Salah Arafa is one of the pioneers in development who initiated a movement to go back to one’s roots more than 30 years ago. Salah began using the resources in marginalized villages to create educational centers built upon a participatory model. Through this integrated approach to development, Salah has shown that it is possible to use local resources to create a sustainable model for social advancement while preventing the rural out flux from the villages to urban areas. He believes that development programs should focus on rural communities (the productive units of today) and towards desert communities (the future of Egypt).
Salah was able to make a rural community development model of the Basaysa model and is now creating a new model for community based development in the desert by establishing the new Basaysa.
Salah succeeded in introducing in Egypt, the concept of integrated community based participatory development decades before any donor or other agency. For years in the late 80s and 90s and to date, the Basaysa model has been taught in schools and NGO training courses as an example and a model that should be followed.
By seeing the potential in poor, marginalized villages, Salah has created a sustainable community based model for development built on the notion that development and modernization do not necessarily entail urbanization and the move to the cities. Quite the contrary, urbanization in poorer countries often entails underdevelopment rather than development. Thirty years ago, Salah selected one marginalized village and introduced a completely new concept to the field of development. By using the local available resources, including all villagers to discuss what their needs were, Salah created an integrated approach to development. His program included, among many things, providing the inhabitants with training in agriculture, literacy and perhaps most importantly; teaching them how to work together. Salah addressed a whole range of issues in his program, some of them completely unknown to the inhabitants such as the concept of dialogue, giving them the opportunity to express their thoughts and concerns, and he made clear that the program was for everyone and not just for a minority. The previously neglected poor and marginalized area where the village (satellite) is located is now an amazing example of how a flexible well thought-out plan can result in sustainable development.
In Egypt there are 30 000 small communities, each with a population of less than one thousand inhabitants. These are scattered all over the country and most are known as satellite villages, i.e. without roads, education, electricity, health care, sewage systems and everything else usually considered basic infrastructure.
The population of the larger cities in Egypt is steadily increasing. This is particularly a problem for Cairo which receives a massive influx of people per year, putting an enormous strain on the capacity of the city’s infrastructure, which cannot accommodate the citizens’ most basic needs. As a result, slums and shanty-towns where people live in desperate conditions, are rapidly growing. In Cairo, the lack of adequate housing has driven tens of thousands to take desperate measures such as moving into tombs in the notorious ‘City of the dead’. The villages in Egypt have long been deprived of the means to improve their lives through education, and the measures that have been taken to find a solution to village underdevelopment, have not taken the villagers’ special needs into account. Examples of these failed attempts are particularly visible when taking gender into consideration. Girls have only a two percent likelihood of finishing secondary school. This can often be attributed to traditional values, which do not change at the same pace as educational reforms. Girls often have to finish their chores at home before attending school, a fact that has been overlooked, and therefore has resulted in girls simply not attending school. Strategies to address education in rural areas must not overlook traditional values and beliefs in order to be successful.
Although attempts to solve this dilemma have been hindered by a general mistrust on all levels including between stakeholders, Egyptians will soon find themselves in a situation where they have no choice. It is estimated that in the near future, one million people per year must move out from the Nile delta or else the problems of poverty, starvation and unemployment will reach astronomical levels.
In 1983, and after nine years of informal meetings, planning and constructive dialogue between Salah and all community members, they agreed to register two NGOs. In order to solicit outside funds and to institutionalize and organize their work they needed to be official. However, during those years, the constructive dialogues in the village helped them to create a model based on three observations he had made. First, he saw that they needed to identify the village’s social problems. It was clear to Salah that in order to create a sustainable plan, the villagers’ problems had to be understood, and the only way of doing this was to listen to them. Second, he needed to work with them in order to prioritize their needs. Finally, he developed a plan and began some activities. One of those activities included what Salah calls “the return of the educated to combat illiteracy” since it had became obvious during the community meetings that illiteracy was identified as a major problem.
However, the limited number of educated people lived in the larger villages and there was no means of transportation at that time. They solved this by buying bicycles in installments and collected the cost of one bicycle and used it as revolving fund. The outcome was that a number of educated people went to the village, began a literacy program and had an easy and inexpensive means of transportation. What is also notable is that the capital of the fund was collected from rich and poor alike and bicycles were used by a large number of community members.
The idea of sharing and working together was something new to the villagers. The CDA that Salah helped to establish was a cooperative for production where all community members had shares. The CDA worked to produce what it needed and the benefits were distributed to the community.
Some of the training had to be carried out at night which immediately led to a dilemma since they had no source of light. To get around this problem, Salah introduced the idea of solar energy and with his technical assistance, the community members learnt how to build solar power systems. The community now operates on solar energy.
By 1992, the literacy rate, university and PhD graduates coming out of Basaysa was amazing. The model, while not replicated exactly, was adopted by local and international NGOs working on development
However, as the case in all of Egypt, the unemployment rate was very high. To solve this Salah and the community members decided to create the “New Basaysa” through a program that he developed in the village called “youth training for employment”. The young people were given the opportunity to apply to the social fund to get desert land to cultivate and to learn how to set up their own enterprises. Through this program, two problems were solved, youth unemployment and the under-cultivation of desert land.
The total land area in South Sinai where New Basaysa is located is about 750 feddans (approximately 750 acres). Each young person was given five feddans to cultivate, however it was also possible for people living outside New Basaysa to invest in five feddans and to give the land to young people to cultivate. The investor is given a percentage at the end of the year, but the main income remains in the village.
Salah formed an NGO in 2000, General Association for Internal Migration and Development to promote these ideas and help other NGOs. He is currently preparing for his second project in Farfara Oasis which is expected to start in October 2003. He is also in the process of cooperating with a Sudanese NGO to construct communities based on his ideas.
During the thirty years after he first approached the village, the villagers and people living in surrounding areas, have seen the tiny village recover from poverty and unemployment. Salah has proven that, if given the right tools, even the most underdeveloped area can be transformed into a model for sustainable development.
Salah was born in Zagazig and later moved to Cairo where he got his B.S in Physics and Chemistry. After graduating, he was appointed as a research fellow in the Atomic Energy Establishment where he worked throughout his college years. The year he graduated with a M.S in Nuclear Physics, his father past away and left Salah with the responsibility of taking care of his family. As a result, he could not do his PhD abroad as planned and he registered at Cairo University in order to get a PhD in Physics. He later went to Sweden for post graduate studies due to his excellent performance.
After having spent ten months in Sweden where he worked on his thesis, he returned to Egypt to become a professor. It was the beginning of the seventies and Salah’s interest in physics merged with his interest in development. He saw the state of his country and found people who had the same goal as him, to create a better Egypt. He questioned why Egypt was a developing country and what could be done, always finding the same solution; education. Another question he asked himself was how he could let the educated people be a part of the development process. 30 years ago these were all novel questions, when modernization meant urbanization and when villages suffered from the brain drain.
This is how Salah’s journey with the Basaysa village started, a commitment which came to dominate his life ever since.