With a capacity for 20 000 people, the cave church of St. Simon are said to be the largest Christian church in the Middle East. The church’s limestone walls have breath-taking carvings. Getting there requires travelling through a section of Cairo’s Manshiyat Naser neighborhood known as the garbage city. This is breath-taking in a completely different way…
Your senses alert you that this is the garbage city, the putrid smell is intense and there is garbage everywhere. Garbage fills the narrow streets, the balconies, kids play in it and the shops are hidden between garbage. Garbage city is home to the Zabaleen (garbage people). The Zabaleen travels from house-to-house in Cairo, collecting household waste and transporting the collected waste back to the garbage city. Each family specialize in a type of garbage that they sort, recycle and sell.
Until 2003 the Zabaleen collected garbage at almost no cost to the government and residents of Cairo. Their main income came from recycling the garbage. It’s estimated that in 2003 the Zabaleen recycled 80% of the garbage collected. This was described as one of the most efficient recycling systems globally and it has earned the Zabaleen international acknowledgement.
The Zabaleen are Christians in a Muslim majority country. In the recycling business this provides them with a competitive advantage: the ability to keep pigs. The Muslim’s religion does not permit living close to or keeping pigs. Most of the waste collected is food waste; the Zabaleen recycles this by feeding it to their pigs to fattening them up. Once fat, the pigs are sold, providing further income.
The improvement: fake green grass on the other side of the fence
In 2003, the Mubarak government decided to ‘modernize’ the garbage collection system of Cairo by adopting the systems used in Europe.
Unintended consequences of the change
- Adverse impact on the socio-economic stability of the Zabaleen
- The modern mechanism of compressing garbage complicated recycling and the level of recycling dropped
- Cairo’s streets were too narrow for the mechanized equipment, uncollected garbage was dumped by the residents
- The new collection system introduced higher fees resulting in further illegal dumping, burning of waste and increased pollution
To compare: in 1997 the Zabaleen collected 3000- 4000 tons of garbage per day at almost no cost to the government; they recycled about 80% of the waste collected. In 2004 the government was paying ten times more to have only 60% of the garbage collected and 20% of the collected garbage was recycled.
Then in 2009, the Egyptian government ordered the slaughter of some 300 000 pigs as precautionary measure to prevent swine flu (H1N1). This effectively destroyed another vital aspect of the Zabaleen’s recycling methods. The WHO called the killing ‘scientifically unjustified’. The government’s actions against the Zabaleen was almost certainly politically motivated and grounded in religious tensions.
Moral of the story
There is a tendency to view another country, organization or functional work unit’s methods as superior. It is problematic when these methods are adopted without considering feasibility, cultural differences and why the current system operates the way it does. There is always a reason for the faults in the current system, a few examples would include hierarchies, history or power struggles.
Even in healthcare, when low-middle income countries (LMIC) undertake to improve their healthcare systems, they often model their interventions after high income countries (HIC). However, HIC have the enabling infrastructure to support advanced health systems. In LMIC’s with poor roads, it would be more sustainable to invest in bicycle ambulances than to establish ambulance services. Rather than develop university curriculums, train community first responders in the rural areas. Instead of creating an urban center of excellence, provide electricity and running tap water in all the small rural clinics.
To the Egyptians, investing in the Zabaleen’s existing informal system would’ve probably been more beneficial, cost effective and sustainable. By disregarding the functioning informal system, the policy makers destroyed a functioning system and adopted a system not suitable for their setting. This resulted in failure so devastating that it’s even been cited as a reason for the 2011 uprising.
There are a few lessons that we can take from this:
- Don’t discard local ownership
- Thoroughly observe and analyze the current situation prior to suggesting change
- The above implies spending time to explore the current situation
- The first consideration should always be to augment the local/informal system or to formalize the informal system
- If the solution is adopted, make it context specific, in other words innovate on what worked somewhere else
- When formal systems are developed it should be done considering the integration of formal and informal systems from the beginning
Disregarding the above will result in change programs that are not sustainable. Not integrating formal and informal systems result in parallel systems where the systems compete to the detriment of both.
A year after implementing the ‘modern’ system the Egyptian policy makers had to acknowledge failure. A decade later they are taking steps to integrate the Zabaleen into the formal system. They are also investing in the Zabaleen that now have uniforms and vehicles.
In short, don’t solve problems that don’t require solving, observe, investigate and find the real and right problems. Solutions should be feasible, involve the locals and the informal systems and don’t ever blindly adopt, rather innovate and make change context-specific.
To watch a short documentary about the garbage people
Wael Salah Fahmi. Keith Sutton. (2006) Cairo’s Zabaleen garbage recyclers: multi-nationals take over and state relocation plans. Habitat International 30 (2006) 809-837