Watani talks to Ayman Nasri of the Ecumenical Alliance for Human Rights and Development
The image of NGOs in Egypt has been severely tarnished of late, with accusations that their attention is becoming increasingly focused on questionable political roles rather than on charity work which is the main domain of the majority of them.
For those operating in the field of community work, it seems unfair that organisations working to help improve social conditions should be criticised for illegal political involvement. The Ecumenical Alliance for Human Rights and Development, an organisation that has its headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland, runs various projects for the poor and especially for families where women are main breadwinners. Watani met the Egyptian executive director, Ayman Nasri, to ask about its foundation and role in Egypt.
From where did you get the idea of founding the organisation?
When I was in Egypt I volunteered to help with literacy classes, and this is where the idea came from. I believe in the importance of development to advance the community and resolve many problems, not least among which is religious extremism. Whenever poverty and ignorance get together they form a fertile ground that nurtures extremism and terrorism. The young and uneducated are vulnerable to religious fanaticism; they don’t possess enough awareness to be able to tell the difference between what is right and what is wrong of the religious teachings they are being given. This is why we target such young persons, to protect them from falling prey to destructive ideas.
You are a young man and I’m sure you have a very busy life. You live in Switzerland, so why did you think of doing community work in Egypt?
First of all, I love my country and when I had the chance to be a volunteer worker in Switzerland I couldn’t help remembering the situation back in Egypt, and I felt a strong desire to do what I can. However, I knew that development problems are all in the funding and so, in 2009, I worked to put the complete picture and the importance of development in Egypt before the Swiss government.
The Swiss government backs NGOs because it believes they play an important role in women and children’s rights. The idea of an NGO that works to help the Egyptian underprivileged was discussed with the Swiss government, which agreed to register the organisation in Geneva. In the first year there were indeed funding problems, but in 2010 our NGO started working with foundations that agreed to fund us. The first project was to train 100 children with special needs from a village called Menouf in Menoufiya to make suitable handcrafts in a safe manner. That way they could be learning to do something they would enjoy and excel in, and at the same time to realise they had good potential to live productive lives. We taught them the craft of making white wax candles, which was a suitable and safe occupation for them. After three months they showed great skill and ability. The next phase was to market the product so that the children would feel the value of their work.
That’s as far as children are concerned. But you said that women were also the focus of your attention. So what have you done for them?
Our organisation’s second project involved small loans to women who were the breadwinners of their families. We operated in two underprivileged districts; the first was Dar al-Salaam south of Cairo, and the other Ain Shams in the east of Cairo. In each of these locations, some 200 women benefited from our project. We started by providing the women with training in project management, then asked them to propose projects they would care to run. Anyone who works in the social field will tell you that the only projects which succeed are those proposed by the people not those imposed on them by the social workers. Our economic committee assessed the proposals and secured loans for the economically viable ones. The successful projects so far include simple beauty salons, selling cosmetics, a rosary workshop and small restaurants. Our loans are offered in four installments starting with EGP1,000 and going up to EGP20,000.
The organisation supports all Egyptians regardless of their religion.
Our upcoming project will be to provide drinking water to one of the many villages in Upper Egypt that don’t have it.
How do you view the current problem of NGOs which focus on politics to the detriment of development?
The media focus on politics reduces the chances of development funding in Egypt, especially when the political and security conditions in the country are precarious. Sadly, real effective development work is met by disinterest in the media. Worse, the public tends to generalise; allegations of political work or connections by some organisations are spread to include all NGOs. I wish there would be a distinction between organisations that serve the community and those that serve specific political interests. If there is no acknowledged difference between the two, the foreign funds needed for development would dry up.
6 April 2014