This post was written for ICAI Winds and Waves, September 2015 issue.
I joined the ICA MENA team as an international volunteer in 1989, and wound up joining the permanent staff and staying for 6 years in Egypt before I left now 20 years ago. When I visited again this June I had not been back for maybe 10 years, so it was great to be back, and to reconnect with old friends and colleagues and to a place and context where I spent some formative years.
Much has changed in Egypt in those years, as it has in the world at large and in ICA and my own life as well. So my visit gave me plenty of cause for reflection.
It also gave me a welcome opportunity to use my Arabic again among those with whom I learned it – which I was pleased to find relatively effortless compared to other countries in the region that I have visited more recently, where quite different dialiects are spoken. I visited Egypt from Beirut, after completing a strategic planning assignment there with the Safety & Security Committee for Lebanon.
Of course the effects of the revolution and subsequent events were noticeable everywhere, from the security in Cairo’s Tahrir Square to the burnt out government buildings in Beni Suef, and the ever-present talk of politics – that had previously been forever absent.
Egypt’s population has continued to grow at a tremendous rate over recent decades, and so has its urban sprawl continued to extend into the desert. The desert village of Bayad El Arab was accessible only by boat at the time that ICA began work there in 1976. During my time it was accessible also by bridge from Beni Suef and by desert road from Cairo, but it was still a remote and clearly distinct community. Now it has been entirely absorbed by the greater city of Beni Suef – there is a new university campus next door, apartments have been built on ICA’s demonstration desert reclamation farm and many of the stone houses of the village have been rebuilt or replaced in concrete. The ICA training centre itself, however, remains remarkably as I remember living and working in it myself.
During my time with ICA MENA the staff team grew from a low of around a dozen resident volunteers in Bayad to around 35 salaried employees in Bayad and Cairo, with up to 15 or 20 grant-funded programmes operating at any time.
In subsequent years the staff grew to over 100 in five offices nationwide, operating more and larger programmes across Egypt and the region. It then shrank again to the small core team who have remained with ICA all these years, and who have now been able to sustain the organisation through changes in leadership, a dramatic fall in project funding and then the turbulence of the revolution as well.
I enjoyed meeting again with numerous old friends and colleagues from my own time in Egypt, those still with ICA and some who are not. However it was also very exciting to meet some of the 65 or so bright young staff who have newly joined ICA in the past year, to meet some of ICA’s long-time external partners and supporters in Cairo as well, and to learn of ICA MENA’s new programmes new strategies and plans for the future.
I witnessed a new vigour to ICA MENA, as well as a deep conviction of the valuable role that ICA has to play in Egypt’s future and a strong commitment to that – and to renewed collaboration and partnership with ICAs and others beyond the region as well.
I was inspired and am grateful to our colleagues in Egypt for their tenacity and commitment through what have clearly been challenging times, and I urge ICA colleagues everywhere to support them in whatever ways they can – and in the process to take the opportunity to learn from their rich experience as I have.