Over the last three years it seemed like everyone was busy playing politics and no one was paying attention to the Egyptian economy. In fact, there are many Egyptians, both in the public and the private sector, who have quietly been working very hard to keep Egypt’s economy afloat in these challenging times. One such person is Ghada Waly, the Managing Director of the Social Fund for Development since 2011. Appointed in the midst of the revolution, she rose to the challenge, spending the last couple of years firmly focused on her mandate to alleviate poverty among Egyptians through the provision of employment opportunities, particularly for the poor. eniGma’s Samia Farid Shihata caught up with this remarkable lady to shed light on the important work she and her team are doing in these difficult times.
Ghada Waly is a pro at what she does, which is development. She is eminently qualified, and not just academically; for many years she’s worked at the grass roots level in villages, especially in Upper Egypt, where poverty levels are highest. Interestingly, Waly’s career in development began at the Social Fund for Development at its inception in 1993, so she came full circle when she returned to lead the institution some 18 years later. The Social Fund was created with the help of a number of donors to address Egypt’s redundant labour problem as a result of the privatisation of public companies and the flow of workers returning from Iraq after the Gulf War. She recalls, “when I joined the Social Fund I worked on community development, microfinance, education and integrated development projects in rural areas.” Eventually, Waly left to become the first Egyptian program director for the NGO, CARE International in Egypt where she spent four years. “At CARE I spent 50% of my time in the governorates of Upper Egypt working at the village level, designing programs, interventions and so on. I got to know their problems, first hand.” In 2004, Waly moved to the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) where she became Assistant Resident Representative till 2011, when then Finance Minister Hazem El Biblawy asked her to become the Managing Director of the Social Fund For Development.
Along the way, Waly gained valuable expertise in microfinance, which she believes has a huge, as yet insufficiently tapped, potential in Egypt. She explains, “Microfinance is one of the most important poverty reduction tools of the Social Fund. It is also very important for women’s empowerment. The “Productive Families” project (El Osar El Montega) of the 1960s, was the first instance of microfinance in Egypt, but it never rose to best practice levels. In 2004-2005, Waly worked on the national strategy for microfinance in Egypt with the Central Bank, the Egyptian Banking Institute, UNDP, the German banking group KFW, and USAID. “The strategy called for three things,” Waly recounts, “we wanted banks to downscale and to start giving smaller loans; we wanted a microfinance law to regulate the sector and we wanted the market to be expanded to include the provision of a variety of services and not just credit.” Waly insists that the microfinance law, yet to see the light, would result in a total shift in the market. She explains, “it would allow companies to enter the field and would open the way for the participation of a number of international partners who are waiting for the establishment of a microfinance regulatory body.”
Waly explains that when she joined the Social Fund in 2011, “the situation was similar to that of the 90s when the Social Fund was created. We had rising unemployment due to the political turmoil that came with the revolution and due to Egyptians coming back from Libya and different countries in the region. We succeeded in obtaining a $200 million World Bank loan to start a very large program for employment aimed at creating 200 thousand jobs. It is designed after programs in India and South Africa where grants are given to small contractors and NGOs to implement programs for infrastructure in the villages. The program was signed a year ago and ratified in January 2013. Now we’re in the implementation phase. We have identified 385 schools to be rehabilitated and we are going to invest in the rehabilitation of houses for the poor identified by the Ministry of Social Solidarity. We have already contracted 100 NGOs, each with a million pounds, to collect garbage in the rural areas. The program employs people with limited skills in the villages; 60% of the labor has to be less than 29 years old and 40% of the money has to be spent on salaries. It’s a cash transfer program, but it’s cash for work.”
On the general economic situation in Egypt after the revolution, Waly had this to say: “The Egyptian economy has shown us that it is much more resilient than we expected. I expected the economy to fall apart within six to eight months. In fact the economy has continued to operate despite very difficult political and security conditions. The fundamentals are not bad. Now we need to quickly improve our laws and seriously work on law enforcement. The rule of law is the key and not just for the economy but also for different aspects of our life. It’s not as important to have the right laws in place as it is to consistently enforce the law adequately and fairly on everyone. Finally another important element is that people need to work, only then will the economy seriously improve.”