Many cities around the world have to grapple with a plethora of issues mainly revolving around how to make the city more habitable for their ever-expanding populations. Cairo is no exception, as government after government has tried to manage and improve the city through strategic master-plans since the 1960s. Unfortunately these plans were often developed and implemented using a top-down approach with no regard to the citizens that inhabit the city. Cairo’s residents have, for decades, been unaware of how planning decisions are made and what to expect for the future of their city. The problem with such a top-down approach is not only that it presumes that residents have nothing useful to input in the development of their own areas, but also that it is inefficient when plans are stalled as a result of citizen objection.A prime example of this is the Cairo 2050 plan which was presented by the General Organization for Physical Planning (GOPP) around 2008 as a vision for the Greater Cairo Region (GCR) to become a “global city.” Cairo 2050 was heavily criticized for its lack of transparency and disregard for affected residents. The lack of any kind of public participation exacerbated the already-existing lack of trust between citizens and the government. After the 2011 Egyptian revolution, the GOPP with the technical support of UN-Habitat decided to embark on a series of assignments to build trust with Cairo’s residents, and increase public participation in the planning process1. But what does participatory planning actually entail, and how can we assess whether it is truly taking place?
What is Participatory Planning?
The World Bank defines participatory planning as “a process through which stakeholders influence and share control over development initiatives and the decisions and resources which affect them.” The term ‘stakeholders’ here refers to the various parties that would be affected by proposed projects, including local civil society organizations, local private businesses, and of course, primarily, residents. This goes beyond merely allowing residents to voice their opinions about existing plans, but rather learning from residents and treating their opinions as expert knowledge from the start of the planning process. This begins by what UN-Habitat describes as “local people as experts and teachers, and outsiders as novices” thus ensuring that plans are based on residents’ own visions for their areas.
This is not a simple process, and should be implemented through a number of steps that, according to the UN-Habitat participation toolkit, include pre-planning activities such as stakeholder mapping, forming partnerships with all stakeholders, and sharing visions about the areas concerned. Keeping this definition in mind, can Cairo’s latest strategic plan be described as a participatory one?
Cairo 2050 has undergone a number of changes since the revolution, perhaps the most noticeable of which is its title as it is today called the GCR Strategic Development Vision (SDV). The new name is based on two changes: i) a decision that the date 2050 did not accurately reflect the various target dates in the document’s different components, which range from 2015 to beyond 2050; and ii) a decision to use the term ‘vision’ rather than ‘plan’ since plans are often detailed and binding, while the SDV presented more of a general “developmental vision that targets the three governorates in Cairo” that would later be integrated in each governorate’s existing plans2. The SDV includes 22 projects and while there is no updated information available at the moment3, UN-Habitat is in the process of completing a booklet for dissemination4.
As part of efforts by UN-Habitat and the GOPP to increase transparency and improve government-community relations in the wake of the negative reactions to Cairo 2050, UN-Habitat commissioned a private consultancy firm called Environment and Development Group (EDG) to undertake a Socioeconomic Impact Assessment (SIA). The Terms of Reference (ToR) written by UN-Habitat for the SIA says the following:
The General Organization for Physical Planning (GOPP) adopts the strategic planning method targeted to formulate an integrated future development vision for the GCR. This vision is basically aimed at achieving sustainable development, reaching a feasible and applicable strategy to be prepared by all concerned organizations and stakeholders, in addition to guaranteeing benefits from available natural resources, and raising the necessary funding resources for the implementation process. The GCR strategic vision plan aims also to create job opportunities through future projects in the fields of capital and cultural asset investments, upgrading infrastructure, and improving urban environment.
The SIA covers five projects and relies primarily on gathering residents’ opinions about and reactions to the projects envisioned in their areas, and then transmitting community responses to UN-Habitat and GOPP. These findings should then be put into consideration when the GOPP designs the detailed project plans5. The residents’ opinions were gathered by EDG who conducted interviews and focus group discussions in the various project areas, and are currently in the process of conducting 8 community discussion sessions to share the outcomes of the SIA thus far and gather more resident comments.
So far a session has been held in each of Al-Warraq, Al-Matariyya, and Shubra Al-Mazallat areas to inform residents about the development envisioned in each area, and to discuss the potential impacts on the community.
A “Participatory” Approach?
The SIA is one of the few times the Egyptian government has sought to integrate any kind of participation into its planning process. This is a positive step taken by the GOPP towards enhancing participatory planning, but there is still much to be learned from this experience to improve future planning in Egypt, as evinced by a simple analysis of the community discussion sessions. The community discussion sessions being held at the moment provide a useful vehicle through which to reflect on participatory planning in Egypt.
