Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Bread subsidies in Egypt

Ever since the 1940's Egypt has been subsidizing basic food items including bread. The daily baking of the bread by women in Egypt was a daily tradition. The process would take hours in letting the dough dry in the sun then baking and raising the dough in the ovens. Now very cheap bread is available in bakeries at prices that are even affordable for those under the poverty line.

Proponents of the subsidies say that the women are now freed up to be employed, while opponents say it creates a black market for the cheap flower.

From IPS, writer Cam McGrath takes a look at the history of the subsidies on bread and it's effects on the workforce.

Subsidies on basic food items including bread were introduced in the late-1940s. Late president Anwar Al-Sadat attempted to phase them out in 1977, but quickly rescinded the order after rioting that left at least 70 dead. Successive governments have avoided confrontation, leaving bread subsidies in place at a cost of 2.5 billion dollars a year, more than the country's annual spending on health and education.

Over 50 million Egyptians, or two-thirds of the population, eat subsidised "baladi" bread. The small round flatbread is sold at state-monitored bakeries and distributors for five piastres (less than a U.S. penny) a loaf, its price unchanged in decades. Better quality baladi bread is available at 10 piastres a loaf, while the same bread made using unsubsidised flour is available at market prices five times the cost. Poor families often buy a mix of qualities as their budget permits.

"When you have a family and eat bread with every meal the cost difference adds up," says Amani Sarwat, a sales clerk with three children. "All prices are going up so the more cheap bread I can get the better."

Sarwat is one of over 5.5 million women in the Egyptian workforce. Purchasing bread from bakeries frees up her time in the kitchen, allowing her to keep a part-time job and still have time for the family.

"I need the time [saved by not baking bread] to look after my children," she says. "Besides, where would I make it?" She points out that her flat in Cairo's Imbaba district is too small for a bread oven and the roof is cluttered with television antennas and satellite dishes.

Egyptians have traded their ovens for bakery bread, but it is an arrangement that only saves time and money provided the queues remain short. Egypt is the world's largest importer of wheat, with shipments of seven million tonnes a year. Periodic wheat shortages and endemic corruption can result in lengthy bread lines, such as those seen in early 2008 when world grain prices skyrocketed.

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