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Child poverty increases in Egypt as critical support languishes

As independent organizations work to alleviate poverty and ensure access to education for Egypt’s children, the government’s NGO law is backfiring, hindering such attempts.

In the days leading up to Coptic Christmas on Jan. 7, Ezzat Naem, the founder and director of the Spirit of the Youth Association, was preparing gifts of clothing for some of the children of Cairo's Manshiyat Nasr neighborhood. Naem's organization, established in 2004, seeks to educate children from Manshiyat Nasr about how to recycle safely along with reading and mathematics.

A suburb in the hills of Mokattam, in eastern Cairo, Manshiyat Nasr is home to the Zabaleen, the mostly impoverished garbage collectors who recycle much of Cairo’s rubbish.

“About 60% of the kids are outside the formal education system,” Naem explained to Al-Monitor. “The opportunity for school is out because they go with their fathers to collect the garbage from households and merchants. Once they return, it’s too late for school.”

“They don’t play like [other] kids,” Naem said. “They don’t have fun, so they don’t have something nice, except some days they go to church. So they are losing a lot of their birthrights as children.”

Among the Zabaleen, children often start work as garbage collectors at the age of 7 or 8 to supplement their parents’ low incomes. For the boys, work means waking up with their fathers at 4 a.m. and collecting rubbish from apartments across Cairo and returning home at about 11 a.m.

After the boys and men return, work begins for the women and girls, during school hours, sorting through the rubbish to select what can be recycled and what can be given to their pigs.

The purpose behind the Spirit of the Youth Association is part environmental and part educational. It provides a free education to some of the neighborhood's most vulnerable children. Hundreds of them apply. The association also trains them how to recycle safely and sustainably.

The work among the refuse is often hazardous for the children. “They’re getting infected,” Naem said. “They get injuries from syringes going into their hands when they collect the garbage. That’s why we have Hepatitis [C] here.”

One in three children in Egypt suffers from poverty, revealed “Understanding Child Multidimensional Poverty in Egypt,” a UNICEF report published in December 2017 in coordination with Egypt’s Ministry of Social Solidarity and the Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics.

The report notes that financial poverty among families has increased markedly in Egypt over the last decade. It was estimated that 16.7% of the population lived below the poverty line in 2000, and by 2015, that figure had increased to 27.8%. According to the report, violence against children, poor nutrition and poor access to health services are the three main contributors to child multidimensional poverty.

Moussa, who withheld his surname and is now in his 20s, attended Naem’s school and benefited from the education it provided. He managed to break the cycle of poverty and become a baker in Manshiyat Nasr. He said the education was much better than what he received from a state school in the area, where he did not even learn how to read or write.

“The problem is that the government school has a bad style of teaching,” Moussa told Al-Monitor. “They have bad teachers and fight with the boys for no reason. I didn’t learn the alphabet in Arabic. I learned everything in school with Mr. Ezzat.”

Addressing another factor keeping children trapped in poverty, Bruno Maes, UNICEF's representative in Egypt, told Al-Monitor, “Major societal, behavioral and cultural shifts are needed in Egypt to ensure that all children are protected and to eliminate violence as one of the main contributors to child poverty.”

While Moussa said he never faced physical violence, he said he was exposed to other dangers. “This year we lost three children in the street after they were hit by cars, one just last week,” he said.

The UNICEF report, while pointing out the Egyptian government’s shortcomings in addressing child poverty across decades, also notes current state efforts to alleviate it. In this respect, as part of a five-year plan, UNICEF and the government will tackle the poverty issue by focusing on early childhood development, child malnutrition and eliminating violence against children. UNICEF will advise and assist the government in trying to improve these indicators.

Other efforts by the government to insulate against poverty include the Takaful and Karama programs. The Takaful program provides a 320 Egyptian pound ($18) base allowance with increments per child ranging from 60 Egyptian pounds ($3.40) to 100 Egyptian pounds ($5.70) depending on the age of the child. Inclusion, however, is contingent on children attending school.

Critics of the government’s approach point to political reasons for why they believe the government will fall short on this measure.

Amro Ali, a professor of sociology, believes the government’s lack of political inclusion is a detriment. “The state doesn’t allow for alternative voices to [offer advice],” he told Al-Monitor. “There isn’t much scope for that unless it’s under the purview of the regime.”

He further explained, “The state simply does not listen — not to the experts or to the poor themselves. The current mindset of the government doesn’t understand the concept of politics or deliberation.”

As a case in point, Naem’s Spirit of the Youth Association is currently struggling financially after a corporate donor’s withdrawal of funding in mid-2017 because of a new law on nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and an inability thus far to attract replacement funds.

The NGO law passed last year stipulates that organizations receiving donations from abroad exceeding 10,000 Egyptian pounds ($566) must have the funding pre-approved by the government. Failure to comply could result in five years in jail or a fine of 1 million Egyptian pounds ($56,600).

Naem, so far, has not been able to obtain approval for any funding, meaning that the school cannot accommodate as many students. Before the corporate donor's funds were withdrawn, there were at least 120 children in the association's program. Currently, there are 20-30 children in the program.

“Since 2011, the government has been scared of NGOs, thinking that they are bringing about instability just because they make people aware of social justice,” Naem explained. “We have primary health care awareness, vaccinations and provide gloves for [garbage] workers. Now our funding has been rejected because the government is stupid to not distinguish between NGOs helping the community and human rights ones.”

While the Egyptian government is correct to focus on decreasing child poverty — such as through the Takaful program and work with UNICEF — its dogged pursuit of NGOs is counterproductive and is keeping some children away from a good education.

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