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Soheir Kansouh:The tenacity of jasmine
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 29 - 08 - 2002

Bewitched, bothered, sometimes bewildered, but never without a cause
The tenacity of jasmine
Profile by Fatemah Farag
Click to view caption
I remember her as the elegantly dressed whirlwind that would sweep into the office at the ungodly hour of 8am, papers fighting to escape the constraints of her valise, the entrance only a preamble to the inevitable morning session in which she would pour out new ideas and ponder problems, thoughts scattering left and right. Such was the beginning to Soheir Kansouh's day at the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Office in Cairo. And I should know. Kansouh was my boss for three years. We both share the memory of mornings when I would struggle against sleep as she struggled with a plethora of issues, from how to bring sustainable development to Egypt to how to bring order to the complex maze of cross- referenced filing.
"Immediately, as soon as I have a good idea I have to share it," she says, adding that she thinks "of life as a marathon. Any one person can only run so much and the collective goals can only be attained if we pass on what we have to others. It is unfortunate that today everyone is interested in hoarding whatever bits of knowledge they have to themselves."
Work for Kansouh -- she is also known as Kansouh-Habib, having taken in part the name of her husband, TV presenter Tarek Habib, with whom she has one daughter -- has never been a nine to five deal. It is a vocation. Development and its lack -- not the stuff of which reports are made but issues about which she feels passionate -- can bring tears to the delicate green of her eyes.
In part, at least, she is very much her father's daughter, even though he died when she was only 13.
"My father was an engineer who studied in London and was very educated. But more important he was enlightened. He spoke of women's education, water conservation... many things that we now take for granted as part of today's development jargon but which were not issues at the time," she remembers.
Surely it is no coincidence that his daughter's career would eventually lead to the most senior position occupied by an Egyptian in the UNDP's Cairo Office, where she worked between 1967 and 1999. She has also been, variously, senior advisor to the minister of social affairs, senior advisor to the National Council for Women, vice- president of the Inter-University Consortium for International Social Development (IUCISD) and is a founding member of the advisory board of the Egypt Human Development Report. Few are the senior positions within the field of development that she has not held. And as if all this were not enough, Kansouh recently topped her record by becoming the driving force behind, and first elected president of, the Association of Former International Civil Servants (AFICS-Egypt) and of the Egyptian Chapter of the Federation of Associations of Former International Civil Servants (FAFICS-New York).
As the world focuses its attention on Johannesburg, which this week hosts the UN's Sustainable Development Summit, Kansouh -- a woman who quietly took it upon herself to underline the importance of sustainable development long before the bandwagon was built, let alone rolling -- is in Cairo.
"When I first started working for the UNDP I was responsible for the electricity development programme and would argue for resources to be allocated to this aspect of development. That was my job. When I moved on to other files the same would happen -- this is how national policy is ultimately made: pressure groups, ministries, everyone trying to push their sector or interests. The result is that there is nothing objective about the setting of priorities, which clearly hampers the bigger picture, the sustainability of development and whatever progress is made in one sector or another."
Kansouh is all too well aware that international organisations, even with the best of intentions, play a role in the maze of developmental confusions.
"Country programmes are, of course, influenced by funding. Employees of an international organisation will come in from abroad with a special interest in women, or youth, and later in health care, regardless of what are the most pressing needs within individual countries. None of which leads to an integrated approach."
"For example, we might get a boss who has a specific interest in combatting AIDS, who maybe has built part of his portfolio within the UN because of his activity in this domain. And while I do not undermine the importance of dealing with AIDS, in Egypt, I know that hepatitis is where most of the allocations should be going. But then the people in Egypt want to please the people in New York. You get a lot of that, though the balance is starting to shift in favour of local concerns."
In a world where everyone strives for specialisation, Kansouh prides herself for being a generalist.
"I claim to be a specialist in the wider picture. People look at the trees, I look at the forest. This is important because on the level of national policy the concerns of specific projects, sectors or special interests cannot stand in for the whole."
She laughs, remembering the time a UN consultant on bio-diversity came to Egypt. "The person was interested in wildlife. But I thought what about the camel which, of course, does not strictly come under the wildlife classification. But it is an animal of great importance to us; it is a source of cheap meat and is used in agriculture. Anyway hundreds, if not thousands, die on their migration from Sudan along the Darb Al-Arba'een and I thought it would be useful to find ways to ensure a safer trip and minimise losses. But the consultant was more interested in leopards. And Egypt does not have leopards." The point being, Kansouh stresses, that "we need to get beyond the limits [of programmes] and see what we need and how to get it."
The table at which we sit is fast disappearing beneath papers. She pulls out a bound copy of the National Strategy for Development and Utilisation of New and Renewable Sources of Energy. "I worked on this in 1982 and it is as valid today as it was then. At the time no one talked about renewable energy. It was the time of oil glut. But we were on top of things, going out to areas such as East Owainat to explore wind farming and other such options."
She pulls out a detailed map showing areas with potential for alternative energy sources.
"What is missing in development," she ventures, "is the institutionalisation capable of taking the process beyond individuals. What happens is that once a person goes his or her files are burned as they leave."
Kansouh grew up in Alexandria, a city where an Egyptian engineer from Birkat Al-Sabaa in Menoufiya could still marry a Turkish/Circassian woman and where the young Kansouh would become one of the first Muslim girls to attend Notre Dame de Sion, a French boarding school run by nuns and the school of choice for princesses from the royal family. "Our attending Notre Dame is important, it indicates how cosmopolitan Alexandrian life was. This is a very important aspect of our history, especially in today's world. It was a city where people from all religions and nationalities could not only live together but flourish."
