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Changing the lives of Egyptian people left behind for a long time: Taha’s Story

Amal Faltas's picture
Also available in: العربية
"It was the first time we talked while the officials listened. Not as in the past, when they used to talk and we just listened."

With this simple statement, Taha Al-Leithi, a young Egyptian man from the village of Rawafei al-Qusayr in Sohag in Upper Egypt, described the fundamental change introduced by the local development forums to citizens’ participation in the development process in Sohag, and the relationship between government officials and citizens. 
 


Al-Leithi and his peers have never participated in any development decision concerning their village or its markaz (center). They had never been invited to develop or even discuss the annual investment plan for the markaz or governorate. Taha says he, like other young people in the village, had believed that planning and selecting projects were tasks done in closed rooms, and that the central government in Cairo alone decided the needs of villages and towns in Sohag governorate, 500 kilometers south of the capital. 

Local development forums are one of the most important institutional arrangements established by the World Bank’s Program-for-Results Project in Sohag and Qena. The program is designed to raise the competitiveness and economic efficiency of local units to enable them to deliver basic services in a framework of decentralization while supporting youth participation and creating more job opportunities. 

The basic idea of the forums is to provide a sustainable platform through which local stakeholders, especially those marginalized for a long time such as young people and women, can take part in public affairs, and systematically participate in the planning, design, and follow-up of local development projects. The program has so far succeeded in setting up 23 forums at all the administrative marakez (centers) in Sohag and Qena governorates. The forums have about 1,200 members, 30% of whom are women, and more than 50% are young people. 

"I felt that I became more important to the government than a member of parliament or local council," said Al-Leithi, recalling the practice of developing annual investment plans in his province controlled by a minority of the elite. Before, consultations were limited to influential members of parliament or members of local councils belonging to large families, while the vast majority were denied participation in planning projects and identifying urgent priorities. 

Those old practices contributed to significant distortion in the structure of public services in the governorate of Sohag as well as other governorates. This resulted in the loss of citizens' confidence in local and central bodies responsible for the planning and development process. That, in turn, led to the reduction of the role of citizens, who became negative recipients of the output of their governorate development. 

"I thought that it was a foregone conclusion," said Al-Leithi, when he first read on a social network page of Sohag city and the markaz that a public participation session would be held to discuss the FY17-18 plan. The plan had already been developed and the consultation was just a token formality process, Al-Leithi told himself. But out of curiosity, he decided to participate in the session, where he heard different statements for the first time and saw people in their simple galabiyas (traditional dress) talking more than the officials sitting at the podium. 

When the local development forums were formed, Al-Leithi joined as a representative of youth for the village of Rawafei al-Qusayr. “As a member of the local development forum, I developed a different view of matters after I attended the first session of consultation." 

Now, Al-Leithi sees his volunteer membership in the forum as influential in developing plans and following up their implementation. He sees his role as vital to shaping the present and future not just of his village and governorate but for his family, as well. 

Recently, forum members chose Taha as coordinator of the community communication committee, one of the forum’s specialized committees, through which citizens can participate in the planning, design, and follow-up of the implementation of projects on the ground. 

Al-Leithi and other committee members have benefited from specialized training workshops on community aspects of the program; knowledge and skills required to deal with grievance systems; the management of consultation sessions; follow-up of contractors to ensure compliance with occupational health and safety requirements of workers and the community; and information dissemination systems including the "signboard" which emphasizes citizens’ right to know project facts. 

"I am responsible for a public project! I stand with the engineers, contractors and workers, and do things I had only done [before] when building my own house. "

This was Al-Leithi’s feeling when he decided to go on a field trip to follow up on a project being implemented in Sohag city and its markaz, where he wrote down his remarks and shared them with forum members and officials at the local implementation unit. Here, Al-Leithi smiled saying, "The government is only now convinced that its citizens know their communities better than anyone else." 

This bottom-up planning process through the forum platforms has fundamentally changed the nature of projects in the governorates of Sohag and Qena and how they are followed up on the ground. In a pioneering step to maximize the role of the community, the Ministry of Local Development in Egypt has adopted the initiative to mainstream public participation in the governorates of Egypt by activating a “community participation guide” in investment plans. The guide was prepared and tested in the governorates of Sohag and Qena within the local development program in Upper Egypt. The ministry and the program hope that this step will lead to a qualitative leap in creating bridges of trust with citizens, integrating them into planning processes, and stimulating their ownership of public projects. 
 
 

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