Egypt: Governments and Families

800px-2011_Cairo_5339251183The birthrate in Egypt is at a 20-year high: 32 per 1000, a level, according to a recent New York Times article, last seen in 1991, shortly before previous president Hosni Mubarak expanded family planning and population control programs. Meanwhile, while it has continued to fund family planning programs ,the new government headed by Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammad Morsi, has so far remained largely silent about the issue in public discourse, and has just hinted at a different perspective regarding population growth.

The article highlights that this lack of clear policy has “alarmed population experts” who, since the 1960’s and throughout Mubarak’s presidency , had relied on extensive family planning programs , largely funded by USAID, as well as official public policies that heavily promoted contraception and the “2 child family” as solutions; usefully blaming population growth for Egypt’s stagnant economic development.

The author illustrates the problem by stating that “over decades, Egypt’s climbing birthrates have helped choke its cities” continuing that the Egyptians have had to struggle to fit in “ the tiny percentage of the country that the government bothered to develop”. Yet, it is precisely this logic, that solves the problem by reducing the number of poor people to fit “the tiny percentage of the country” instead of developing the rest of the country in order to fit the growing population that the past administration had used to justify the need for population control.

Several state representatives quoted in the article illustrate this shift in perspective. The problem, they maintain, is not the people, it is in the administration and in the management of resources and economic issues. They insist that focusing on controlling fertility rates is not only a violation of human rights but also, a scapegoat, a foreign-imposed policy that past administrations had received large amounts of aid money (for instance, around $1.5 billion from USAID) to propagate and implement, and which has served to cloak political corruption and continuing economic failure.

The new government has a long way to go. Around a quarter of Egypt’s 83 million people live below the poverty line and official government numbers put unemployment rates at 13% while some unofficial ones estimate around 20%. These along with a plethora of other indicators point at a difficult road ahead for the Egyptians, and while they will require substantial amount of foreign aid in order to start moving out of crisis, the current administration’s wariness of the over-reliance on population control policies and programs is a positive step forward. However, this positive step should be accompanied with proper dialogue and reforms that address the true needs of Egyptian citizens rather than finding other excuses for government failure to improve livelihoods.

In 2011 having witnessed no progress in their livelihoods after 30 years of a dictatorship that increasingly enriched itself while it blamed its own people for their impoverishment, Egyptian men and women took the streets to demand their innate rights. Billions of dollars of foreign aid and a “steady decline in birthrates” did little to alleviate the plight of people in Egypt as well as in other developing countries and has instead served to strengthen the very systems that oppressed them.

Egypt provides us with a perfect opportunity to reconsider not only the futility of reducing populations as a means of alleviating poverty but also, at the erroneous and dangerous implications of subscribing to such logic. In doing so, we fail to address the true political and economic reasons that cause poverty. We allow authoritarian governments to shift the focus away from their own corruption, bad governance, and failing policies while blaming people for the problem instead of empowering them to be the solution. We allow these very governments to continue to receive large amounts of money, which continue to perpetuate this futile cycle all the while bloating the state with more power over the very people it is meant to serve. We allow governments to rob people of their very intrinsic freedom to choose the size of their own families and in doing so, we violate their very fundamental dignity. It was for a reason that on the first day of the revolution, Egyptians risked their lives to take the streets of Cairo and shout in solidarity: “Bread, liberty, human dignity!”.

By Bruna Kesserwani, Director of Operations at WYA Middle East.