As mentioned above, three sessions have taken place so far. The Al-Warraq session was conducted during February 2014, while the Al-Matariyya session took place on March 5th 2014, and the Shubra Al-Mazallat session was held on March 25th 2014, and each session discussed the project planned in the area such as the Al-Warraq Korneish Development Project, the Al-Matariyya Development Project and the Rod El-Farag Transport Hub.
The quality of the sessions has varied, as some have been more successful than others. In particular, the Al-Warraq session suffered from low turnout and vague explanation of the project, leading to a very weak discussion with the residents. The Al-Matariyya session addressed these gaps, but naturally suffered from some imperfections, particularly in regards to the selection process of community attendees. In addition to that, the presenters left many questions unanswered, did not discuss many details regarding some of the project’s main components (particularly the slum-upgrading component)6. The Shubra Al-Mazallat session had a lower turnout than the Al-Matariyya one, but higher than the Al-Warraq session, and the presenter answered all comments and questions with a sufficient amount of detail. However, the planned transport hub will entail expropriation of agricultural land from farmers in the area, and while the presenter assured that the land-owners were happy with the compensation, none were present to confirm or deny this.
One major flaw is that all three sessions were held during working hours on a weekday, which meant that many of those invited were unable to attend7. On the other hand, the sessions upheld a certain level of transparency. The presenters did not shy away from discussing the potential negative impacts of the project along with the expected positive impacts. As for participation, the attendees actively participated in the discussion including many women, and their comments represented a range of opinions, many of which challenged the presenters.
Thus, overall such sessions are clearly a positive effort by the GOPP and UN-Habitat to make Cairo’s development a more transparent process. But do such efforts qualify the SDV to be described as a participatory document?
To answer this question a distinction must first be made between participatory planning and post-planning consultation. As explained above, participatory planning entails involving residents from the beginning of the planning process, while in this case residents were only involved after the plan had already been developed. Although the SIA ToR states that participatory planning “served as one of the cornerstones upon which the project is based” – one of the Al-Matariyya session presenters explained this so-called participatory approach by stating that: everyone within the GOPP (not the residents) participated, including the younger employees, 2) that they held many meetings with local officials, and 3) that they visited the area several times.
Needless to say, this does not conform to the definitions of participation described above, and according to the UN-Habitat toolkit, “assessing impact through discussion” is the 18th step out of 20 steps for participatory planning, and should be preceded by other participatory planning tools.
To further clarify this distinction, the World Bank participation handbook describes a “participation continuum” that begins with empowerment as the highest level of participation, followed by collaboration, consultation, and information-sharing as the lowest level. Another way to visualize the different levels of participation is through a participation ladder with passive non-participation at the bottom, followed by consultation (where the government solicits citizen feedback but does not necessarily use it). The higher rungs of the ladder include partnership between citizens and government, followed by delegated power and citizen control. The decision to undertake a SIA places the SDV at the consultation level of the continuum/ladder.
Questions about Public Participation in Egypt
Who represents the local community?
While the Egyptian constitution guarantees the right of citizens to communicate with public authorities in Article 85, it unfortunately includes no obligation for authorities to respond.
The elected Local Popular Councils (LPCs) are the legal framework in place that provides the primary official channel through which citizens should participate in the planning for and management of local affairs. Despite the fact that all LPCs were dissolved in 2011, the law that clearly states their authority and responsibility to oversee all local affairs has not been modified8. Thus, it is unclear on what basis the GOPP is putting plans in place at the local level in the absence of the legal channel through which residents should oversee this process. Has the Ministry of Local Development put in place an alternative legal framework through which central agencies such as the GOPP can undertake planning in the absence of the local councils? If so, this framework should be publicly announced to ensure that both the GOPP and UN-Habitat abide by them.
What type of information is provided to the public?
Another issue is the lack of information about the plan, which has been a common feature of most GCR development plans since the first one was put in place in the 1960s. Article 68 of the 2014 Egyptian constitution states that “information, data, statistics and official documents are owned by the people. Disclosure thereof from various sources is a right guaranteed by the state to all citizens. The state shall provide and make them available to citizens with transparency.” In this regard the issue goes beyond the SDV itself, but is more related to the ambiguity of Egypt’s planning process in general. There is a large number of official agencies that are involved in planning, and yet rather than coming up with one consolidated plan, residents are bombarded with different plans with no clear explanation of how they relate to one another. For example, it is unclear how the SDV relates to the recently announced Million Housing Units Project, or how it relates to the Informal Settlement Development Facility’s plans since the SDV deals with some informal areas. Furthermore, it is unclear how the SDV will be integrated within the plans already put in place by the Cairo, al-Giza, and al-Qalyūbiyya governorates, all of which are partially included in the GCR. This is in addition to the fact that there have not been sufficient publicly shared details about the SDV or the future steps the GOPP plans to take prior to implementation.
