As minister of investment and international cooperation, with a mandate to drive domestic and international investment to and between Egypt’s international partners to spur economic growth, the former chief advisor at the World Bank has a remarkable résumé. She has written over 60 research papers, reports and books on international finance, economic development, private sector and financial reform, and women’s empowerment in the economic and financial fields.
When she finally sits down with our editor for this interview, it is 7.30pm and she has been in back-to-back meetings in her office since 7am. But Dr Sahar Nasr is still razor-sharp and incisive, recollecting facts and figures with a near encyclopedic memory. It is clear why she is one the most influential women at large today in Egypt and Africa. In this wide-ranging interview, she presents a case for investing in Egypt, the upcoming forum Business for Africa, Egypt and the World, dubbed Africa 2017, and why she is a passionate defender of African women’s equality based on merit and equal opportunities.
Empowering women is an issue you talk about greatly and advocate for. Is this feasible in Egypt? And what is your overall take on women’s empowerment in the country?
Egypt fully endorses gender empowerment and the president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, has approved and endorsed the UN SDG 5 (achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls). And I believe that in order to achieve all the other goals, gender mainstreaming is a crosscutting issue.
Because if we are going to talk about education, skills development, active participation in the labour force, political participation and all social dimensions, we need to be inclusive.
How is the Egyptian government achieving such a crucial element and how well is it doing in that area?
Women in Egypt have an important role in improving our societies and while a third of jobs in Egypt are occupied by women, we believe this can reach a 50-50 split and we have set KPIs (key performance indicators) to grow female employment and reduce gaps between male and female jobs in different geographies. Participation by women on the economic and political fronts has already started to increase. Currently, there are 89 women in parliament, almost 15% of the seats, which is the highest it has ever reached, jumping from only 2% in 2012, so we are on the right track.
2017 was declared ‘Year of the Egyptian Woman’. The year is almost coming to an end. Since this declaration, what has changed for women in your view?
That is a very important question. But declaring 2017 ‘Year of the Egyptian Woman’ was just a stimulus, a great kick-off led by the president. And the fact that he announced this himself, gives a great signal to everyone – political parties, ministers, the private sector and everyone in the blue-collar sector. The responsibility lies upon all of us. This is not only a great initiative, it also sustainable. For example during the year we have put in place legal and regulatory reforms that specifically empower women, and that is sustainability in itself.
Such as? Can you be more specific?
Yes, of course. For example, any loan, project or lines of credits that we provide for small and medium or micro financial enterprises, we make sure that a minimum of 50% are allocated to women and young entrepreneurs. And for the first time in our history, we are also working on investment law that includes a clear article that specifically states equal opportunities for each gender and there is no discrimination. It gives all people equal opportunities to start and develop their own businesses, to expand and become active entrepreneurs.
We have also established a dedicated fund for the economic empowerment of women in collaboration with the World Bank and the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD). My ministry has also secured funding for small and micro projects that support female breadwinners in various villages and governorates that are most lagging behind.
But how does such a law translate on the grassroots level, where discrimination often emanates from? And normally in Africa, where empowering women is reduced to a micro level of entrepreneurism such as SMEs? The investment law I am referring to, has been translated on so many fronts, not just the SMEs but across the board, including large corporates. More importantly is that it is not only about having a percentage of women in the labour market, because it is not only the entrepreneurs, but also for their active role in the labour market, we have to give women an equal opportunity to get the skills and the knowledge which will help them to get those equal opportunities in the labour market.
The labour law in Egypt stipulates that any enterprise has to provide childcare services, for example. Although this applies to men, too, women, as we all know, have to balance between their family responsibilities, whether be it children or taking care of the elderly members of the family. And despite the fact that husbands and other members of the family, brothers, fathers, also carry part of the responsibilities, we cannot neglect the fact that there are some social and cultural dynamics in Africa where this leans more on women.
This is why here in Egypt, including at this Ministry of Investment and International Corporation, we are allocating funding to these complementary services to allow women to thrive.
So we are providing an enabling environment on both a legal and regulatory front in terms of the investment law and companies’ law, but also on providing the infrastructures and services that enable women to balance their duties.
But do opportunities actually exist to have more women rise to positions of influence and power?
Yes, opportunities exist and I am an example. In 2015, Forbes Middle East named the ‘Most Powerful Arab Women’, and the list was dominated by Egyptian women, and Egypt took almost a fifth of entries overall.
Egypt is also the first country to launch its 2030 National Woman’s Strategy towards the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and it’s serving as the national document to guide the country in its women’s empowerment efforts. As the IMF stated in 2015, if women had the same equal opportunities in the workforce as men have, the Egyptian GDP will experience a 34% increase.
