Egypt’s Capability

Friday morning I was completely off the grid. I had a appointment downtown, went on the subway to get back to my place so I wasn’t checking my cell phone, Twitter, or Facebook. It was just the like the 90’s but better because Destiny’s Child wasn’t playing in the background. When I got back to my apartment I checked to see what was going on in the world and saw a peaceful revolution coming to a peaceful end, and a new beginning for the people of Egypt. There are no words that can describe what was being shown on television, but the word that can’t be used enough is incredible.

When the first round of protests started on January 25th, it seemed to catch many people by surprise. Either people at the CIA don’t have Facebook or Twitter accounts, or their efforts were focused on something else. But with all the countries in the middle east, why even worry about Egypt? With Mubarak in charge the country had been stable for 30 years, a peace treaty with Israel that it wasn’t breaking, and it’s GDP was growing at a higher rate than any other nations in Africa, and 25th in the world. So, what do Egyptians have anything to worry about?

The reasons for Egypt’s revolt are complex, there are so many directions a writer can take in describing the events that lead up to January 25th. But what they all have in common is the Egyptians wanted to be free and have a democratic government working for them. I have written in the past about standard economic models and how they are inadequate assessments. The reason: they don’t assess what people need or care about. Economists should look at what happened in Egypt and realize if the measurements they use do not change, the whole practice is in danger of becoming obsolete.

Before the recession in 2008 Egypt’s GDP grew 7.2%, in 2009 it still grew another 4.6% (when most economies shrunk), and in 2010 it contued upward at 5.3%. Part of the growth was drilled from the oil in the country’s vast dessert in the west, but its leading industry is in textiles, which grew at 5.5% just last year. But despite this improvement in production, it did not lead to people’s lives being improved. Unemployment was still at 9.7% and over 14 million people were living below the poverty line.

Nobel laureate Amartya Sen developed the Capabilities Theory, an alternative to standard economic models. Instead of focusing on GDP as the primary factor in development, he argues economists should focus on social programs such as education and health care, which enable people to live their lives to the fullest extent possible. An important part of this theory is strong democratic governance where people can make their grievances known and work to expand their freedom. The theory calls for redistributive policies to be enacted through social programs, similar to Social Security and Medicaid, which give people the resources and skills they need.

If economists are going to solve this problem, they have to understand what’s important to Egyptians, and people living around the world. There have been tons of stories written about the importance of bread, and all the people who have gone hungry (and I make no apologies for saying mine is the best) because they are not able to afford it. What’s also important to the Egyptians is their health. When Mubarak first came into power in the 1980’s he expanded health care by building hospitals and providing beds across the country. But despite the fact all Egyptians are eligible for health insurance, the government was refusing to pay for it (sound familiar?). The Ministry of Health owes $270 million dollars to health care providers across the country. But because they don’t have the money, hospitals have had to delay or refuse people treatment because they can’t afford to take them in.

Much of the talk has been about the smart, young people, who organized the protests through Facebook and Twitter. While this is true, the facts don’t speak well for Egypt’s education system. In the past, Egypt did have a good education system. But in recent years, as the population grew, more students were attending schools but were not receiving a good education. These children became disenfranchised only to drop out. Most of them tried to get the few jobs that were available, or went to a life in crime. This can lead to future economic stagnation because young Egyptians won’t know how, or have the will, to start or run a business. More schools needed to be built and more teachers needed to be hired, both of which would have reduced the unemployment rate and brought brighter prospects for Egypt’s future and the people who started the revolution.

The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace released a study on how hard it was to start a business in Egypt. This only empowered the rich and leaving behind the rest. While money was being given to the growing industries like textiles, this only enabled the rich and the businesses they own. Money wasn’t being spent on other areas where the majority of the people needed it. Overall investment by the government was only 18% of GDP. This is despite the fact Egypt’s purchasing power grew by $25 billion each year between 2008-2010.

The Capabilities Theory allows economists to focus on the areas of an economy that is most important to people, and their welling being. Providing for areas such as education, health care, housing, and food, provides security and stability allowing people to live their lives and pursue the areas they choose. Egyptians wanted access to better education and health care, among other things, and because they were being ruled instead of governed, they had to take to the streets in order to attain these freedoms.

February 11th 2011 is a day that my generation will ask itself “where were you?” when Egyptians took their country back? Now that it is in their hands, Egyptians will be able to elect officials that can enact policies which will help those desperately in need, and build a better stronger country for future generations.



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Filed under Amartya Sen, Capabilities Theory, Economics, Egypt, Mubarak, Political Economy, Politics

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