Posts Tagged ‘poverty’

Birth announcement

After five and a half years of labour, countless sleepless nights, a few panic attacks and Olympic swimming pools of coffee, I am very proud to announce the arrival of Thesis, she was born on Monday 31st of March 2014 at 14.05h at the print shop in Reading, UK.

Thesis was conceived in Rome, Italy and further developed in England, Egypt, The Netherlands, France and Afghanistan.

She weighs about 750 grams and is 392 pages long.

 Mother and baby are doing fine although mother feels in need of lots of sleep, a good massage, a few drinks and the company of good friends…The University of Reading





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The UN Food and Agriculture Organization Food Price Index in January 2011 exceeded the peak of the 2007-2008 food price crisis. When it comes to food, the boundaries between stability and disorder are easily crossed. In how far increases in food prices stand at the bases of the unrest now seen in the Middle East is unclear but it is clear that food prices can be an important factor in causing civil unrest and a catalyst for anti-government protests. Egypt has been at the epicenter of recent unrest in the Middle East. With more than 40% of the population living on less than 2$ a day, volatility of food prices can easily contribute to instability and unrest on the streets.

While Egypt’s economy has grown over the past ten years, progress in human development has been uneven. It has proven difficult to improve the situation of the poorest and most vulnerable. Forty per cent of Egyptians live on less than $2 a day. The proportion of extreme poor (inability to meet the basic food needs) has even increased in recent years. Soaring food prices are the main driver behind the increase in the proportion of people living in extreme poverty; this share increased from 5.4% to 6.4%; this means 5-6 million people are unable to meet basic food needs, let alone basic housing.

This is Amira, a divorced lady of 70 with bad eyesight and hearing. She shares her tiny house with a 12-year old orphaned girl whom she takes care off. Amira sleeps on a hard bed and her toilet consists of a hole in the floor of her tiny house. All she owns is 4 chickens and the rest of her possessions are contained in a few plastic bags. She used to have 15 chickens but she lost 11 due to disease; possibly bird flu. She lives of a small pension of 55 Egyptian Pounds (EGP), this is equivalent to 5.8 United Kingdom Pounds (GBP) per month and occasionally receives charity in the form of food or money from well-off villagers. She sometimes earns a few Egyptian pounds by selling a few eggs. The vast majority of her money is spent on food and she will regularly have only tea and dry bread for her meals. Women support one fifth of Egyptian households, these households are especially vulnerable because of lack of income-generating opportunities as women have lower levels of education, public participation and poorer access to health and vocational training than men. The few chances open to women of earning money are often limited to seasonal labour, petty trade and poultry keeping.

This is Rehan, she is 29 year old, she lives in her mother’s house with her 9 year old daughter; both women are widowed. Like her mother, Rehan did not go to school but she decided to take adult literacy classes a few years ago and can now read and write. Her daughter is in primary school.

This is Rehan’s daughter and her mother. The household depends on a monthly pension of 250EGP (26.3GBP) in addition to a monthly gift of well-off villagers of 20EGP (2.1GBP) to 40EGP (4.2GBP). The household owns 5 chickens, which regularly provide eggs for household consumption. They spend about 150EGP (15.8GBP) on food every month; this is about 54% of their total budget. Most of the rest is spend on water and electricity costs and school expenses such as materials, school uniform, and private lessons for her daughter, which cost 8EGP per week. Private tutoring –both within rich and poor households- is very common in Egypt and is needed to compensate for the low quality of public education and to supplement the low pay of teachers in the public sector.

Poultry keeping is a major component of the livelihoods of the poor in Egypt providing income and a cheap source of high quality protein. Poultry keeping is one of a few income generating activities available to women and the simultaneous impact of bird flu which is now endemic in Egypt and soaring food prices have affected women’s economic empowerment and well being. Income from poultry is often spent on children’s needs such as education, while eggs form an important source of protein for children.

In order to cope with the simultaneous impact of bird flu and soaring food prices many households changed their diets in favour of plant based protein such as lentils or beans instead of animal protein in the form of meat and fish which are much more expensive.

Molokeya (Jew’s Mellow) is a typical Egyptian dish. Here women are separating the leaves from the stems. The leaves will be used to prepare a sort of soup. Molokeya is usually eaten with rabbit, which is considered an expensive delicacy. Less well off households will replace the rabbit with chicken or offal meat.

