Sunday, November 23, 2008

Will work for food

We are middle class citizens. When we lived in the States we made so much money that we didn't qualify for welfare* $2 a month. Now that we're living out here we'd definitely qualify for welfare since our net income is between zero and a hundred dollars per month. We work for food.

I'm not even kidding. We. Work. For. Food.

Andrew tutors people's children in exchange for milk, sour cream, cheese and tortillas. And a nominal amount of money, 100% of which is applied to rent.

But that's what's fun about being a young, married couple. We'll have stuff eventually. Maybe.

Sadly, we are so well off compared to so many people here. We have Andrew's fellowship and our savings (as a rapidly deflating cushion). Andrew's fellowship money alone is many times more than what 95% of the population in Egypt sees in a month.

The rich-poor gap here is rather wide. There are the filthy rich and there are the desperately poor; not a lot of inbetweeners exist at all.

95% of the population earns 15 LE or less per day. That's like $3! A value meal at McDonald's costs 15 LE. 95% of the population doesn't have the means to eat at McDonald's.**

Truthfully, we really wouldn't care if we never ate at McDonald's but we do enjoy going out to eat every once in a while. That's a luxury most Egyptians don't have. In fact, it's a luxury that less than 5% of the population can afford.

Andrew and I were talking about this last night.

I think that a strong middle class is very important key to having a healthy society. The middle class is what drives a country to progress. The upper class have basically everything money can buy and are therefore in need of nothing. Ideally they'd be showing altruistic tendencies, but from what I see of the wealthy here, they don't. Instead they are prone to snobbery.

The wealth here is "old money," so being rich is akin to being royal. Farida Mokhtar finds it "ironic that the elite people of AUC are standing in a food queue." She doesn't seem to care if other people stand in line but feels that she, a member of the 5% upper class, shouldn't have to.

On the other hand, a big chunk of the population is worried only about basic needs: food, clothing, shelter. They aren't getting enough to eat, they don't have enough to wear, and they live in unfinished houses. I don't think they are concerned about changing the government or saving the environment; they only want to have enough rice at the end of the day to feed their children.

And that is the dichotomy we see here. Maadi gives way from villas and grand guarded apartments to rural, farmland just that quick. There are cars driving along side donkey-drawn carts.

The middle class is almost completely non-existent, which is rather unfortunate for everyone since I think that most new ideas originate in the middle class--those aspiring to better themselves. Do you think little Miss "I Shouldn't Have To Wait In Line" is going to come up with a more fair economic policy or the solution to world hunger? Do you think the starving farmers have the time to worry about such things?

It's unfortunate for us, too, because we can't find anything middle-classy. When we went out to Nile Mall the other day everything was terribly expensive. The stores here either have posh brand-name apparel or cheap junk. It's almost impossible to find anything of decent quality for a decent price.

Instead of wasting their time and money on projects that only provide more benifits and variety to the wealthy, international aid groups need to see what they can do to decrease the rich-poor gap. AUC got a ton of money from USAID, which is just ridiculous. That only helped a handful of the needy who were lucky enough to get jobs as janitors and parking lot monitors. Mostly, though, it just helped the "elite" more. Most foreign aid projects seem to only help the elite more.

The task of solving the poverty issue here is too great for me. It breaks my heart to see houses sided with cardboard boxes.*** At the same time, though, I find it quite telling. One particular house that I am thinking of is no bigger than the smallest of our bedrooms. A whole family, with multiple generations, lives there. I've never seen any of them out begging. They all just work hard.

I appreciate that. They take what they're blessed with and make the most of it. I like to think that they would appreciate any extra help they get.

Unlike the beggar woman who berated me for offering her bread instead of money. Or the tissue vendors who con people into buying a packet of tissue for upwards of 1LE! Just think--they sell 10 packets of tissue a day and they are as well off as a school teacher!

Knowing how little so many people has makes me appreciate what I have so much more. It also makes me more willing to share with others. By American standards we don't have a lot but we still have plenty. Until we finish with grad school though, I have a feeling we'll continue to work for food.

*We once looked into doing WIC after I quit work to have Rachel didn't work out since I was still working and we just never bothered to apply again after our income was cut in half.
**Mitchell, Timothy. Rule of Experts: Egypt, Techno-Politics, Modernity. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002): 285-286.

