Snapshots of volunteering in Cairo
30 June 2006
by Steven Bagshaw
However, the UN Development Programme’s Egypt Human Development Report 2005 illustrates some of the difficulties the city faces as it seeks to regain its triumphant status. Despite recent improvements, the pressures of pollution, internal migration, large areas of poverty, preserving the vital Nile River, and requirements for housing, education and sanitation present a constant challenge to local authorities and residents.
Many of Cairo’s citizens are indeed confronting these challenges and making their mark as volunteers. In the following article, we look at three projects that involve volunteers, in cooperation with the United Nations Volunteers (UNV) programme, as vital contributors to mobilizing Cairenes in the development of their city.
Souq El-Osra (‘Family Market’)
The first thing shoppers to Souq El Osra, or family market, in Cairo’s Mohandeseen district notice is the quality of the produce on sale: locally-grown tomatoes, cucumbers and other items found in the Egyptian food basket. What comes next, a weighted price based on a weekly average, is not so typical.
The market is a UNDP venture to boost the income of small producers and provide low-income earners with healthy produce below conventional costs and, in turn, more disposable income. A team of Egyptian UN Volunteers manages the market and promotes the cooperative approach in the community. The project’s roots are in Venezuela, where a similar market has become the centrepiece of the community’s life.
The team recently established a market association made up of community members who come together to discuss and identify ways to resolve local problems.
Ghena Omar has been involved with this group as a UN Volunteer associate, particularly concentrating on the areas of communications, public relations and interactions with stakeholders, since early 2005. She says that her participation in the project has made a big difference to her own life, as well as that of others.
“Before learning about volunteering, my way of working was very different”, she says. “Now on Fridays I give free lessons to the kids who can’t read or who are behind [in their studies], instead of taking a day off.
“My role as a woman is very important as well. Without me, the men might not allow their wives to be involved. So, I talk to the men and they trust me”, she explains. Women are an integral part of the market, right to the level of the market manager, Doaa Abdelaal.
Abdelaal says that part of the aim of the market is to ‘sell’ the idea of cooperative activity in the community, but that this is sometimes difficult in the poorer areas of Cairo. The unusual pricing mechanism – so distinctive in a society heavily based on haggling – is predicated on the idea of the cooperative approach.
“Egyptians are not team players”, she says. “So, for some people, they find the market scary. But our regular customers prefer it.”
Twenty-four year-old Aiman Mohamed is one of many young people involved at the market. At a recent celebration of Mother’s Day, he was helping entertain the many local children. On a normal day however, he and the other youths rotate through various roles to develop essential skills – from unpacking produce, to purchasing and selling, handling logistical arrangements, dealing with customers and suppliers, and accounting.
As well as these individual skills, Mohamed adds that, “we, as UN Volunteer associates, get a lot of information about the concept of volunteerism and how to volunteer.” But he sees the possibility of broader community change, too – and change that will be lead by youth.
“I’m very optimistic for myself”, he says, speaking about the future. “For the community, at the moment it is dark, but there is a light out there. People want to change, but they’re scared to. Society wants to change, but people say ‘You change and I’ll follow you’. It’s easier for youth to do this – and it’s easier for youth to influence other youth.”
More than 100 UN Volunteer associates have this year devoted one hour a week to imparting their skills and insights to preparatory school students in Cairo as part of the Injaz programme, run by a partnership of the UN Development Programme/UNV and Save the Children.
As part of an effort to increase future job prospects for children in impoverished areas of Egypt, staff members from companies such as Barclays, British Petroleum, Pepsi, Procter and Gamble, and Shell, have taken time from their work schedules to become volunteer teachers once a week for 10 weeks.
Visiting the Boulac Preparatory Girls School in central Cairo one Tuesday morning sees the school abuzz with six volunteers in five separate classrooms. From Proctor and Gamble, Salma Hassan and Amr Nada engage their students in discussions on business practices, interviews and how to think creatively. As we visit, Nada is discussing the use of logos by organizations and business cards are handed around the class.
Four UNDP staff members have also recently become involved in the project at the Boulac school, which is a mere five minutes walk from the UNDP’s Cairo office. Riham Mustafa, a Communications Associate with UNDP, says, “To me… it’s very important. It’s given me satisfaction and it’s giving me a role in my country and in my community.”
Her colleague, Shahdan Niazi, agrees, “It is no exaggeration when I say that volunteering with Injaz was definitely one of the best things I have ever done in my life. Seeing the reactions of the girls makes the whole exercise extremely rewarding.”
UNV Programme Officer in Egypt, Eva Otero of Spain, points out that the benefits flow both ways. The volunteers, all Egyptian nationals, take away something special, too.
“This to me is the beauty of Injaz,” says Otero. “Not only what the UN Volunteer associates do for the children but how the children change them forever.”
ICT Trust Fund
Hammad works on several projects, from a community development website, so-called “smart schools”, and illiteracy eradication, to a mobile ICT (information and communication technologies) unit that visits rural areas, allowing local people to benefit from Internet and computer access. His work is part of the ICT Trust Fund, funded by the Italian Government and supported by UNDP.
Hammad and his colleague, Abdallah Diwan, are national UN Volunteers who, in addition to their normal work, act as advocates for the idea of volunteering in the community.
“We have [in Egypt] the spirit of volunteerism, but not the concept,” says Hammad. “If you fall in the street, 1,000 people will try to help you up! But organised volunteerism is not there.”
Diwan and Hammad spend around 75 per cent of their time outside their offices, dealing with government authorities and NGOs, hosting seminars and meetings, evaluating projects, and researching the impact of the work of their partners. Training NGOs is also a key part of their impact – this training is then passed on to the local people that the NGOs deal with directly.
Field trips for the volunteers can extend as far as Aswan, 900 km to the south.
“When they see a volunteer coming all the way from Cairo, they appreciate it more,” says Hammad. “That you’re not only there to do your job – for the money – but that you believe in something, to help them change for the better.”