Mimi Kirk is a writer and editor based in Washington, D.C. Her writing has also appeared in The Washington Post, Foreign Policy, and Smithsonian.
A Cairo group finds a massive geographic disparity in infrastructure spending between so-called “new cities” and existing ones.
The Egyptian group 10 Tooba recently published findings on government spending on the country’s built environment—and the results are stark. The study looks at public spending on six sectors: housing, urban development, water, waste water, electricity, and transport.
10 Tooba, an organization of architecture and engineering professionals, found that roughly the same amount of funds are spent on the “existing built environment” as they are on the country’s so-called “new cities”—desert suburbs that have been promoted by Egyptian governments for the past four decades.
This parity in spending doesn't sound like a problem until you learn that only 2 percent of Egyptians live in the new cities, versus 98 percent in the rest of the country. That’s fewer than two million residents of the often swankier suburbs getting the same amount of resources as 88 million people. “The difference is completely unjustified,” says Yahia Shawkat, co-founder of 10 Tooba and co-author of the study.
Egypt’s governments have in part focused on new cities to prevent overcrowding in existing urban areas. But these suburban communities have proven too expensive for the average citizen. (With names like Dreamland and Beverly Hills, this perhaps comes as no surprise.) And their unaffordability is compounded by their isolated locales and lack of public transport and social services, such as schools. Only a very small percentage of Egyptians owns a car, so poorer residents have no way to commute to and from the city to work or study.
10 Tooba recommends a rebalancing of investment and spending so that basic needs, such as sanitation, are met not only in the new cities but everywhere. (Shawkat notes, for example, that 50 percent of Egyptians in the existing built environment don’t have access to improved sanitation, whereas all the new cities are well equipped.) In the medium and long term, the study advises “vast administrative restructuring of the mostly national and sectoral agencies along local geographic lines.”
This local aspect is particularly important, as Egypt’s central government wields most of the control over spending—and local officials are appointed by the central government rather than elected. This means there’s no one plugged in to local communities to advocate on their behalf. The vastness of the country adds to the problem. “[The city of] Aswan, for instance, is more than 500 miles from Cairo,” Shawkat says. “I can’t see a central government working efficiently with 90 million people with the distances we have in Egypt.”
Shawkat stresses that the study’s recommendations provide a win-win for all involved, as the government would continue to gain financially from the built environment, but Egyptian people as a whole would also benefit. “With a bit more regulation and a bit more thinking at the local level, you can make money for the public coffers and you can also make the quality of life better for a lot of Egyptians,” he says.