Dr Rania Al-Mashat, Egypt’s Minister of International Cooperation, tells Sebastian Shehadi how the pandemic has accelerated change in the country, especially in terms of gender policy.
Sebastian Shehadi: What positive outcomes has Covid-19 initiated in Egypt, policy wise?
Dr Rania Al-Mashat: There have been a few positives for everyone globally. Covid-19 has highlighted the agility of policymakers, the private sector and regular citizens. We have become extremely innovative in how we think about policy solutions, how we coordinate very quickly among ourselves.
There were many reforms that were planned to be done pre-Covid that were then brought forward rapidly. For example, public services in Egypt provide about four million jobs, and everybody was working from home. Many government services were also done remotely, and things functioned. Another example relates to widening the social safety nets. This was something that was done very quickly. We have the infrastructure for that, but we widened the number of beneficiaries.
Moreover, Egypt’s informal sector is quite large, but we were able to register more than one-and-a-half million of the informal workers because we wanted to give payments to them. So, all of this was also a way of pushing forward structural reforms. We have improved financial inclusion and digitalisation on payments, which was also done quickly by the central bank.
Also, Egypt was the first country to bring forward a gender-specific Covid response, and a policy tracker related to policies that address women’s issues and gender issues, as women have been identified as one of the most vulnerable groups globally as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Egypt entered this crisis with very good fiscal and monetary buffers because we successfully completed our economic programme with the International Monetary Fund, starting in 2016 and finishing the summer of 2019. For the past few years there have been very ambitious and important education reform programmes that the Ministry of Education has been doing with the World Bank and other organisations, part of which included putting the school curricula online, as well as exams. This is an example of the country being prepared to employ digital tools effectively through its education system, and then implementing them when Covid hit.
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SS: Egypt is initiating a wide-ranging policy programme called the Great Reset. Could you elaborate on its goals?
RA: This crisis has shown that government is important. The private sector, civil society and academics are important. So, everybody is part of the solution. This is the new normal. There is no one stakeholder that can do it by themselves.
Economies have to be more inclusive, as we have seen, with the widening of social safety nets and through trying to create jobs that are going to fit in with the new normal. What types of skills should people have? How can more people work remotely? This requires reskilling. Where do women fit in this inclusive economy? How do we capitalise on this digital world right now? We have a young generation that is technologically savvy; how do you create the digital infrastructure that pushes jobs and gets more digital engagement? And then, of course, where does the green recovery come in? And how do you make sure that the new projects are consistent with environmental sustainability? And this requires stakeholder engagement between our government, private sector, civil society, academics and so forth.
I keep on emphasising that this crisis should not cause us to overlook the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Quite the opposite. And when you are creating projects that address different SDGs, the funding from that is either local, global (from international institutions), or bilaterally through different agreements. We have created modalities to ensure that the stakeholders related to financing are sitting together on the same table. So we created something called the Multi Stakeholder Platform.
SS: How has your foreign investment policy altered due to the pandemic?
RA: We have been very active in several sectors, especially in electricity and renewable energy, water desalination and the effective use of water resources for agriculture. In oil and gas, the private sector has implemented several projects. And there have been successful cases in the past of public-private partnerships… which we want to replicate. In these cases, the Multi Stakeholder Platform is [a key factor]. So, we will have one on transportation, for example. Food processing and manufacturing masks are two other obvious opportunities.
SS: How is Egypt pioneering gender policy in the Middle East?
RA: We are the first country in the Middle East and Africa to launch a gender gap accelerator. It is a public private platform, and it pushes three main objectives. First is more women in employment. Second, more women in leadership positions. Third, parity with respect to pay. This is not just about getting more rights; it is about an effective economic resource being utilised efficiently to create more economic growth, jobs and productivity. So women’s participation in the economy is macro-critical. Today, 25% of Egypt’s cabinet are women, while close to 20% of parliament are women.