Last week I was in paradise, a total state of calm and peace unknown to me since the dispersal of the sit-ins on 14 August. Rather than focus on conflict, clashes and blood, I was in awe of yet another one of Egypt’s many treasures: the beauty of the South Sinai and the Red Sea. Through great privilege known mostly to Egypt’s elites, I was scuba diving in the Red Sea for the hiatus of the Eid Al-Adha holiday. What I saw underwater (besides the hilarious missteps of my diving training class) equalled the marvel and mystery of Egypt’s other great touristic attractions, like the Great Giza Pyramids. It was so easy to see why these are among the world’s best scuba diving sights.
Yet, one of the lasting images interrupting my underwater memory of the majestic Red Sea is that of a plastic fork lying metres away from 5000-year-old coral. And like a slap in the face to awake me up from a utopic dream, I was left to consider the environmental policy, management, and capacity for enforcement Egypt has to protect its natural treasures. The Red Sea coastal reef complex extends along some 2,000 km (1,240 miles) of shoreline and is one of the world’s most diverse and complex ecosystems, more than any jungle or forest. But coral are slow growing, fragile, and highly sensitive to pollution and disturbances. To lose them is to lose global history. To protect them is a massive undertaking, cutting across many government ministries, agencies, private institutions, and the population at large. Considering the vastly different moving parts in the institutional ecosystem that affect this very important issue, I am left wondering whether social enterprises are a critical missing piece to the solution.
Egypt’s current environmental agenda
Within a month of appointment, Environment Minister Laila Iskandar clearly identified solid waste management and rice straw recycling as priority projects that would receive EGP 155m of the ministry’s EGP 292m budget. The proposed waste disposal initiative targets what she has called the biggest environmental challenge, aiming to create manufacturing material and youth employment. Iskandar sees efficient collaboration between the government, private institutions, and civil society as key. Interestingly, the minister has also pledged to support youth associations as micro-level implementers of garbage sorting and recycling.
The minister’s current priorities have strong support from the cabinet. Prime Minister Hazem El-Beblawi himself held an inter-ministerial meeting on 9 September on the garbage collection problem, reviewing a proposed development plan for setting up many recycling factories. And this is really no surprise. Urban garbage is a deplorable situation that sincerely displeases all urban Egyptians. The seasonal black clouds that engulf northern cities from farmers burning rice straw in their fields make headlines every year. And with the population keen to toss out any government that is unresponsive to their demands, the current cabinet is wise enough to make these priority issues. Although these are important environmental issues, this agenda most certainly has a strong urban bias mixed in with potential benefits to be reaped by agricultural producers in the way of compost and livestock feed.
I imagine Minister Iskandar’s hope is to leverage success with the waste management and rice straw problems into political will for solutions on her more extended environmental agenda, which includes sustainable development, climate change, protected areas and ecotourism development as lower priority items. Her past successes working with the zabaleen of ‘Garbage City’ on issues of recycling, which led to great successes in education and job training, have earned her work international accolades. Egypt is fortunate to have such a technically strong environment minister with great expertise as a community development practitioner in solving pervasive problems that will require significant behaviour changes. These are the same attributes that I hope will help her see the potential of social businesses in her longer-term agenda.
The potential role of social enterprises
Social enterprises could be powerful implementers of Minister Iskandar’s longer-term environmental agenda, particularly for protected areas and ecotourism development. Iskandar will eventually undoubtedly face a tension between Egypt’s strong centralized nature of bureaucracy and her own bottom-up community approach, particularly when it comes to the environment. As experts, such as Laura Tabet, have noted the “non-participatory attitude…in Egypt’s highly centralised governance system, whereby many initiatives remain ‘upwardly accountable’ as opposed to being driven by local needs” are a major obstacle to better environmental management. By incorporating social enterprises in the highly supported priority agenda items, by for example allowing the aforementioned youth associations to become social businesses in solving the garbage problem, Iskandar would have a powerful precedent for doing so on her more long-term environmental agenda.
Integrating social enterprises might just be a critical missing piece, at exactly the right time. Iskander’s reliance on a tripartite collaboration between government, private institutions, and civil society is no doubt integral to the solution. But in reality, civil society organisations in Egypt are extremely weak from years of tight control of registration and funding by the Ministry of Supply and Social Affairs under all administrations, including that of ousted President Mohammad Morsi. The obstructed ability of civil society to fully participate in environmental management means that both larger population awareness of and participation in environmental issues is severely diminished. Social enterprises could add the popular social agenda to environmental management that is missing from weak civil society organisations. The time would be now, when the environment minister and the entire cabinet have pledged repeated support to better integrating youth and popular demands into the government agenda.
Indeed it is powerful to think about what social businesses could positively do for my Red Sea paradise experience. For instance, why not support organisations like the bdiver club, the organisers of my trip, in becoming a social enterprise? It is a group of passionate Egyptian divers, sharing the beauty of remote diving sites in Egypt while spreading awareness of marine life conservation, who see part of their “obligation as responsible Egyptian youth in preserving the natural wonders of the Red Sea”. Or Dayma, whose co-founder Betty Khoury so elegantly notes on the issue of national parks: “Parks do no generate enough money; they are not self-sufficient entities, so the whole marketability of national parks needs to be rethought”. Her group provides guided journeys to some of Egypt’s most wondrous natural destinations, teaching about sustainable lifestyles while conducting environmentally responsible forms of tourism.
By supporting groups like these, Environment Minister Iskandar would be empowering the perfect social guardians of Egypt’s natural resources and possibly educating its youth on why things like home recycling are so important. These groups are better placed than any Egyptian institution to work on local, implementable, concrete solutions to meet the minister’s extended agenda. And who knows, it might be that not just privileged Egyptians like myself end up enjoying Egypt’s natural treasures. It could be that sustainable, local ownership could have more true meaning than an ambiguous objective or fad line in documents.
For sure, encouraging social enterprise development, dedicated to the environment or anything else, will take time and resources. But why not make those resources available? If the government can support cement companies through halving international prices of natural gas, why can’t they better support social enterprises? After all, it is cement manufacturers’ threats of using coal amid high international natural gas prices that would damage Egypt’s environment. We so heavily subsidise industries with high potential for environmental damage; so why can’t we effectively support social enterprise development? For instance, the government private equity fund Bedaya One has had EGP 67m, 50% of its envelope, available for fund-dispersal since April of this year. The small and medium-sized enterprise targeted fund has yet to publicly announce a single investment. Why not set up a similar financing facility with just a portion of those resources to be invested in viable social enterprises? Under the guardianship of Egyptian finance, enterprise, technical, and development experts, a facility like that could develop better and real local and sustainable solutions for the environmental and the larger social agenda.
Minister Iskandar’s work on the zabaleen earned her the award for Social Entrepreneur of the Year from the Schwab Foundation at the World Economic Forum in 2006. My hope is that her past successes with community development, her passion for the environment, and her understanding of social entrepreneurship will mean that these potentially socially powerful businesses will become integrated into her short and long-term environmental agenda. I see them as potentially top innovators for developing local, sustainable solutions. I feel they could be excellent social guardians of Egypt’s natural treasures.