Her attitude towards the city is unapolegetically nostalgic, and she holds tenaciously to the remnants of that cosmopolitanism. In a review she wrote of Azza Heikal's 1996 L'education Alexandrine: Je ne compte que les heures claires Kansouh writes: "[The] jasmine has gone. Instead there is concrete everywhere, high rise buildings everywhere, except where the persistent eye still catches the fragmentary but tenacious evidence of a past glory insensible developers were unable to raze... My worries are that the generation of the 40s, which has now reached 60, will not be around much longer to remind new generations that the jasmine needs to be nurtured."
The Alexandrian idyll, however, was cut short. At the age of 16 Kansouh fell in love and married. "After marriage I moved to Cairo with my husband. It was the done thing, for girls to marry early," she tells me, and suddenly I remember the photographs I was once shown of a delicate girl in white posing shyly for the camera at her wedding party held at the Omar Al-Khayam -- today the Marriott -- Hotel.
She had a son, Mahmoud, who today works as a professional photographer, at the age of 18, so everything seemed to be going according to accepted convention. That is until she started to want to resume her education.
"I had always loved my studies and especially humanities," she begins, adding cursorily: "I became a single mother and I had to take on full responsibility of raising my son until I remarried at the age of 29." The early marriage had ended in an equally early divorce.
In 1962 Kansouh graduated from the Faculty of Arts at Cairo University with a degree in French Literature. Her first job was in television.
"When I got the job in the public relations office of the newly established Television and Radio Authority my sister was beside herself with laughter. I was so shy and she could not begin to fathom how I would deal with this new situation. I looked at it as a challenge, and conquering my debilitating shyness was perhaps my first achievement in the working world."
Kansouh soon moved to a higher paying job -- such were the demands of hearth and home -- with a German pharmaceutical company.
"I lived in Doqqi . The company's headquarters were across town in Matariya and so I commuted every day, leaving my son at home. I did this for two years. It was tough," she remembers. But then came the UNDP job, the office then located on Taha Hussein Street in Zamalek, and Kansouh found herself.
"I started out as an administration officer and set out to make local employees aware of their rights. All the manuals and staff rules were in English and I would translate them into Arabic so that people like the drivers and clerks could see them first hand. I was elected chairman of the staff association but soon discovered that in the field [in country offices] that was not such a fantastic thing to be. The harder you work to fulfil your mandate the more you are perceived by the system as a rebel. I reached a point where I could choose personal interest or continue with the post. I discovered the meaning of a survival regime: subsequently I would not give up on anything I believed in but had learned to draw the line."
It was not an easy lesson to learn, but Kansouh refuses to be defeated by the facts of life. "If I get frustrated at anything it is my limitations. The fact that some goal may be beyond my capabilities. But then I find ways to get around the obstacles and reach my goals anyway."
Before leaving UNDP Kansouh had become assistant to the resident representative, the highest position that a local employee can hold.
"I was nominated to become the first Egyptian deputy but bureaucratic obstacles have kept the position away from national candidates. It is a shame when you consider that in other countries such as India nationals have broken through," she laments.
The next step was to assist then Minister of Social Affairs Mervat El-Tellawi in a capacity development programme. There were disappointments, though. "Unfortunately," she says, "our work was watered down, from something important to something without colour. The gap between what is on paper and what can be put into operation tends to be huge."
And then came AFICS-Egypt. "When I first thought about establishing an Egyptian Chapter of the Federation of Associations of Former International Civil Servants in New York I saw it as a great opportunity to pool experienced people into a body that could do something of real value," Kansouh explains.
The idea first came to her on a visit to New York after her retirement from UNDP. "To get into the UN building I needed to get a visitor's pass and it felt strange that after 32 years all of a sudden I did not belong."
A series of meetings and deliberations with various UN bodies and the relevant Egyptian authorities finally brought AFICS-Egypt into being on 4 May 2002.
"It is brilliant. We have a critical mass of expertise within our ranks and our membership makes us a consortium of UN agencies without inter-agency competition."
Among the 50 founding members are Hisham El-Sherif, the International Labour Organisations' Ibrahim Awad, Said El-Naggar, Hussein Amin and Layla Takla. Former UN Secretary- General Boutros Ghali is an honourary member, as is the current United Nations Information Centre director in Paris, Ahmed Fawzi.
Kansouh hopes that AFICS-Egypt will, in its internal machinations, implement the rules of development they have all worked for, namely, good governance. As for the role it will play in society at large, Kansouh has great expectations. "I want to make it a development assistance reservoir, a centre of excellence if you will. A body NGOs can depend on for various forms of assistance. First of all we will compile a data base of all our members. This will include experts who have consulted for the UN and its agencies, translators, administrative specialists and staff members, many of whom will offer their services on a voluntary basis. Imagine, no less than 300 highly qualified and experienced former UN employees. Then of course there will be a local pensioners office, but that is something else."
I leave her amid the growing mountain of papers, wondering how I am going to describe this whirlwind of energy, with her endless motivation. But then I realise that she has done it for me.
"I have been described as de gauche," she says, "though actually I am not. But I have always been compelled by this feeling that I wanted to do things for people and that is the thing that makes me happy."
Which is more or less it.


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