Bread is the cheapest as well as most important food item in Egyptian diets. Supplying cheap bread has been a key principle of government policy for decades as it is regarded crucial for ensuring social stability. Two thirds of Egyptians eat subsidized bread and the state meets 96% of the cost. About 85% of Egypt’s bread is subsidised, this equals about 230 million loaves a day. Subsidized bread is distributed via bread stalls such as this one

However any changes to this subsidy system in a country where 40% of the population live on less than $2 a day can create volatile situations. This fragile state became visible in April 2008 when bread shortages, as a result of the surge in food prices, sparked civil unrest. Some people lost their lives and many were wounded. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization Food Price Index in January reached a new historic peak, rising for the seventh successive month and exceeding the peak of the 2007-2008 food price crisis. When it comes to food, the boundaries between stability and disorder are easily crossed. In how far increases in food prices stand at the bases of the unrest now seen in the Middle East is unclear but it is clear that food prices can be an important factor in causing civil unrest and a catalyst for anti-government protests.

For privacy reasons fictive names have been used in this blog.


The information in this blog is based on interviews carried out by my colleagues and me in Suhag, Assuit, Menia and Fayoum governorates in the months of October and November 2010. This research was part of my PhD research exploring how HPAI and the food crisis have affected the food security and livelihood situations of rural households in Egypt.

I’d like to thank FAO for providing the opportunity to do my PhD research during an FAO assignment

I’d like to thank Eman Abdel Raouf, Arwa El Naggar, Gebril Mahjoub Osman and AbdelHakim Ali for translations and good company.

The International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) has reproduced, edited and published my post under the title: Food and Egypt: Did high food prices help stir the public revolt?

Related posts about Egypt:

Bread, art and politics

‘we are out calling for our freedom and we will not rest till we get it’

A story of garbage and pigs

‘Uncertain times in Egypt’: a small feature in Farming Matters magazine produced by ileia

All the photos posted on my blog are owned by me and they should not be used without my permission

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I’m now in the Assuit University guest house. The notice at the entrance made me smile; ‘Assiut University guest house wishes you to spend the Happiest times and the most Beautiful nights’. Unfortunately the notice was followed by a set of rules that make having the ‘Happiest times and most Beautiful nights’ a bit of a challenge…

I and 3 colleagues have been ‘on the road’ for about 10 days now and after a couple of near dead experiences I’ve learned a great deal about Egypt traffic rules (or the lack thereof). Overtaking can be done passing left or right and overtaking a car that is already overtaking another car is perfectly fine as long as you use your horn during the procedure. Driving while shouting to another driver in the car next to you using the other lane at a speed of about 100km/hour is ok too. Obviously none of this moves my Egyptian fellow passengers one bit so I’ve decided to do as the Egyptians and leave it all up to God. So I relax sit back and enjoy the ride. ‘Insha’Allah’ all will be ok.

We have been visiting 9 villages and will be visiting 15 more in Upper Egypt. We’re revisiting people that have participated in an FAO study in 2007 assessing the impact of bird flu on people’s livelihoods. We want to see what changes have occurred since 2007 in terms of the number of birds they keep, the importance of poultry for income and other services and changes in attitude and behaviour in relation to bird flu. It’s quite a challenge trying to locate all the respondents, some names have been lost in translation, some have moved away and one entire village could not be visited because of an armed conflict.

In all honesty this research has been quite frustrating for us for many different reasons. It takes great effort and a whole lot of patience to conduct the interviews. Not all people –understandably- want to tell us about their income, diets and behaviours. Others for whatever reason give very confusing and contradictory answers which makes the interviews unreliable, while others prefer to talk A LOT about other things. This however is part of most research. It gets more difficult and above all embarrassing when people tell you that they don’t need another study, they need food. If you could see some of these people it is blatantly obvious they have not been ‘able to provide a ‘normal’ meal for themselves and their family members in the past year’ as one of the questions in our questionnaire states … One widowed old lady with bad eyesight and hearing lives in a tiny clay house, sleeps on a hard bed and her toilet consists of a hole in the floor of her tiny house. All she owns is 4 chickens and the rest of her possessions are contained in a few plastic bags. She spends all her money on food and regularly will have only tea and dry bread for her meals. Try telling these people that this research could possibly contribute to changes in policy that might be of benefit to them in years to come.

In those moments I feel pretty hopeless and I feel like giving up on ‘development’ work and doing something entirely different. No matter how much I love working with farmers, learning from them and spending time with colleagues in the field it is difficult sometimes to see how it might be of benefit. I only wish to be of more help to others but don’t seem to have found the right place and the right way to do it YET… But I hope and wish I will eventually!

