CAIRO: Sometimes, there just are not enough hours in a day, especially when your life s work is dedicated to tackling the social and developmental problems in Egypt. For the past 25 years, that s exactly what Antonio Vigilante has done across the globe. As the United Nations Resident Coordinator and UNDP Resident Representative to Egypt prepares to embark on his new assignment in Brussels, he reflects on his experiences which are both positive and negative, while heading the country s primary body for development. I definitely leave a country in motion, not a country that is stuck, Vigilante tells The Daily Star Egypt in his half-packed World Trade Center office. I m actually sorry to leave because I will miss a lot of action, I think. A native of Naples, Italy, Vigilante s career has taken him to four continents, with posts in Bolivia, Ethiopia, Honduras, Barbados and Bulgaria, to name a few. He jokingly admits he will miss the tea-serving hospitality of the Mediterranean countries, but adds that moving to a place with cleaner air is always a plus. He goes as far as to suggest that Zamalek be closed to private vehicles, with trolleys running regularly for those visiting the island. It s no surprise that environmental issues would concern him, even on a personal level.
The United Nations Development Program (UNDP) looks to influence communities on three main levels: democratic governance, environment and energy and poverty alleviation. It also undertakes missions in gender development and information technology. In fact, Vigilante used every last minute in the country to try to make a difference. On Sunday, he signed the United Nations Development Assistance Framework (UNDAF) with Minister of International Cooperation Fayza Aboul Naga. It outlines a five-year plan of strategic priorities; from the further reduction of a gender gap to unemployment, democratization and increased human rights. The ultimate goal of the program, Aboul Naga emphasized, is the alleviation of poverty in Egypt. Over the last four years, we have seen a rising tide of interest and we have a lot of volunteers working in small villages on a number of goals, against FGM, for the Millennium Development Goals, for illiteracy, Vigilante explains. If properly stimulated, this can be a strong force. Through the FGM Free Village Model campaign, a program spearheaded by the National Council for Childhood and Motherhood (NCCM) and UNDP aimed at reversing the hazardous practice of female genital mutilation and cutting, or FGM/C, Egyptians celebrated the elimination of the practice in six governorates, totaling 60 villages. The project acted as an awareness campaign to educate community leaders, religious leaders and youth activists about the risks involved in FGM. In the 2005 Human Development Report, issued annually by the Ministry of Planning and Development together with UNDP, illiteracy was cited as one of the major setbacks to true social development. With some 35 percent of the population unable to read or write, Egypt is among the top 10 countries worldwide experiencing an illiteracy crisis. Consequently, 45 percent of females over the age of 15 are illiterate. A country like Egypt shouldn t have 35 percent illiteracy, one of the countries at the bottom of the list, it s inconsistent with Egypt: with its history and sophistication, insists Vigilante. I would have hoped that progress would have been quicker in some areas, such as the effective participation of women and the knowledge and education gap. One of the areas Vigilante confesses he would have liked to see more progress in is increased integration of women in politics and society. Nine of the current 454 seats in the current Egyptian parliament are held by women, five of whom were nominated by President Hosni Mubarak. People are not used to influencing decisions because they don t think they can, he explains. They are skeptical. But if they see the seed of change, all of this will be changed.
Vigilante goes as far as to suggest a system of affirmative action, saying it is the safest way to ensure injustice and unfairness does not persist, particularly in politics, where the government must ideally reflect society. He further emphasizes a greater need for decentralization on all fronts, saying the private sector holds the key to true reform, including political, economic and social.
People will be more willing to change things if they see change, he says. If they see there is more employment, better income, insurance, minimum subsidy for all . if they see the quality of services improve, if education is better, if they don t have to buy private lessons in order to have adequate instruction for their children, then you will see true participation.