After handover, woes for Mt. Sinai park

Am Gameel, a thin man in a headdress and long robe, is sitting on a floor mat in his home, explaining how life improved when a nature preserve was created in the mountain region that he calls home.

"It changed my life," he says. "Before, I was a mountain guide for tourists and sometimes there was no work. Now every day I have work."

Mr. Gameel is one of 26 Bedouins, formerly nomadic desert people, who work as community guards in the St. Katherine Protectorate in Egypt's Sinai peninsula. The area includes the nearly 1,500-year-old St. Katherine's Monastery and Mt. Sinai, where it is believed Moses received the Ten Commandments.

But now many people are questioning St. Katherine's future. Problems have emerged since last spring, when the European Union dropped out of a $9.3 million environmental restoration project here, financed by the EU and Egyptian government, and Egypt took control. The protectorate is now facing a lack of funding, heavy-handed bureaucracy, management conflicts, and other challenges that are slowing or stopping programs, making protection of the park difficult. [Editor's note: The original version incorrectly stated the cost of the restoration project.]

"The monitoring wildlife program has deteriorated," said one St. Katherine ranger, who asked to remain anonymous. "The veterinary health program stopped."

The situation at St. Katherine is not unique. The handover of authority in other aid projects from a foreign manager to the host government is often a difficult process in the developing world. "There's always a problem," says Sherif Baha El Din, a leading Egyptian environmentalist. "Sometimes the project itself is the problem. Sometimes it's the government. Sometimes it's an individual."

In Egypt, the US Agency for International Development (USAID) funded a $1 billion-plus project from 1977 to '98 to improve greater Cairo's dilapidated water and wastewater facilities. But because of a lack of money, training, and expertise after USAID exited, water and sewage plants deteriorated and large amounts of sewage went untreated.

In Afghanistan, the Bush administration plans to spend $1.6 billion to build schools, clinics, and roads. But some people have questioned the sustainability of these projects.

To ease the handover from foreign donors to host governments, aid experts suggest making the foreign project's structure similar to that of the host government.

"Foreign donors like to create projects that are less top-heavy, rather than contributing to the often heavily layered bureaucracy in many developing countries," says Bob East, director of environmental studies at Washington and Jefferson College in Washington, Pa. "This idea of a more 'participatory' approach is noble, but quickly breaks down once the donor leaves."

Experts also say that a sustainable project must have a built-in source of revenue and that locals should be part of the decisionmaking and running of the project in order to leave behind a well-trained staff.

In St. Katherine's case, rangers and former project organizers find the situation particularly frustrating because the protectorate was considered so successful, especially in integrating the local Bedouin community.

When it was first established in 1996, the EU's representative, John Grainger, made a point to involve local Bedouins, who are intimately familiar with the area. The Bedouin community guards, for example, maintain the trails of this 2,650-square-mile park, report violations, and guide research teams.

The EU also established a mobile health service that reaches 77 Bedouin settlements and created a company owned and run by Bedouins, which employs some 350 women who sew bags and pillows. It generates income while also reviving their craft. "The protectorate not only had the Bedouins participate in the park's management, but they were also recipients of the park's services," said one USAID official.

To ensure the sustainability of this project, necessary infrastructure was built. Entrance fees were introduced to cover the park's costs and Grainger's group withdrew in stages, leaving behind a well-trained staff.

Despite these precautions, however, activities at the St. Katherine Protectorate have slumped, mainly because of mismanagement and bureaucratic troubles. For instance, the opening of an elaborate $600,000 visitors' center has been delayed for months because of red tape. No entrance fees have been charged yet. The government plans to start charging them in October, but the money will go to a general government fund, not just to St. Katherine.

"Sometimes, the government budget is limited," says Waheed Salama, the Egyptian government's general manager of protectorates. "In this case, we can get money from a special fund to finance all the activities at St. Katherine."

Despite St. Katherine's difficult transition, Grainger and others remain hopeful. "Right now St. Katherine is going through a hiccup," he says. "It doesn't mean the end of it. Great parks take decades to mature."

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