This week Egypt presented its strategy for achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to the United Nations at a High Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development (HLPF) in New York.1 The meeting is the first major meeting of its kind since the adoption of the SDGs in September 2015 and brought together political leaders to discuss and assess global progress toward the goals. On Tuesday July 19 and Wednesday July 20, 22 countries—Egypt included— presented voluntary national reviews detailing what they are doing to plan, prepare for, and implement SDG-related initiatives. The HLPF is one of the first steps Egypt is taking in the process of articulating how it will accomplish the ambitious goals to which the SDGs aspire, such as SDG 11: “Make cities inclusive, safe, resilient, and sustainable.”
During the allotted 15-minute presentation, Dr. Sahar Nasr, the Minister of International Cooperation, spoke to the HLPF assembly about Egypt’s three specific focus areas for achieving SDGs. She then showed a short video showcasing a number of development initiatives currently underway. The presentation was live-streamed by UN TV, and Tadamun live-tweeted the proceedings on Twitter at @tad_cairo. In preparation for the meeting, Egypt submitted a summary of its voluntary national review on progress on SDGs, which can be found at the UN’s HLPF website. For the sake of brevity, we will refer to the executive summary of Egypt’s voluntary national assessment as “Egypt’s report” or “the report.” Though brief, Dr. Nasr’s presentation and the executive summary of the voluntary national review provide a sense of Egypt’s vision of its national sustainable development strategy and bring up some interesting points to consider.
Dr. Nasr began her presentation emphasizing Egypt’s full and enthusiastic commitment to the SDGs. Similarly, Egypt’s report opens by affirming its commitment to “end all forms of poverty, fight inequalities, and tackle climate change, while ensuring that no one is left behind” (Government of Egypt 2016a, 1). The report is replete with this sort of general commitment to what Egypt describes as a new paradigm for sustainable development—shaped chiefly by the SDGs in addition to the Addis Ababa Action Agenda on financing for development (AAAA) and the Paris Agreement for Climate Change. Interestingly, Egypt ties its commitment to the SDGs directly to the Egyptian Constitution and in the report states that various articles in the Constitution pertain to sustainable development goals and bind all sectors and levels of government “…to participate in a state-led developmental process towards achieving them” (Government of Egypt 2016a, 1-2). Concerning urban issues in particular, Tadamun has argued that several aspects of the “right to the city” are already embedded in the 2014 Constitution but other aspects are excluded, such as the right to public space for all residents. 2
The report then delves into Egypt’s plan for achieving the SDGs, which appears to largely revolve around Egypt’s Sustainable Development Strategy, Egypt Vision 2030. Dr. Nasr’s presentation affirmed this point—she commented that the HLPF and Egypt’s national voluntary review came at a very opportune time, since the government just launched Egypt Vision 2030, which is aligned with the SDGs. The Egyptian government launched ‘Egypt 2030’ in March 2015, six months prior to the release of the SDGs at the U.N., and it has undergone a number of modifications and expansions since. According to the report, “the Sustainable Development Strategy serves as an umbrella of all development strategies in Egypt, and is strongly guided by the universal SDGs” (Government of Egypt 2016, 2). While Egypt’s Sustainable Development Strategy does share many common objectives with the SDGs, certain aspects of it do not fully capture some of the SDG’s priority areas. This is especially clear with regard to issues impacting urban development and the well-being of the urban poor. The primary goal of the “Urban Development Pillar,” in Egypt Vision 2030 is “[a] balanced spatial development management of land and resources to accommodate population and improve the quality of their lives” (Government of Egypt 2016b, Urban Development Pillar). Under that same pillar, however, Egypt identifies a number of indicators and programs that present a clearer picture of what this vision actually entails. The first indicator for success pertains to achieving the targeted population goal in Egypt’s new urban communities (Government of Egypt 2016b, Urban Development Pillar). The fourth and sixth programs under the urban development pillar are: (4) “Promoting the population settlement in the new development areas”; and (6) “Eliminat[ing] settlements and insecure areas” (Government of Egypt 2016b, Urban Development Pillar, Indicators and Programs).
