Egypt parliament mulls financial incentives for two-child policy

Rampant population growth has turned into a worrying issue.
Sunday 04/02/2018
96 million and counting. Egyptian children play at the Banati Foundation shelter, a civil society organisation that works with street children, in Cairo, last February. 			                    (AFP)
96 million and counting. Egyptian children play at the Banati Foundation shelter, a civil society organisation that works with street children, in Cairo, last February. (AFP)

CAIRO - The Egyptian parliament is debating a family planning bill that would limit subsidies to families with more than two children, part of efforts to rein in population growth.

The bill would see first- and second-born children still afforded subsidies currently available but a family’s additional children would be the sole financial obligation of the family. The bill would offer additional financial incentives to parents with fewer than three children.

“The philosophy of the bill is simple: Parents who do not abide by the number of children stipulated in it should not expect the government to subsidise the food, medical treatment or education of the extra children,” said MP Mohamed Masoud, the bill’s author. “We cannot stand idly by and watch while the population keeps growing at the current rate.”

Rampant population growth has turned into a worrying issue for the Egyptian government. The population, now 96 million, has more than doubled in the last 35 years, with an estimated population increase of 2.2 million every year. Egypt’s population is projected to grow almost 50% by 2038 if the current rate continues.

In December, the head of Egypt’s state statistics agency Abu Bakr el-Gendy warned that the country was facing a “catastrophe” if population growth continued unabated. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi described population growth as “a challenge as critical as that of terrorism.”

The Egyptian government warned that water and resource-poor Egypt would face a challenge to feed its population in the future unless action is taken now.

“The population growth will put the quality of life in our country in continual deterioration because we are talking about more and more people having to share the same limited resources,” said Magued Osman, head of the Egyptian Centre for Public Opinion Research Baseera. “All development achievements will be dwarfed by the population growth, regardless of how big these achievements are.”

Cairo initiated a family planning campaign known as “Two is Enough” last year to encourage Egyptian families not to have more than two children. The proposed bill would financially incentivise a two-child policy.

Egyptians value large families, not just based on cultural and religious traditions, but because it makes financial sense. “The more poverty increases, the more the reproduction rate increases because parents consider children as a source of income,” Gendy said.

Masoud’s bill aims to financially de-incentivise large families. The bill is being discussed in the Social Solidarity Committee and, if committee members approve it, it would be referred to the general session for a vote.

Subsidies, especially on food, fuel and education, are big issues in Egypt. About 70 million Egyptians are registered in the country’s food-rationing system. Some families are so dependent on the food subsidies they cannot live without them.

Education is free of charge at state-run schools and universities. Millions of Egyptians would be unable to send their children to school but for the free education system. However, if passed into law, the bill would end those privileges for large families.

Masoud said his bill, which will not affect children born before it is signed into law, will offer additional financial incentives, including easy-term loans, small projects for children and education and health sector facilities, to couples who chose to have fewer children.

“Our goal is to help those who show commitment to raise their children in a good way,” he said.

Masoud expressed confidence the bill would encourage Egyptians not to have more than two children. “A two-child policy will contribute to keeping the population within reasonable limits and ensure that Egyptians reap the fruits of the development projects being launched now,” he said.

Many questions are being raised about why family-planning campaigns over the years failed to slow Egypt’s population growth.

The programmes have seen one setback after another, even as they included massive public relations campaigns as well as the distribution of free birth control.

The latest campaign began late last year and included nationwide awareness tours by Health Ministry specialists and distribution of free birth control pills. If passed into law, opponents said, Masoud’s bill would punish those who need support and reward those who do not need it.

By restricting subsidies to parents and the first two children only, the critics added, the bill leaves large families out in the cold.

“The bill will punish citizens for practising one of their rights, namely the right to have children,” said MP Ayman Abul Ela of the liberal Free Egyptians party. “Instead of punishing the government for its failure to convince the people to have smaller families, the advocates of the new bill want to punish the people for having children. This is unconstitutional.”