May I also highlight something that we often neglect. As an economist I also look at women’s contribution at the household level as a critical element that should not be ignored. For example, if a mother is mentoring and taking care of her son, and helping him do his studies, that is also productivity – it’s work. The GDP therefore needs to take such into account, because there is an opportunity cost here. She could have allocated that time to her job or anything else that is income-earning. And this is one element that we do not take into account when we are calculating and doing our numbers about women’s contribution in the GDP and overall economic growth.
Empowerment comes with capacity building, resource allocation and much more, don’t you agree?
Totally. And by the way, when it comes to the labour market and labour force, the government is kinder to women than the private sector is. For example, the private sector tends to shy away from covering women workers’ insurance, as they sometimes go on maternity leave. That’s why many institutions here are opting for “parental relief” so that women are not labelled as part of the labour force that often takes a few months off because of pregnancy.
I would also like to highlight that I am very proud that 25% of Egypt’s parliamentarians are women. And they are not just women but women of quality who are participating in the country’s regulations and laws. And this is not only on the family front as there is always this perception that women will only discuss and promote family and social issues. It is very interesting to watch how women have fought for the Investment Law and made major contributions, as well as in other sectors from governance, sanitation to gas connections.
It therefore appears that Egypt is in line with the UN’s 50-50 gender equality call to action. But do you personally believe in positive discrimination or that women should be in positions of power and thrive on their own merit?
I honestly always use the sentence that I love most and believe in, which is, “Providing equal opportunities, not just equality”, because that way, everything is based on merit. Affirmative actions, which you are calling positive discrimination, can be a temporary measure. That you can use as a kick-off just like we have done here in Egypt with the 2017 Year of the Woman. What we are calling for as Egyptian women is that all we need is equal opportunities and we do not want to be discriminated against because we are women.
You have a strong background and CV, which can inspire many young African women of the future. Do you have to work extra hard because you are a woman? What drives you?
Thank you, I am honoured by that compliment. I honestly believe that when you are working hard, you are committed to what you do, and you set yourself targets of what you want to achieve, you will always deliver and succeed. I never allow anyone to make me think otherwise. I believe everything one does should be on merit. It’s your own merit and your hard work. Your delivery is what makes you achieve. Nothing else.
Coming back to the question, I honestly don’t think I need to work extra hard because I am a woman. I believe I need to work extra hard because our continent, including our country Egypt, is facing challenging times. And this is the time all of us need to work harder and at full force. But I don’t think I need to work an extra mile because I am a woman. What I need is to work in an environment that does not marginalise or label me, or any woman, in any way.
And sometimes to argue this point, I use numbers. For example, when I am talking to the financial institutions, and they say women are more risky to lend to, I tell them that is very strange because the non-performing loans rate is much lower among women. When they talk about credentials, I tell them it’s strange because the top performers in universities and schools are women, so there must be something there.
The issue is achieving not because you are a woman, but because you are working hard. I would hate to see it like I am in this position because of gender mainstreaming or because we need to have a certain percentage of women ministers. I believe I am here because I am very passionate about my job and I am very committed, I work hard to achieve results and I work in a conducive and enabling environment that does not discriminate around gender.
Africa has phenomenal women in all spheres. Who are you role-models and what have you learnt from them which you can pass on to the next generation?
I look up to a lot of women and I learn everyday. I teach Economics at the American University in Cairo, so I also learn from my students. I learn from the colleagues that I work with. It is also important that you believe and trust in the abilities of your colleagues and that through teamwork and building together we achieve more. When I worked at the World Bank – Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala (the former Nigerian minister of finance) was my boss, and through her charismatic leadership and inclusion in any process, I learnt a lot from her. She would always include young people whenever there were any development operations.
It’s great that you mentioned youth. 2017 was billed as the year of harnessing this demographic dividend by the African Union. How is Egypt dealing with the issue of youth? In the same vein, as we now live in a technology and innovation-driven age, how much investment and deliberate will goes into encouraging youth and more young women to enter scientific fields?
Egypt’s core asset and main engine of growth is its youth and we have a historical reputation as a regional net exporter of educated and skilled labour. And our young and talented workforce is a dynamic force for innovation entrepreneurship and hence we are in a position to provide investors with access to talented young labour and entrepreneurs. In fact, Egypt boasts a large, young, well-trained and highly competitive labour force of around 27 million (more than 30% of the total Egyptian population) with a young median age of 23.8 years, compared to 37.9 in United States and 46.8 in Germany.
We are also providing a lot of incentives for entrepreneur start-ups through innovative financial products such as venture capital, crowd funding – equity financing overall. Youth in general are not very inclined to be in debt and to take up loans, and as such, we have established an Investment Fund here at the ministry, that offers equity financing to young entrepreneurs, girls and boys, and it is complemented by advisory and technical services which assist them on how to conduct their feasibility studies and allows for training arrangements. We are also establishing incubators in different governorates to train young people and help build capacity.