***Picture forthcoming if I get brave enough to snap one.


  1. I remember that the missing middle class was a shock to me in Turkey. The contrasts were so sharp and stark - rich or poor. No in-between... Crazy.

  2. It is unfortunate that no matter how much you help, there are always more in need. Among some deep-seated issues here is the poverty "mentality". They have no understanding to save any influx of money and 20le is spent just as fast as 3le. A feast or famine. The Humanitarian Volunteers for the church are taught about this and encourage learning skills and money management. The year before last, the branch worked with USAID in some the country to establish a sanitary working water system. It is very rewarding to see a village thrive due to the installation of a system of pumps. Another USAID initiative is to teach the governments basic administration and fiscal management, improving collection and management of local revenues. The corruption meter is high here. (you're lucky your landlord gave you back the money, you'll have to tell me about that story) If you teach a man to fish . . .

  3. At least in Brazil, this is a problem that is fixing itself.

  4. That said, there is still a huge difference.

  5. It is rather amazing the wealth we have here in America compared so many other countries. Your post has really made me think about my blessings and how I can also help others in need. Thanks for this reminder!

  6. Nancy, you have some valid points, but they come across as very preachy. Some of the issues you bring up have been well known for decades now, and in truth many aid agencies really do focus on programs that actually get money and services and employment to people--and they are trying to do it in a sustainable fashion, something that is easier said than done. If you study USAID initiatives in Egypt you will learn that a significant portion of the water and sewage systems were funded by US dollars. This has meant dramatic improvements in quality of life for everyone. The example you gave of the AUC funding is actually a good example of helping everyday people with the things they need--education and employment. International assistance cannot fix the underlying pathologies that lead a country to be underdeveloped, and they can actually be harmful if they are poorly administrated, but they are also a very important and useful means to improving the lives of people in need. It's not a cure all, but it certainly is a needed help.

    As far as people not waiting in line, this is just an Arabic cultural trait that applies equally well to the rich and the poor. They simply aren't taught to wait in lines like we Americans and British people are.


  7. By the way, I think it is awesome that Andrew is tutoring for food!!! Jason

  8. Sorry to come off as preachy. I wouldn't ever admit to being an expert on the subject. I wouldn't say that every project USAID does is poorly designed. I'm planning on reading more of the book I referenced, though. Mitchell seems to have some sort of vendetta against USAID and I think it's an interesting one.

    Sometimes, I think, we are helping countries learn to not help themselves. Which is a rather backwards way of helping.

    And believe me, "everyday people" do not attend AUC. Tuition is upwards of 10,000 dollars per semester for International students and, although the price for Egyptian students is far less, it is well above what "everyday people" could afford.

    When I understand the issues better, perhaps I'll be able to express my views more clearly.

  9. Nancy, you might check out a book called "The Samaritan's Dilemma." Also, without a doubt there are uncomfortable tensions within USAID as an agent of development assistance AND a tool of the State Department. Whether the agency be USAID, the World Bank, WHO, or any other, there are always tensions, agendas, theories. Development assistance is far from an exact science...and it is always political. You might also look up the author Adrian Leftwich.

  10. I was just rereading this to see if I actually said anything bad about USAID or really anything preachy at all. And I still feel that accountability for projects is still a very important aspect of aid work. I haven't read any of the books or authors Jason recommended (but mostly because I felt that he was coming off as preachy...) but I have read others. I'm still working on "White Man's Burden," which actually lauds USAID as being better in recent years than it has been before. But then there's a book, which I haven't read but Andrew has told me about (his dad has our copy right now) called "We Meant Well," which talks about some big mess ups we made with aid in Iraq by just "giving money away" without bothering about accountability.

    That said, we'd love to work for USAID someday. They are a great organization—every organization suffers from a bit of corruption/mistakes/misjudgment or whatever but that doesn't mean they aren't good overall. And that's why Andrew's doing his MPA degree now—so that he can learn about management and responsibility in the public sector.

    As for not standing in line being an Arab trait, I would disagree with that as I stood in a whole lot of lines in the Middle East for train tickets and metro tickets and at food stands and to get into the zoo and so forth. They do jostle..but Arabs certainly understand line-standing.

    I suppose the only words I want to eat from this post are these: "I don't think they are concerned about changing the government..." because HELLO! They just pulled off a revolution (granted it's ongoing at this point...but still).