Frozen chickens vs. technicians -- an Egyptian debate over US aid

To an Egyptian housemaid, United States economic assistance to Egypt has brought ''the noisy buses you see on Cairo streets, which people call the Voice of America, and the frozen chickens that are not always available unless one is willing to spend one's whole day standing in line.''

What Naima Sayed didn't mention - or possibly wasn't aware of - was that one day each week the bread she and 42 million other Egyptians eat is made from American wheat flour provided by the US Agency for International Development (AID).

But food and consumer goods are only a tiny part of the AID program, which has contributed $7.6 billion in grants and loans to Egypt's foundering economy since 1975.

AID's lavish spending on research in Egypt has come under fire in a recent series of articles in a specialized economic weekly magazine, Al-Ahram Al-Iqtisadi. The series, to which many academicians and analysts contributed, turned into a debate over how much control Egypt should have over AID-funded research.

Referring to the AID mission here as a ''shadow government,'' and attacking those participating in AID-sponsored projects as ''agents,'' the six-part series cast doubts about AID's motives and warned of consequences to Egypt's national security.

In a move apparently aimed at showing the government's concern about the growing argument on this sensitive subject and in an effort to prevent the criticism from spilling over to other aspects of strong US-Egyptian ties, President Hosni Mubarak appointed a ministerial-level committee to decide on research projects financed by AID.

An AID official reacted to the ongoing debate with a shrug. ''Some people think we have to help no matter what, because we're rich. But nobody likes his rich uncle,'' he said.

But AID director Michael Stone is contemplating changing the course of the program to project a different image.

He believes that ''ignorance breeds suspicion.'' As such, Mr. Stone has decided that AID's low-profile policy should be abandoned. He also feels more Egyptian researchers and technicians should be hired, the technology-transfer aspect of the program should be accentuated, and its planning should be more in line with priorities set by the Egyptian government in its development program.

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