even grimmer. They are actually an underestimation of the scale of poverty in Egypt. This is for two main reasons.

The first is that poverty lines in Egypt are set too low to factor in adequate costs of decent living, especially non-food needs: housing, healthcare, education, transportation, etc.

In the widely-cited 40 percent poverty incidence figure, which comes from a World Bank report published in 2007, if a household with four members spent more than LE299 per month (approx. US$52 in 2005, and $42 today) on non-food essentials in 2005, they would not be counted as poor. This LE299 was supposed to cover their rent, the costs of the de-facto compulsory magmu’at (private tutoring) in school, transportation, healthcare, electricity, water, and sanitation. Back then, the cost of renting a room in a terrible state in an informal area in Cairo, a room that shares a bathroom with 4-8 other room, cost between LE70-100. If they lived in anything better, they would belong to the 60 percent of Egyptians who were “not poor” in 2005.

The second reason is that the Egyptian census undercounts the populations of informal areas. Here is a glaring example of the problem. The 2006 census records a population of 32,652 in Ezbet al-Haggana, one of Egypt’s largest informal areas. Press and NGO figures refer to between one and two million people. In Mike Davis’ book, “Planet of Slums”, Ezbet al-Haggana is counted among the largest 15 mega-slums of the world. The reality is most likely somewhere in the middle – a few hundred thousand people. We actually don’t know. This is not an isolated error. Populations of informal areas are generally underestimated in the census – something that all urban researchers of Egypt would confirm.

Perhaps the biggest proof that poverty is underestimated in Egypt is the poverty incidence figure for Greater Cairo. Reports generally state that poverty in the city until 2007 was in the range of 5 percent of the population – how is this possible when approximately 65 percent of Cairenes live in informal areas?

I am not saying that they are all poor – but surely anyone familiar with these neighborhoods will testify that it is impossible that only a small fraction of their residents are poor. For a detailed calculation of costs of living and an understanding of why poverty figures are underestimated in Egypt, you can refer to this research paper.

It is a good time to have a serious discussion about the scale of poverty in Egypt. This serious discussion should include: a societal discussion (not one led by international organizations), consultations with the poor about what should define a decent and humane poverty line, access to HIECS (the Household Income, Expenditure and Consumption Survey carried out by CAPMAS), and census data for researchers so that the discussion can be informed. It is also time to have a national poverty monitoring system, rather than having poverty monitored by international organizations working in Egypt.

Egypt is at an opportune moment to face reality, to count the true size of the populations of informal areas and, thus, to count all Egyptians. Why is it a perfect moment? Simply because any new government can blame the massive scale of poverty and informal areas on the past. Mubarak’s regime saw these figures as their failure and, hence, there was a motivation to conceal them. Now is an excellent moment to start from facts: to know the true scale of poverty and to know the true scale of the populations of informal areas and to include them in Egypt’s census. Then – and only then – we can move forward relying on facts.


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