Monday, July 12, 2010

Child Poverty and Disparities in Egypt: Interview with UNICEF Representative in Egypt, Erma Manoncourt

Q: What is the importance of doing a study on child poverty and disparities in Egypt?
A: I do not, of course, have to convince UNICEF staff that failure to invest in childhood results in lost opportunities that often cannot be regained later and that today’s poor children are very likely to be tomorrow’s poor parents. If we do not stop the intergenerational transmission of poverty and break the cycle of poverty from generation to generation this undermines the growth and development of the nation.

To ensure credibility and ownership of the outcomes of the study, we established a Steering Committee which was co-chaired by the now Ministry of State for Family and Population and UNICEF. It also involved several line Ministries, CAPMAS (the Central Statistical Office) and a number of UN agencies. This Steering Committee had a technical oversight function. The study itself was carried out by an independent well known research centre at the Cairo University who won a competitive bid.

One of the main findings of the study is that while significant progress has been made in many areas, including legislative reform, millions of Egyptian children continue to live in poverty today and face the risk of passing this deprivation on to their children. And this is perhaps where the study has the potential to make a true contribution to the policy debate in Egypt; it provides evidence on children living in poverty in a comprehensive manner by offering a unique approach using a rights-based framework to child poverty that defines poverty as deprivation in multiple dimensions and not only a lack of income or low consumption. The findings of the study indeed confirm that income poverty and deprivation are not synonymous.

It also includes both quantitative and qualitative research; more than 160 children and caregivers were interviewed to tell us their perspective and understanding of what poverty really is. A third distinct feature of the study is that it analyzes the full policy cycle to determine interdependence between legislation, policies and programmes, budget allocation and developmental outcomes achieved for children. It identifies gaps in the policy cycle and provides concrete and operational proposals to bridge them.

Q: You already hinted at the findings of the study. Could you give us an idea of the magnitude of child poverty in Egypt?
A: Until the global economic crisis, Egypt had been enjoying high levels of economic growth for a number of years; however, recent economic reforms, social policies and programmes have not been sufficiently pro-children. In fact, budget allocations for state entities that work for children have grown three times as slow as budget allocations for other entities. This may have contributed to the fact that today more than seven million Egyptian children (one in four) live deprived of one or more of their rights to enjoy their childhood. Around five million children are deprived of appropriate housing conditions including shelter, water and sanitation and 1.6 million children under five years old suffer from health and food deprivation.

Whether income poverty is measured according to the official income poverty line of Egypt or using the global definition of US$1 per day, the number of children living in poverty and extreme poverty is increasing. In 2009, the number of poor households with children exceeded 1996 levels -- 23 percent of children under the age of 15 years in Egypt were living in income poverty.

Q: You mentioned that the report also provides concrete and operational recommendations and proposals. What are some of the most important ones?
A: Let me start by saying that the study revealed lack of access to programme evaluations and the costs of national plans. Also, in the absence of results-based planning and programme-based budgeting, it has proven challenging to obtain reliable data that directly relate government budget and expenditures to specific programmes and nationwide initiatives. The study therefore stresses the importance of public policy making that is based on the systematic analysis of recent, pertinent and validated evidence. These policies should always be designed and evaluated for their potential impact on children who represent one-third of Egypt’s citizen’s.

Insufficient coordination in policy making was also highlighted. The report therefore calls for an integrated National Plan of Action for Children, following the Second Decade for the Protection and Welfare of the Egyptian Child (2000-2010).

The study also makes some concrete suggestions to improve the reach, effectiveness and efficiency of the social welfare system. While subsidies form a large part of the state budget, cash transfers and family support subsidies that directly benefit poor families are only a small proportion of total subsidies and grants, and a very small share of total social spending. Coverage is therefore recommended to be increased as well as a revisiting of the allocation of budget to social protection systems. It is also recommended that the government sets up “one stop shops” to increase public awareness and delivery of subsidies to those families who are eligible.

And of course the report also proposes some concrete steps in the areas of health, nutrition, education and child protection. I would encourage everyone to read the full report to see if any of these could also be applicable to your countries.

Q: You mentioned that the study has the potential to make a contribution to the policy debate. Can you please explain us what you mean by this?
A: We are very conscious that a launch of the study is just the beginning of a long process -- a process that puts the multidimensional notion of child poverty on the national agenda. As a matter of fact, the advocacy starts with the United Nations family. Egypt is currently preparing its Cairo Agenda for Action and the Government is leading on a situation analysis that replaces the Common Country Assessment for the next UNDAF. UNICEF is trying to assure that child poverty and its multidimensional nature receives adequate attention in this national analysis and priority setting.

Another step is to continue studying the nature and magnitude of poverty so that we can keep on providing evidence to policy makers. UNICEF Egypt therefore works very closely with the Egypt National Child Rights Observatory on what we would consider a permanent research and policy project on child poverty. I already mentioned that evidence suggests that poverty is increasing. We know this because we have recently concluded a trend analysis for the period 2000-2008. The findings suggest that Egypt indeed needs to pay more attention to pro-child and pro-poor policies and programmes, because progress in child poverty reduction has slowed down during the second half of the decade despite high economic growth.This trend analysis is especially important since we are approaching the end of the Second Decade for the Protection and the Welfare of the Egyptian Child. As a potential contribution to the National Plan of Action for Children, UNICEF and the Child Rights Observatory are also working on the full “Egyptianisation” of the child poverty indicators. This was one of the main recommendations of the study. In collaboration with universities in Cairo, Assiut and Alexandria, four expert meeting are being held with around 60 academics across the country on the exact definition of the most appropriate indicators in each of the seven dimensions.

Calculation of the revised indicators will be the next step. For this we naturally need the required data. Currently, apart from income poverty, the child poverty indicators depend exclusively on the DHS. This is, however, not a fully government owned data collection exercise. We have therefore worked with the central statistical office CAPMAS to try and convince them to include some additional questions and response categories to the Household Income and Expenditure and Consumption Survey, which is undertaken every two years. We are very happy that recently they agreed to include all but one of our suggestions. With these small changes to the questionnaire, the survey will not only give us the data we need, but it would also help us in our advocacy of the multidimensional notion through the survey that is most widely referred to by government when talking about poverty.

And of course we are trying to disseminate the study as widely as possible. We do this by sending the publication to many contacts we have, but also to websites with the request to upload the study, in both English and Arabic. We are also encouraging the current and future reports to be used in university courses. So far the American University in Cairo is using it as reference material in a course on public policy, and it will be mandatory reading for one of the courses of the Diploma on Public Policy and Child Rights at the Cairo and Assiut universities.

Many other ideas are being explored. These range from round table conversations with the media, to production of a short animation and brochure. We hope other UNICEF colleagues will continue to help us with more ideas.

The report (English) can be found here.

Focal Point: Dennis Arends