The candy floss manWhen I pick up my child from his school in Cairo, I often see a candy floss seller going from one car window to another trying to sell his sweet.
When I pick up my child from his school in Cairo, I often see a candy floss seller going from one car window to another trying to sell his sweet. Earlier this week, as he approached us, I saw absolute despair on his face. I shall never know why as I did not stop to ask. Even if I did, I would not understand as I do not speak his language. But as my husband caught up with me, he said, “Did you notice how he looked like he was about to cry?” Notwithstanding the language barrier, we had understood the universal language of human emotion, this time, that of despair.
The candy floss man made me think of all the poverty alleviation efforts that have been wasted around the world, by governments of all stripes and in countries peaceful or in conflict. He could well have been a Syrian refugee trying to make ends meet, or just a young man from some remote part of Egypt chasing a simple dream of an easier subsistence in the big city. He made me think of all the political or bureaucratic leaders whose ambitions shall never be curtailed because of their failure to envision a country where the lives of people on the lowest rung of the social ladder see positive changes. It also made me think of the desensitisation of the middle class, people like me who would not even stop, let alone try and help. It also made me think of the millions of dollars in foreign assistance that get pumped into countries, Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers and millons of dollars worth of technical experts’ expertise that is used for programmes supposed to bring people out of poverty but do not.
Poverty reduction has been the number one goal of global development assistance frameworks. Looking at the statistics, the picture is not that bleak. As per the UN Millenium Development Goals report for 2015, global poverty shrank from 47 percent in 1990 to 14 percent in 2015. But as statistics normally do, they gloss over the fate of the people that did not make it to the progress numbers. With reference to the total global population of the world today which stands at 7.5 billion, 14 percent is a large number of people.
‘Dehumanising poverty’ resulting from ‘sheer indifference’ towards ‘unequal citizens’ needs deeper scrutiny. People on the lowest rung of society are often collateral damage of market-based economies that breed large-scale plans for countries trying to fit into the global order. Last month, Egypt devalued its currency by almost 40 percent to fulfil one of the conditions of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) that was going to sanction a multi-billion-dollar loan to its military government.
I had two conversations that etched a mark on my conscience. An expat friend who fits into the Egyptian elite circle was really happy that she had made a property investment before the devaluation. This provided a cushion when their bank deposits shrank by 40 percent after the currency depreciation. In contrast, my labour-class friend said that with subsidies on petrol and other basic necessities lifted, and prices getting high, she and her carpenter husband would be scrounging to feed and educate their five children. The brunt of the suffering may be borne by their two girl children and they may want to expedite the marriage of their oldest.
This has been a very interesting time in Egypt as we got to experience first hand the military government’s iron will. Notwithstanding the very troubled financial times ahead, people were unable to get together and protest. Rumours of mass protests against the currency devaluation slated to start on November 11 fizzled out. The collective will of the people, evident during the Tahrir Square Protests, a landmark event in the Arab Spring, seems to have been ruptured beyond repair. The government received the IMF loans last month. The currency devaluation is expected to boost the private sector, but paradoxically, lines started getting longer at private banks as people were withdrawing their money to deposit it in government banks where the interest rate was a whopping 20 percent.
Poverty and economics
The devaluation may contribute to cheaper production costs and invite foreign direct investment (FDI). Cheap Egyptian products may be more competitive in the international market. The money thus received may be ploughed back into the economy in a way that benefits Egypt for a long term. Till then, the long lines of construction workers waiting on the roadside with their tools hoping to get hired may have to content themselves with nominal work. Following the currency devaluation, the booming construction industry also took a hit. Behind every handyman looking for work on the street, there may be four, five or more children at home.
The political stability provided by the military government may be instrumental in the operationalisation of the plan the IMF and the Egyptian government have charted together. Coming from Nepal, notwithstanding my human rights background, I sometimes wonder how it would be if we had a benevolent dictator like Lee Kuan Yew or some form of political stability so that things could begin to take shape in my country too. I feel that this might work out for Egypt in the long run. But it will take a few years to start yielding results. Till then, who shall account for all the girls who had to stop going to school, or the nights when the likes of the candy floss man and the handymen and their families had to go to bed hungry as they couldn’t earn enough to buy food for the day? These people will never make it to the official statistics as their failure to be lifted out of poverty will prevent their entry into the glossy reports. But do their lives matter less? And even if the country achieves its aspired economic growth rate, how will these people—simply ignored or whose opportunities were snatched away— ever make it to the economic train?
Karki is a freelance writer