Poverty grows in Egypt despite economic advances, says UN

Residents sit inside their shanty on World Poverty Day in a Cairo slum. The proportion of Egyptians living in absolute poverty has risen despite relatively rapid rates of economic growth this decade, the head of the United Nations operations in Egypt has said.

CAIRO, Thursday

The proportion of Egyptians living in absolute poverty has risen despite relatively rapid economic growth this decade, the head of United Nations operations in Egypt said on Thursday.

Residents sit inside their shanty on World Poverty Day in a Cairo slum. The proportion of Egyptians living in absolute poverty has risen despite relatively rapid rates of economic growth this decade, the head of the United Nations operations in Egypt has said. Photo/REUTERS

Between 2000 and 2005 the absolute poverty rate rose to 19.6 per cent from 16.7 per cent of the population, UN resident co-ordinator James Rawley told a news conference.

“One in every five Egyptians cannot meet their basic living needs,” he added, quoting a survey completed in June.

A UN official said that “living in absolute poverty” and “unable to meet basic demands” were synonymous terms. “We’re a bit surprised frankly that this is taking place. It’s probably not just statistics. There are structural problems that have to be overcome before we see this resulting in reductions in the poverty rates,” Mr Rawley told Reuters later.

Over the five-year period, the Egyptian economy showed cumulative real growth of about 21 per cent, and the rate of growth has since accelerated, to 7.1 per cent in the financial year 2006/7, which ended in June.

Foreign direct investment in Egypt has also increased dramatically in the last two years and the World Bank said this month that Egypt was one of the countries which had made most progress in improving its business climate.

Mr Rawley said Egypt was not the only country where poverty spread in the midst of economic growth. He said he was confident the government was committed to poverty reduction and that Egypt could meet the UN Millennium Development Goals.

Egypt’s goal is to cut the proportion of people living on under $1 a day to 12.1 per cent by 2015, from 20.2 per cent now, a UN document said.

Mr Rawley said poverty was disproportionately high in southern Egypt and in the countryside, with two thirds of the poorest people living in the south.

The government is offering companies incentives to invest in the south, which has suffered historically because it is remote from major markets and levels of education are lower.

Mr Rawley was speaking at the launch of a campaign to publicise the Millennium Goals, which were adopted at the Millennium summit in New York in 2000 and which include poverty reduction. 

Meanwhile, like thousands of other people in Cairo, Mr Ashraf Ali, 33, has lived his whole life on a downtown roof.

Seven floors above the dirt and din of Cairo’s streets, he enjoys a cool September breeze that sweeps over the one-room clapboard hut he shares with his wife and two children.

“In the summer we eat, drink, and sleep out here,” he said, gesturing towards the dusty rooftop, where the rent is less than $1 (Sh67) a month. “It’s better than living down there.”

Some Cairo roof-dwellers enjoy makeshift toilets, standpipes, even baths. For others, there is no running water and little protection from scorching summer sun or winter rains. Of this ‘sub-class’, the luckier ones can rely for water and toilets on the hospitality of better endowed neighbours in flats ‘below’.

“We have no money to buy an apartment,” said Gez Zeedan Mohammed, 70, who grew up, married, and raised three kids on a nearby downtown roof. “Where else can we go?”

Hundreds of thousands of Egyptians who flooded into Cairo during an economic boom in the 1970s had no money to rent an apartment, and instead set up houses on the city’s rooftops. For some of their children, life on the rooftop is a reminder of the failure of Egypt’s current economic boom to improve living standards for the poor.

Others say it’s not such a bad life. Rent is cheap, work is nearby, and perhaps most importantly, they feel removed from the clamour and crowds down below.

“Life on the roof is wonderful because of the breeze and the sun,” said Mr Ibrahim Mahmoud, 67, who raised three kids in a shack 12 stories above the street.

Mr Mahmoud, who works as a telephone operator at a plastics company a few blocks away, came to Cairo 35 years ago from southern Egypt and chose to live on a roof because it was cheaper.

Now, he pays less than $4 a month and says a comparable apartment lower down could cost 10 times as much.

Living on rooftops, analysts say, is often a convenient solution to Cairo’s housing problem. Nearly half of Cairo’s population of about 14 million live in areas that are unplanned or unserved by plumbing, said Abouzed Rageh, former chairman of Egypt’s National Research Centre for Housing and Building.

“Most investment whether for production or services is in the region of Cairo,” Abouzed said. “This is the reason behind migration from rural areas to the big urban centre.”

Egypt’s economy grew at its fastest rate in two decades last year, drawing even more people to Cairo, where an average of about 70,000 people cram into each square mile, a population density greater than Manhattan’s.

“Cairo is growing at an uncontrolled rate,” said Madiha el Safty, a sociology professor at the American University in Cairo and a writer on housing issues. “Informal housing can be a very pragmatic solution.” For some, living on a roof is at least better than sleeping on the street.

Nadia Awad Hassanein, 55, moved up to a wooden shack on the roof in a part of the city called Old Cairo 10 years ago. She sleeps there, she says, because she has no work and no source of income. “When it gets really hot, I sleep outside on the roof,” she said. On some of Cairo’s larger roofs, communities of families can develop in an environment preferable to the one below. Rooftop communities often interact only with each other, using separate stairways that bypass the rest of the building. Mahmoud Ragab, 48, has lived on the same roof as Ashraf Ali since his childhood.

Four different families live on the roof, often gathering outside in the afternoons or evenings. “We are one family up here, like brothers,” he said.