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Egypt seeks help from NGOs to advance social protection programs

The Egyptian government is working with NGOs to advance social protection programs despite criticism that the state is seeking to control these associations and eliminate political Islam.
An Egyptian woman walks past cartons with foodstuffs outside a center of nongovernmental organization Egyptian Food Bank on April 05, 2020, in the Egyptian capital, Cairo.

CAIRO — Egypt has recently increased charity work across the country as part of efforts to support the government’s social protection programs.

In cooperation between the Egyptian government and 18 charitable institutions and associations, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi launched Sept. 15 the “Gates of Goodness” convoy — Egypt’s largest charitable convoy to help low-income households and the most vulnerable groups.

The convoy includes 1,000 trucks carrying various sorts of aid to serve 1 million families across the country. It targets the sectors of health care, social protection, urban and economic development, support for education and training, and also efforts to face disasters and crises.

The Long Live Egypt Fund, which organized the launch ceremony of the convoy, is the government’s main arm for coordination between the state and civil charity organizations to benefit from the latter’s capabilities and presence in the local community across Egyptian governorates, cities and villages, through networks of volunteers and donors. This coordination comes as part of various presidential initiatives such as the Decent Life initiative that are aimed at eliminating poverty, hunger, slums and disease.

The Egyptian government had launched in 2016 an economic reform program within the framework of Egypt’s Vision 2030. The program included floating the exchange rate for the local currency, gradually lifting energy and fuel subsidies, and implementing fiscal austerity policies.

These measures have had bad social repercussions, prompting the government to increase spending on social protection programs and strengthen the social safety net in such a way that the poor would not have to bear the costs of economic reform and ensure popular support for the reforms.

In order to fund social protection programs, which accounted for 283.4 billion Egyptian pounds ($18 million) in the 2021-22 budget, Sisi called on the Egyptian community to make donations. The first call the president made was in February 2016 during the launch of Egypt Vision 2030.

The Egyptian government is seeking social development by relying on an effective role for nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and their integration into development plans in a bid to restore confidence in civil work, especially charitable institutions that control large sectors of the local community.

It should be noted that the NGO law ratified in 2019 led to an increase in the number of NGOs registered with the Ministry of Social Solidarity. The numbers jumped from 37,500 organizations in 2012 to 50,572 in 2019, with almost every small village in Egypt having a charitable society to take care of the most vulnerable population’s needs through funding sources based mainly on donations such as zakat (Islamic charity) and alms.

In this context, Talaat Abdel Qawy, head of the General Federation of NGOs, told Al-Monitor, “The state’s interest in integrating NGOs into initiatives that support development plans, fight poverty and hunger, and support the health sector comes after a long history of civil work that succeeded in serving citizens in various sectors.”

“NGOs will not undertake alone the development efforts in local communities, but they will assist the state in achieving sustainable development in several programs that used to be carried out solely by the government,” he added.

Abdel Qawy continued, “Restoring trust between the state and NGOs is at the basis of this joint effort after there had been major concerns about the civil work in Egypt. The [2019 NGO] law now clearly sets the partnership’s framework and respects the associations’ status while preserving the country’s security and safety.”

Under the 2019 NGO law, some NGOs began to rectify their status and restructure their boards of trustees and administration.

The Life Makers Foundation, for instance, included in its administrative structure Maj. Gen. Mohsen al-Noamani, who previously served as minister of local development, and Amr Ezzat Salama, a former minister of higher education. The appointments came after the foundation sacked Islamic preacher Omar Khaled in a bid to separate religious preaching and development activity.

It seems the Egyptian government is also working to dismantle any charity that could be a gate for political Islam.

The Egyptian judiciary is currently looking into a lawsuit calling for the dissolution of the Ansar al-Sunnah al-Muhammadiyah Group and Al-Shareyah Association, the most famous Salafist organizations in Egypt that were established a century ago.

Abdel Nasser al-Banna, media adviser at the Life Makers Foundation, told Al-Monitor, “Our group is involved in development initiatives set by the state but also implements its own activities on the side under the state’s supervision.”

“The state has recently set a strict control policy on donations. Contributions are now collected only through a permit from the Ministry of Social Solidarity and under the Central Auditing Organization’s supervision. Even procurements made by charities such as livestock, medical devices or any other purchases are done through government committees,” he added.

“Political Islam’s control over charitable work in the past was one of the main reasons for its spread in poor villages and areas, which explains the popular support for these religious movements for years. The state could not be present in these communities except through civil work. This is why it began to [work with] charitable organizations to achieve development initiatives and provide support to citizens,” Banna said.

In a speech on the International Day of Charity on Sept. 5, Minister of Social Solidarity Nivine el-Kabbag summarized the partnership between the state and NGOs, saying, “The Egyptian civil society has transformed from providing aid to individuals and households into institutions that plan and work in cooperation with state agencies.”

However, Issam Adwi, a development expert and former adviser to the Ministry of Social Solidarity, told Al-Monitor, “Civil charitable work cannot be a substitute for social protection policies, but it could support [these policies] in a transitional period. Charity work is still needed to cover severe poverty cases, but it will come to an end after the implementation of development programs that are not limited to the distribution of food and medicine only.”

He added, “Most of the time, charity organizations and the state have the same goals, namely fighting poverty and unemployment and improving the education and health sectors. But these goals can only achieve social justice if there is, in parallel, a plan to deal with the root of the problems instead of merely fighting the symptoms.”

Adwi said, “There is still a need for a suitable environment that gives charity associations a degree of independence in decision-making,” explaining that “after the new NGO law [was enacted in 2019], it was necessary for the associations to change a few internal things such as appointing boards of trustees and electing boards of directors.”

“These structural changes, however, should be an internal decision and not dictated by the government, which must create a good climate for civil work without seeking to establish and manage charitable associations,” he said.

The civil charitable work may have greatly contributed to supporting thousands of poor families in Egypt’s villages and hamlets, but these efforts still need a broader scope that the government is trying to develop now through presidential initiatives for development, the success of which also depends on the continuation of financial flow from donations.

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