Wagdy: Confronting poverty, in Cairo and elsewhere

Opinion by Fatima Wagdy
July 26, 2012, 1:01 a.m.

As I walk the streets of Cairo this summer, barefoot children begging me for a few Egyptian pounds confront me. Their mothers shower me with religious pleas; they tell me that God will bless me, that I will be rewarded, that it’s Ramadan. It’s not as though I haven’t ever been asked to spare some change on University Avenue or in San Francisco; we’ve all seen this. But these appeals are different. The sheer number of poor people in the street is saddening. For every poor person who asks me for money, I see several more just lounging about on the ground.

The gap between the rich and the poor is so blatantly obvious here, as is the severity of the poverty. Day after day, I witness the scale of the inequalities as I encounter people trying to sell me a pack of gum or a packet of tissues for just a pound (less than 20 cents). They are desperate to make a small profit on the stash of cheap little tissue packets they managed to buy. They aren’t even trying to rip me off; they just want to sell something in the hopes that they will get enough money to buy some food. I guess these are people who will not “succumb” to begging, but I can sense they are extremely eager to know what they can sell me to make me part with just a few of the pounds tucked tightly in my purse. I can see the dirt on their faces, their clothes and their feet. Many times, I can see that their teeth have more than rotted away.

It saddens me even more to know that many people who are much better off than those selling tissues or begging on the street still live in substandard conditions. When the elevator in my apartment building is broken, I am forced to hop over a flat, dirty mattress that blocks the path to the last flight of stairs. Apparently this is where the bawab, the doorman, sleeps, right outside the apartment on the second floor.

Over 20 percent of the people in this country are below the poverty line, and over 30 percent are illiterate. And I know that many of the people who are officially above the poverty line struggle to survive on their measly paychecks. Even those with a university education struggle to find jobs as the unemployment rate soars. What’s worse is that there are countries much poorer than Egypt.

This poverty plagues me with guilt and a million questions as I continue in my very comfortable lifestyle. Will randomly handing some people a few pounds here and there help at all? What do I do when I’ve already got two packs of gum and several tissue packs in my purse? What about when I’ve bought all the fruits I need from the fruit seller on the street corner? What do I do? What should I do? Why isn’t what’s currently being done by these experts out there working? Was it always like this?

I see this poverty here and feel like something is broken. I know that things shouldn’t be this way and wonder if I am part of the problem. It is uncomfortable to be confronted by my relative privilege every single day. It is unnerving to feel like I’m a jerk if I don’t give more money to the poor people on the street. But perhaps that’s what we all need — a bit more discomfort in our daily lives. Perhaps we all need to feel as though having people below the poverty line at all is intolerable to the point where we absolutely cannot ignore it. Maybe then it would become a bigger priority. But what if the public policy shirts are right? What if caring a lot is not enough to start to alleviate poverty?

Many people at Stanford, whether it’s professors or students, do care a lot. And some devote their work and their lives to addressing these problems in a variety of ways. In the Bay Area, there are a myriad of foundations that invest millions of dollars to attack these problems. Yet these problems remain; I still see deep inequalities every single day. I wonder what is necessary to eliminate a large chunk of the poverty in the world. I wonder what must happen for it to disappear. What should we be doing, individually and collectively, as people in one of the wealthiest countries on earth?

As I ponder the complexity of global poverty, I remember that it is not a new problem; we know from history that it is an age-old problem encountered by every generation. I wonder why we haven’t figured it out by now, and part of me feels the answers are simpler than we think.

If you have some answers, email Fatima at fwagdy “at” stanford “dot” edu.

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