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Bag of need
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 04 - 09 - 2008

Rising poverty and escalating food prices make feeding the poor imperative, especially during Ramadan. Reem Leila presents a new plan for the holy month
Every day for a month, Cairo's main roads are lined with tables as restaurant owners and shopkeepers prepare lavish meals for the poor or anyone who happens to be passing by. Just before sundown, young men and women rush to the homes of relatives carrying boxes of sweets and empty containers for leftovers. Plates of food are thrust into the open windows of cars driving by. A doorman from Upper Egypt shares a meal with his building's well-to-do residents, while complete strangers invite you to their table.
Ramadan this year, though, is slightly less magnanimous at least in one aspect. There are fewer charity-lined tables throughout the country's streets. But the good news is that more food bags are to be distributed amongst the poorest citizens.
The new initiative is based on a campaign launched by the National Council for Women (NCW) headed by Mrs Suzanne Mubarak to reduce free public eateries for the poor in Ramadan, known as Mawaed Al-Rahman, to the minimum level and substituting them with financial donations and food bags to be given directly to the poor to help them in coping with soaring prices. Accordingly, the NCW decided to spearhead an awareness campaign ahead of the holy month streamlining consumption to battle the high cost of living.
The initiative started on 21 July when Mrs Mubarak called for holding a debate on better ways of consumption in the face of the high cost of living. The campaign coincides with the advent of the fasting month of Ramadan infamous for overconsumption habits among Egyptians that send prices skyrocketing and add to the suffering of the limited income bracket. Instead of lining up charity tables covered with all kinds of delicious foods, the campaign urges whoever wants to feed the poor to pay the cost of the tables and food to the governorate in order to prepare food bags to be distributed among the poorest families residing in respective governorates.
According to Mrs Mubarak's initiative, all official charity tables are to be scrapped and the cost to go instead to food bags. The public can either contribute to this effort or set up eateries for the poor as usual.
In a meeting on 27 August, the NCW reviewed plans of action drawn up by ministers and governors to reach dirt- poor villages in Upper Egypt and the Delta. "Our goal is to make it to villages most in need of protection," Mrs Mubarak said, adding that the designated areas were pinpointed in socio-economic survey maps of last year.
The initiative aims at promoting the values of moderation and social solidarity in the face of overspending, Mrs Mubarak added.
The council also wants to secure donations to reach those truly in need. Prices are rising everywhere due to the crushing international economic crisis, Mrs Mubarak said, insisting specific mechanisms were needed to deal with the problem. In some cases, the state should intervene to subsidise, increase production, establish consumer societies and even enforce boycotts in the face of money-grubbing retailers.
Zeinab Radwan, a member of the NCW, said food security was an intertwined problem that involves the protection of agricultural lands, wise consumption of water and energy and increasing production. Economic and agricultural tariff strategies need to be established as part of a long-term programme that also keeps in mind overpopulation, which feeds off development, Radwan said.
NGOs, the Armed Forces and the Ministry of Social Solidarity have joined forces to work on establishing an organisation located at the governorate that collects charity during the holy month and makes the most of it. "Food bags will be distributed among poor Muslim and Christian families and poor single female households," Radwan said.
Each governorate received from between 20,000 to 40,000 food bags as a donation from the Armed Forces. Each bag consists of two kilogrammes of sugar, two kilogrammes of rice, macaroni, 20 kilogrammes of flour, beans, peas, lentils, butter, two bottles of cooking oil and dates.
Among the donations was LE20,000 given to Cairo governorate by Safwat El-Bayadi, head of the Evangelical Church in the country, to be distributed in the form of food bags among the neediest people. In addition, LE2 million was donated by the Ministry of Endowment. The Sawiris Association gave LE10 million. In all, nearly LE1 billion was collected for the food bags.
"Each governorate must take out of its budget money equivalent to 10,000 food bags to be distributed among the Muslim and Christian poor," said Fathi Saad, governor of Sixth October. According to Saad, the governorate is the only authorised body allowed to distribute these bags in order to avoid duplication and to guarantee that all those who deserve the bags have indeed received it. Branches of the NCW in governorates are to list the names of the poorest families. People deserving the bags are to pick up their share from the governorates. "The neediest citizens already have their share," Saad said, adding that the campaign is to continue throughout the year and will not be limited to Ramadan.
Not everyone is in favour of the increased food bags. Some believe the Mawaed Al-Rahman come in good stead for poor people who have their Iftar every day at these free eateries. "Reducing the number of these charity tables will affect the spirit of Ramadan," opposition MP Mustafa Bakri said. "Many people will suffer since not all of them will receive the food bags because, according to the campaign, only eight to 10 villages in every governorate will benefit from them," Bakri argued. Bakri believes that bag distribution should have started earlier in order to enable people to benefit from its components. Bakri said the government wants to compete with the Muslim Brotherhood and seeks to bribe people in order to gain their support by allocating the bags, "but it will fail because people do not trust the government's intentions. Poor people will take the bag but will continue resenting the regime," claimed Bakri, adding, "who will guarantee that poor people will receive their share? Where are the guarantees that all this amount of money will be directed to food bags?"
This Ramadan, most Egyptians are buying less, owing to soaring food prices that have pushed the country's urban inflation rate to its highest level in more than 15 years. Official figures released in August show inflation has risen to 23.1 per cent, mirroring other countries in the Middle East. In its latest inflation report, the Central Agency for Public Mobilisation and Statistics listed the most noticeable price increases, including 71.1 per cent for butter, 38.5 per cent for dairy products and 32.8 per cent for pasta.

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