I believe that if you build the capacity of the youth, and you give them the knowledge and the skills they need, they are an asset and a much-needed human capital. Youth are not a burden, they only become so if you don’t give them support and they become detached from the economic sphere and end up going into destructive behaviours such as terrorism, or even go into illegal immigration to other countries. Our youth need to be given hope and opportunities to play a positive role in the overall development of their countries.
If I may move to the issue of business, finance and investment, you are leading a ministry mandated with driving this task. How do you make the case for ‘Invest in Egypt’?
We are working on different fronts. As I mentioned earlier, one is on the legal and regulatory framework that is friendly and conducive to investors; secondly is institutional reform, because the law alone is not sufficient. More important is the optimisation of the law on the ground. How can we streamline, how can you cut red tape and remove bureaucracy, because at the end of the day, we are operating in a very competitive environment and therefore we have to ask, how can we ensure a comparative advantage.
We have also designed an administration strategy which offers better quality services by the government, holds government institutions more accountable, raises citizen satisfaction, and strongly contributes to the achievement of Egypt’s development goals.
The government is further addressing key barriers to investment in key sectors by introducing important licensing reforms through streamlining procedures, decentralization and automating processes to improve service efficiency.
When talking of improving the business environment, are there areas you are specifically or deliberately focusing on as a priority?
The key area I am focused on is private sector development: we are committed to enhancing the investment environment as part of its broader macroeconomic strategy to prioritise private investment-led growth.
And how are investors reacting to these reforms?
Investments in various fields are growing as a reaction. Company establishment increased by 15% between 2015/2016 and 2014/2015, reaching 12,000 companies last year. Egypt was actually ranked the top African country attracting FDI in 2014 and one of top five countries globally attracting FDI in 2016.
Come December, under your ministry, Africa will again converge for an African Business and Investment Forum, dubbed Africa 2017. What message are you putting across this year and what would classify as a success?
Building on the success of the Africa 2016 Forum, we are delighted to host this year’s event. Africa 2016 saw the participation from six heads of state and more than 1,000 delegates from 45 countries. And it delivered over 300 business-to-business and business-to-government meetings, which led to a number of MOUs across multiple sectors. Africa 2017 is the first Africa-to-Africa investment forum and the aim is to create a unique platform for public-private sector cooperation. We are bringing together African policymakers, financiers, leading industrialists and young entrepreneurs in the promotion of intra-African trade and investment focusing on key strategic sectors.
This year’s Forum will focus on ‘Driving Investment for Inclusive Growth’, which means investing in a way that is geared for the long term and to deliver solutions that will cater for the challenges of tomorrow. The key message is that there is more to be done to accelerate economic growth in our continent, and to do so requires collective actions from all African governments and the private sector to ensure that prosperity is shared among all Africans.
Africa 2017 will focus on solutions that ensure that prosperity is shared. And that means youth, people in rural areas, and women all have their share in the African growth story.
That means achieving inclusive growth. But what does that mean from a business perspective; what does the African business community need to do differently?
Inclusive growth means effective social protection measures and is built on reducing regional disparities, improving human development, protecting the poor and vulnerable, and providing access to finance for small and micro investors as well as women and youth.
African governments need to align and work closely with international partners to bring best practices, know-how and resources to complement and support their important programmes. And importantly – businesses needs to cooperate.
As you have stated, one of Africa 2017’s main premises is to strengthen economic and trade ties (through investment) with and within African countries and globally. But critics will always say what holds this back is the lack of infrastructure – including both road and air transportation in Africa. How will Africa move on from this and when?
Africa has been rising during the past two decades, which was largely due to transformative governance that has witnessed policy reforms in political and socioeconomic systems and a broad acceptance of the urgent need for sustainable development. To sustain such growth we must own and drive the continental agenda and deliver the needed structural reforms through addressing the development finance constraints, including the infrastructure gap. To do that we need to sustain the flow of a significant amount of finance for implementation of programmes at national, regional and continental levels. According to the World Bank, Africa needs to spend US$93 billion – 5% of Gross Domestic Product – each year on infrastructure and the African Development Bank notes a $50 billion financing gap in achieving this.
To succeed, as Africans we need to tap into our huge domestic resources, such as domestic taxes ($520 billion annually), pension funds, remittances, and many other tools. Above all, we need to encourage Africans to benefit from such gaps and investment heavily in infrastructure through public-private partnerships (PPPs), which I believe African governments should develop because PPP schemes are lucrative and can encourage African and international investors.
I can give an example of our own achievements in this area here in Egypt: in 2016, we raised over $15 billion for infrastructure projects, increased our energy supply by 45%, built over 6,000 kilometres of new roads, started a project that links Egypt to the rest of the North African countries by road and invested in new and existing airports. So yes, it can be done.