Egypt’s report reaffirms this continued focus on relocating urban residents to more peripheral areas and concentrating development resources in costly housing and real estate mega-projects. This approach appears to be more of what we have already seen in Egypt, and falls short of the SDGs aspirations to “ensure access for all to adequate, safe, and affordable housing and basic services and upgrade slums” (SDG 11.1), or to “enhance inclusive and sustainable urbanization and capacity for participatory, integrated, and sustainable human settlement planning and management in all countries” (SDG 11.3). The New Urban Communities program, for example, has been a mainstay of Egypt’s urban development policy since it was launched in the 1970s to redistribute residents, low-income residents particularly, from existing urban areas along the narrow strip of the Nile Valley to newly constructed housing areas (New Urban Communities or “new cities”), most often on desert land. For 2015/2016, Egypt budgeted 65 billion EGP for the program, which only generated 8 billion EGP in revenue (Tadamun 2015a). Not only is the program extremely costly, but it also is ineffective—not a single new city has reached its population target, and the vast majority have not even surpassed the 50% mark (Tadamun 2015a). Moreover, as many of Egypt’s New Urban Communities are located on the outskirts of cities far from job opportunities, commercial centers, and with poor access to public services of transportation, they fail to meet the standards for adequate housing—a key element in the SDG’s objectives relating to urban development (Tadamun 2015b). 3
Egypt’s report to the HLPF does try to echo the SDGs focus on achieving development outcomes not only at the national aggregate level but also responding to the developmental needs of the most marginalized and underserved communities, such as the urban poor residing in informal settlements worldwide. It states, “a key priority of these efforts is to ensure that those who are most in need, especially youth, women, individuals with special needs, and individuals in underserved areas are effectively targeted and their standards of living improved” (Government of Egypt 2016a, 3). It goes on to cite the Takaful and Karāma social protection programs, which are cash transfer programs for families or individuals suffering from extreme poverty (Government of Egypt 2016a, 3). These two programs aim to reach 1.5 million families in need over a three-year duration. In theory, those programs are note-worthy as they depart from the conventional pension schemes by redrawing the poverty map of Egypt to achieve a better targeting of subsidies, however, the implementation of the program has not been evaluated yet.
Furthermore, Egypt’s report cites the Social Housing Program, launched in 2014 with a USD 500 million World Bank loan. The program aims to make formal housing affordable for more than 3.6 million beneficiaries in the lowest income group through helping them obtain housing or housing finance over a 5-year period, the life of the project. Egypt has suffered from a lack of a comprehensive housing policy leading to housing shortages in urban and peri-urban areas. The numerous public housing projects initiated by the state have been largely uncoordinated and operate in isolation, leaving room for fraud and corruption. Many implemented projects have had limited success due to various reasons, for example, the bureaucratic eligibility requirements imposed by those schemes which often exclude the most vulnerable groups–the main beneficiary group of most programs–and instead benefit the middle class. This is in addition to the remote location of many public housing developments (as mentioned above), often lacking adequate accessibility to services and infrastructure, such as in the case of the Masākin `Uthmān housing project.
The report also describes a number of new administrative departments the government has established or re-opened as part of its SDG strategy: a national inter-ministerial committee to follow up on the implementation of the SDGs; monitoring and evaluation units in line ministries, a Strategic Planning and Monitoring and Evaluation Unit in the Ministry of International Cooperation; and a Sustainable Development Unit (SDU) within the National Statistical Agency (CAPMAS). Dr. Nasr also mentioned the national inter-ministerial committee in her presentation to the HLPF. While adding new administrative structures dedicated to achieving the SDGs is certainly a positive development, the effectiveness of any new office will depend heavily on its authority to carry out policy, harmony with other ministerial agendas, and most importantly, political will. Furthermore, regarding monitoring and evaluation, the report mentions the need for disaggregated data to achieve the SDGs (Government of Egypt 2016a, 2). With regard to financing the SDGs, Egypt’s assessment stresses that in order to achieve their goals, Egypt needs to receive financial and technological assistance from international partners throughout the SDG process. The report also mentions public-private partnerships (a theme that also features predominantly in Egypt Vision 2030).