Free and unfettered access to public information is a right all residents should seek, especially when it comes to decisions that affect their daily lives. Sharing some public information by the GOPP about the SDV is a good step forward; however this information remains incomplete until they are presented to the public in a transparent, complete, adequate, timely and reliable manner.
Does residents’ feedback really affect public plans?
As mentioned above, the World Bank defines participatory planning as “a process through which stakeholders influence and share control over development initiatives and the decisions and resources which affect them.” The key word here is control, as while such sessions allow planners to inform residents about the proposed project and get their opinions about it, it does not give them any authority to actually shape the project. Since authorities are not legally obligated to respond to resident opinions, it is unclear to what extent the information gathered from residents through the SIA will impact the SDV and resultant projects. For example, one of the residents in the Shubra Al-Mazallat session opined that there are other smaller projects – such as road and bridge renovations – that would potentially benefit the area more than the proposed transport hub. Will this cause the GOPP to rethink the development strategy? Similarly, part of the Al-Matariyya development projects entails developing an informal area named Izbet Al-Lamoon, but there were not enough residents present from that area to voice their opinions about the plan. If the residents are unhappy with the plan to relocate them – even if temporarily – will the plan be changed as a result?
Such questions are especially salient in light of a survey conducted for the original Cairo 2050 plan in 2009. The study was meant to enhance “societal dialogue in order to support and lend credibility to Egypt’s development strategies.” However, the study presents very vague results that almost all seek to show universal approval for the Cairo 2050 plan. Needless to say, statements such as “all respondents agreed that housing programs should consider the social dimension” and “94.5% of respondents agreed that the development of GCR should involve increasing green spaces” cannot really show citizen opinions about the plan’s details and how it would actually impact their daily lives. Furthermore, citizens were asked about plans for areas that they do not live in, leading to statement such as: “96.9% of respondents agree that Nazlit Al-Simman area should be converted into an open museum by relocating residents.” Furthermore, 60.5% of respondents from the Nile islands (Al-Warraq, Al-Dahab, and Al-Qursaya) disagreed with the development vision proposed for their areas in Cairo 2050, and yet it is unclear as to whether the plans for these areas were altered as a result. This survey was also conducted by an independent consultancy firm, and yet this did not ensure proper implementation of the participation tool being employed. In the end, Cairo 2050 went ahead, raising the question of whether citizen feedback actually affects government decisions.
Lessons for the Future
While the decision to commission an independent company to undertake an impact assessment and employ participatory methods is doubtless a positive step, much more still needs to be done in this regard. For Egypt’s planning process to be truly participatory, it needs to reflect residents’ visions for their own cities. A participatory plan aims from the start to empower residents to take ownership of their city by relying primarily on residents to identify problems, areas for improvement, resources needed, and how to budget those resources to ensure that they respond to public needs.
Ideally speaking, this should be guaranteed in the constitution and legislation through clear mechanisms to fulfill the right to participate in planning processes and the right to access public information. However, the decision of the GOPP to undertake a SIA gives hope that perhaps for once national institutions can lead legislative reform rather than have it imposed on them, as is usually the case. The GOPP and other involved agencies have a golden opportunity to become leaders in the field of residents’ participation by ensuring that planning is done in a truly participatory manner. Otherwise they should simply clarify that these discussion sessions are mere information-gathering sessions and drop the label of participatory altogether. At this point, it is still unclear if the SIA will really affect subsequent government decisions, or if we will see a repeat of the 2009 Cairo 2050 survey mentioned above. The GOPP may decide to disregard the outcomes of the SIA and proceed as planned, or it may decide to take the outcomes into consideration, but in the absence of any kind of legal obligation, all we can do now is wait and see.
1. Source: Interview with Dr. Bassem Fahmy (GCR Project Manager at UN-Habitat).
2. Source: Interview with Dr. Bassem Fahmy (GCR Project Manager at UN-Habitat).
3. The GOPP set up a website to enhance the project’s transparency but the most recent information is circa 2008 and is still under the name Cairo 2050..
4. Source: Interview with Dr. Bassem Fahmy (GCR Project Manager at UN-Habitat).
5. Source: Email interview with Mariam Saleh – project coordinator at EDG.
6. More detailed coverage of the Al-Matariyya session can be found here (Ar).
7. The sessions are held during the daytime on a workday partly due to the GOPP’s strict adherence to working hours. However, EDG coordinator stated that GOPP is considering holding future sessions in the afternoon.
8. Article 12 of the Local Governance Law 34 (1979) and the Building Law 119 (2008) stipulate the involvement of the Local Popular Councils and local residents in setting local planning needs and finalizing the general strategic plan.
This article is loosely based on this Shadow Ministry of Housing post.
Featured photo at Al-Dahab island, by Mona Farouk, used with permission.
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