Maximising the Impact of Urban Development in Cairo’s Informal Settlements

International development efforts must be designed with long-term impacts in mind. Dr Hassan Elmouelhi provides insights into the Egyptian context and asks an all-important question: Is international development overlooking critical opportunities? 

International cooperation organisations working in Egypt – especially Germany’s GIZ – are doing a great job regarding informal settlements development. However, to truly maximise the impact of these projects on residents’ lives, a lot more needs to be done.

Development cooperation, especially in the field of urban development, usually includes short- and long-term impacts that need to be monitored years after the official completion of projects to ensure that objectives have been achieved. Fail to do so, and you may be faced with several lost chances and opportunities. Based on personal observations and experiences, as well as an empirical research analysis of various projects by different development cooperation organisations, it can be argued that many projects were not able to achieve their intended long-term outcomes. What can this be attributed to?

NGO Buildings in Manshiet Nasser Cairo

One example is GIZ Egypt’s “Participatory Development Programme in Urban Areas” (PDP). Its main objective was to provide advice to decision-makers in Egyptian ministries, governorates, and local administrations on how to deal with informal urban areas, locally called Ashwa’eyat (meaning haphazard). In a prior phase to the PDP’s framework, two service buildings were designed and built as a part of a pilot project in the area of Ezbet Bekhiet-Manshiet Nasser, one of the largest informal settlements in Egypt. The buildings contained a post office and most of its spaces have been rented out and used by different local NGOs.

Based on observations and semi-structured interviews with residents and NGOs workers, we found that residents were content with the services provided by the NGOs, for instance, seasonal financial assistance, projects that hire youth temporarily, and nurseries used by many families in the area. Interviewees also declared the importance of the post office, from which many residents receive their monthly pension by the Ministry of Social Solidarity. Regardless of the lack of maintenance and the fact that the two buildings were not functioning at full capacity, the interventions by the GIZ were perceived to have improved the neighbourhood’s quality.

However, several missed opportunities could be highlighted that would improve the status quo in the long term and make the achieved progress truly sustainable. These relate to the lack of institutional memory and the absence of post-project evaluation.

Lack of Institutional Memory

While analysing various interventions by different international cooperation organisations working on Ashwa’eyat, one key finding is the apparent weak institutional memory of those organisations. We observed a significant lack of process documentation. This was the case for projects managed by local NGOs but, unexpectedly, also for those run by larger international cooperation organisations, such as the Catholic Relief Service (CRS) and the GIZ. This is detrimental as proper documentation is a source of learning for the organisation and future projects.

In an attempt to collect data about GIZ projects that had taken place between the late 1990s until 2008 in the Manshiet Nasser area, programme representatives needed several weeks to retrieve the requested data. This could be due to a potentially weak knowledge management system that keeps systematic archives. As a reaction to this observation, project representatives have expressed the willingness to work on this issue in the near future with the wish to institutionalise documentation within the system and the project’s structure.

Furthermore, this can also be due to internal GIZ regulations and the nature of the work contracts with funding institutions, as this usually leads to a rapid turn-over of German personnel (three-year stay) and partial discontinuation of the processes – despite the great efforts made to understand the complex local context. In this case, especially the role of the national staff is very crucial by briefing new staff on the background and history of the project.

Missing Post-Project Evaluation as a Tool for Impact Measurement

While investigating the case of Manshiet Nasser, many residents commented that the NGOs placed in the two buildings could become even more active in providing services to the area. The upper floor was observed to be closed with no activities at different times of the day or on different weekdays. Besides, the poor condition of the buildings has shown the lack of maintenance over the years, due to a conflict between the tenants (NGOs) and the local municipality that manages the buildings.

Although monitoring and evaluation activities are commonly requested in projects for most international donors, these activities are only realised during the implementation period. It could be argued that this was one of the major challenges GIZ has faced: there were no announced post-evaluation activities for the interventions in Manshiet Nasser between 1998 and 2008. Such follow-up evaluations could be crucial to maximise the project’s impact and avoid conflicts between the local municipality that manages the project and the residents who are supposed to benefit from it.

Post-Project Funding for Measuring Long-Term Impact

I strongly believe that measuring the impact of projects that target long-term impact for informal settlement communities are worth our attention. Lack of funding is usually the argument that justifies this current weakness in international development efforts. However, this can be avoided by allocating a special fund that aims to revisit projects five to ten years after the end of a project. This can be also included as a small component of the following project in coordination with national governmental partners, the ISDF in the case of Egypt. Currently, a great opportunity is offering itself: Having GIZ’s Participatory Infrastructure Programme (PIP) working on the same areas of the PDP in the greater Cairo region may eventually facilitate follow-up and post-project evaluation.

To conclude, despite the great efforts and the funds spent, one of the key factors contributing to the success and sustainability of development cooperation intervention in any urban context is to learn from previous experiences, including one’s own. This can only be achieved by carefully archiving all documents and reports of previous projects as a part of efficient knowledge management. In addition, an evaluation of the impact of previous interventions is crucial in order to learn from the past. International development providers must assure that years after the end of the project period, stakeholders are still responsively cooperating, engaging, and recognising shared goals and values. In this respect, learning from previous experiences can lead to truly successful development intervention.

Hassan Elmouelhi