In addition to reporting progress and planning for the SDGs, Egypt’s report also brings up a number of major challenges which the country is likely to face and which threaten to potentially hinder development in the years ahead. At the national level, the key challenges are described as demographic pressures combined with the phenomenon of brain drain, water shortage and climate change, increasing energy needs, the large and expanding informal economy, and obstacles preventing girls and women from achieving their societal potential. At the regional level, the assessment cites the lack of stability in neighboring states as the source of Egypt’s imploding tourism sector and financial and social hardship. At the international level, the assessment cites the “global economic slowdown,” “trade barriers” and the need to establish “rational use of property rights that does not hinder sustainable development in developing countries.”(Government of Egypt 2016a).
Egypt’s volunteering to conduct a national review and present at the HLPF is certainly a sign of goodwill in planning for the implementation of the SDGs over the next fifteen hears and a strong degree of commitment to the protocol. The report and presentation, however, were weak on providing specific measures towards fulfilling Egypt’s vision. For example, the report cites the importance of consulting with and including the general population and all other stakeholders in major decisions, but there is no information about specific councils or meetings or parliamentary hearings and oversight, or the frequency with which they’ll meet or initial steps towards their realization. In contrast, Morocco—another country that volunteered to present a national review at HLPF 2016—described its strategy for facilitating broad stakeholder engagement in the SDG planning process in great detail in the document it submitted to the UN. Morocco held a series of national consultations to get feedback from the general population, and has plans to conduct more consultative commissions in partnership with the UN and other international organizations (Government of Kingdom of Morocco 2016).
After Egypt submitted the executive summary of its voluntary national review, we had hoped that Egypt’s presentation to the HLPF on Wednesday would clear up some of the questions that the report left unanswered. If Egypt’s SDG strategy does end up largely mirroring Egypt Vision 2030, which both the executive summary of the voluntary national assessment (Egypt’s report) and Dr. Nasr’s presentation seem to suggest it will, there is cause for concern—particularly regarding treatment of the urban poor and continued reliance on the costly and ineffective New Urban Communities program as the primary component of Egypt’s urban development policy. The setbacks concerning social housing development and the construction of the new administrative capital, are clear indications of Egypt’s struggles to implement large-scale projects in the short-term, and only time will tell if Egypt’s long-term forecasting will be more prescient as the focus turns towards the 2030 horizon.
As governments assemble and articulate SDG-focused development plans, it is important for advocacy groups, environmentalists, community groups, philanthropic organizations, labor groups, and advocates for responsible urbanism, to take note, track those plans, and hold governments accountable for the commitments they make at international conferences like HLPF 2016.
Government of Egypt. 2016 (a). “Voluntary National Review on Progress on the Sustainable Development Goals (For Presentation at the 2016 HLPF) – Executive Summary.” Cairo, Egypt. Retrieved 20 June, 2016.
Government of Egypt. 2016 (b). Egypt Vision 2030 – Sustainable Development Strategy. Official Website. Retrieved 20 July, 2016.
Government of Egypt. 2015. “Egypt’s Vision 2030 – Sustainable Development Strategy and Medium Term Investment Framework.” 15 March. Sharm El-Sheikh. Retrieved 25 June, 2016.
Government of Kingdom of Morocco. 2016. “Rapport du Royaume du Maroc concernant les prèmieres mesures en matière de mise en oeuvre de l’Agenda 2030 pour le Développement Durable.” Rabat, Morocco. Retrieved 1 July, 2016.
TADAMUN. 2015(a). “Egypt’s New Cities: Neither Just nor Efficient.” 31 December. Cairo, Egypt. Retrieved 19 July, 2016.
TADAMUN. 2015(b). “The Hidden Cost of Displacement: The move from ‘Izbit Khayrallah to Masakin ‘Uthman.” 31 December. Cairo, Egypt. Retrieved 19 July, 2016.
United Nations. 2015. “Transforming Our World: The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.” Sustainabledevelopment.un.org. New York, NY. Retrieved 2 April, 2016.
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