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Participation of Youth and Civil Society Key to Ensuring a More Equitable Future for Egypt and the Arab Region

29 May 2011 in , ,

In a new commentary, Ehaab Abdou discusses the strength of Egyptian civil society and the need to engage ordinary citizens and CSOs in a strong, inclusive development process in order to live up to the expectations of the region's youth.

Although President Obama’s recent remarks on the Middle East reflect a shift in strategy on the region and particularly on Egypt’s political and economic development, some questions remain about the particulars of US engagement going forward. For instance, how will the Enterprise Funds proposed by President Obama ensure that those enterprises it will support provide equal access to financing for women, rural youth and other marginalized groups? Will Egyptian citizens be consulted on the World Bank and IMF’s plan to be submitted at the G-8 summit? How do we ensure that the whole package being proposed will promote a different model of economic growth for Egypt? After all, Egyptians and the whole world have learned how international recognition and impressive macro-economic indicators can mask so much.

For instance, in 2008 and 2009, Egypt topped the world’s list of business regulation reformers in the annual World Bank/IFC Doing Business report. In 2005 and 2006, Youssef Boutros-Ghali, former Egyptian minister of finance, received the Emerging Markets Award for the Middle East. We were not seeing the other side of the story, like in 2007 when Egypt’s ranking in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index declined from 70 to 105 out of 180 countries. Today, at least 20% of Egypt’s population lives on less than US$2 a day with a growing gap between the rich and the poor, a shrinking middle class, and over 25% unemployment amongst youth. This was development for Egypt under the old power structure. For any economic growth in Egypt to be sustainable, it needs to be both inclusive and equitable. Strengthening and engaging with Egypt’s civil society is key to ensuring this is achieved.

It was reassuring to hear the US president speak about civil society and youth development priorities. However, we also need to acknowledge how civil society will fulfill its role and the tremendous challenges that remain in this regard. President Obama mentioned that “throughout the region, many young people have a solid education, but closed economies leave them unable to find a job.” Civil society organizations (CSOs) have been trying to address these issues in Egypt through innovative entrepreneurship and job creation programs. However, these CSOs have been weakened by a restrictive legal framework, as well as a lack of necessary and flexible support, whether financial or technical, by donors needed to build institutional capacity and to allow these programs to reach scale. Dialogue with policy makers needed for their successful local models to be adopted on a national scale have in the most part been non-existent, For instance, INJAZ, a regional, school-based extracurricular program hailed by President Obama during his entrepreneurship summit speech in 2010, and similar innovative initiatives have been limited in their reach and impact because access to public schools and institutions has been made extremely difficult by authorities.

Despite the many challenges, there are some good models within Egypt that have potential and that bring great benefits and advantages as partners within post-revolution development schemes for Egypt. Those models are to be found as part of Egypt’s more than 20,000 non-governmental organizations or other forms of CSOs, including professional syndicates, cooperatives, think tanks, student associations, and human rights groups. In Egypt’s case, it is important to build its relatively developed civil society into the formula. Several advantages that Egyptian CSOs would bring to the table include innovative delivery models; responsiveness; flexibility; access to grassroots, marginalized populations; and, in many cases, efficiency and lower transaction costs. Moreover, in the short-run, CSOs can play an important role in managing rising expectations among disenfranchised groups and in operating across sectarian and ideological divides.

Given that so far there are still no formal channels to engage with Egypt’s civil society in planning and implementation, the Egyptian government and the international community should consider, in consultation with leading Egyptian civil society coalitions, the creation of a civil society technical support facility that could play three main roles:

  1. Participation and policy dialogue: Facilitate engagement and regular consultation with CSOs on proposed national budgeting, donor funds, loans and programs. This would include dialogue with national government and policy-makers on legal and regulatory reforms needed to ensure the sustainability and growth of civil society, such as the revision of the restrictive NGO Law No. 84 (2002).
  2. Technical assistance and capacity building: Provide needed institutional capacity building for CSOs in areas such as strategic planning, financial sustainability, advocacy, coalition-building and CSO accountability. This needs to include new forms of organization, such as the post-revolution, informal popular committees, among others.
  3. Finance for scaling-up successful models: Identify, assess and invest in successful CSO models to help them increase their reach and impact. A possible platform would be the World Bank’s Development Marketplace. The facility should promote innovative financing mechanisms and social investments that incentivize collaboration and synergy as opposed to current international donor models that continue to promote competition among CSOs.

If the international community’s efforts in Egypt are to be sustainable and if they are to mark a break with the past, Egypt’s civil society needs to be fully engaged in the process from inception and planning to implementation.

Read More: Social Entrepreneurship in the Middle East>>

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