All the photos posted on my blog are owned by me and they should not be used without my permission

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I have 2.5 weeks left before I go back to the Netherlands for a break.  Those last remaining weeks always make me restless and I’m looking forward to go home. My body feels a bit worn out and I’m tired of the floodings in my house, the many sleepless nights and the heat and pollution which make my eyes sting and my hands painful with eczema. I live in a very lively slightly rough area in the centre of town and this means constant sensory overload; dust, noise, heat and sometimes heartbreaking sights of poverty and neglect which had me rush home and crying on two occasions. The state of my clothes seems to reflect the state of my body; everything looks worn out and the colours seem less bright and what once was white is now greyish. I have only one pair of trousers left. I gave away one pair of trousers to a homeless man on the street along with a T-shirt flashing the lyrics ‘someone call the girl police’ from a song by Ani DiFranco (if he only knew what this song is about…).  My other pair of jeans is torn and has holes right in the bum area. I don’t think it would be very much appreciated me showing off my underwear here especially now during the holy month of Ramadan. I’ve started to feel quite embarrassed getting into work wearing the same trousers everyday but then again I wonder if people even notice these things.

So but anyway it is time to go back to the place that I have been calling home lately. One of the things that makes me very excited about going is the fact that my twin brother is one of the nominated actors for an important award and I’m going to attend the award ceremony in Amsterdam in September. I can only imagine all the pretty famous people in their fancy dresses sipping champagne and then there will be me being part of it… It feels very surreal thinking about it being here now not feeling very glamorous with my red puffy eyes wearing my pyjama trousers (washing my one pair of jeans!) and my Snoopy ‘wild 70s’ T-shirt.

It is amazing how most humans are able to adapt so quickly to new surroundings and blend in. Even after so many years of travelling I still get nervous and scared moving to a new place but inevitably end up surprising myself with my own capacity to find my own little niche, make friends with the neighbours, do sports and go to work like any normal person. After almost 20 years I decided a year ago to return back to the place where my parents live, where I’ve stored my stuff and where I grew up. Here too I had to find new friends, build up a routine of studying and find new routes to go running. Travelling and moving around has given me many wonderful things: a sense of freedom, it has made me see life through different eyes, it has given me goose bumps witnessing so much beauty, I’ve picked up a few new languages (not fluent but enough for street survival), but above all I have these wonderful people all over the world whom I can call friends.

But moving around so much has also left me with this one quite persistent feeling that my life hasn’t really started yet.  Rationally I know that life is what is happening right now right here but in the back of my mind there is always this little voice telling me that once I’ve settled down somewhere (preferably with this kind, cute, big hearted, funny person whom I haven’t  met yet  to share my life with) then my life will finally really start. That will be the moment I will feel ‘at home’ is what this little voice keeps telling me. But I also know that I always get restless staying in one place for a longer period of time, I get the urge to leave, to travel, to get away. I always had this and I wonder whether I will ever settle down.

I’ve started meditation a few months ago and this has made me realize how restless I actually am (also explaining the insomnia). Every morning before breakfast I sit down for 10 minutes and simply try and concentrate on my breathing. Sounds easy? It’s not! This is what goes through my mind during the average meditation session: ‘Ok El there’s nothing you have to do now except to focus on your breathing for only 10 minutes. Here I go: I’m breathing in, I’m breathing out. I’d love a coffee now, I wonder what my boss thinks of the report I handed in Thursday, oh and where did I put my key. HELLO! Back to breathing please! Ok breathing in breathing out, breathing in, breathing out, breathing in, my nose is itching, my goodness it’s so hot in here, oh that’s my neighbour screaming again, I wonder what she is actually saying, I’m really looking forward to my coffee now…HEY wait a minute! Back to breathing Ellen! Breathing in, what will I do with myself after I finish my PhD? Who did I need to write again? HELLO! Get back to breathing!! Breathing in, breathing out, breathing in etc. Amazing how something that appears so simple can be so painstakingly difficult. My mind is all over the place most of the time controlling me instead of ‘me’ controlling my thoughts.  But I keep trying and I’m very slowly beginning to feel the benefits of it. I feel slightly calmer and more in control of my life. Also by focussing consciously on the here and now I’ve had moments where I felt perfectly at home and at ease and happy without the need to be anywhere else or doing anything else. This has started me thinking that home is really a state of mind and perhaps not so much a place to go to. This probably sounds quite cliché for many but for me it is a whole new experience and it makes me hopeful; I might learn how to feel at home while doing what I love most which is exploring this strange, sometimes cruel but also very beautiful world.

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