The rich-poor divide in Egypt remains significant, especially in rural areas, according to the UN and government ministries.
“Improvements in the gap between rich and poor are marginal,” noted Khaled Abdel Kader of the Cairo Institute for National Planning, speaking at the release of the UNDP's latest human development report on Sunday.
“Poverty, especially in the rural areas, remains rampant,” he added.
In the new development classification, Egypt ranks 119th out of 173 countries.
According to the report, while 61 percent of people living in the southern governorate of Assiut are still classified as “poor”, the rate for urban governorates lies at only 6.2 percent.
The UN defines those living below the poverty line – subsisting on less than US $2 per day – as “poor”.
Experts largely blame the government for failing to address the gap.
“The state must be held responsible for failing to effectively integrate the more marginalised sectors of Egyptian society,” said Heba Handoussa, lead author of the report.
Surveys undertaken for the study also revealed a link between poverty and illiteracy. With Egyptian illiteracy levels nearing 50 percent, only eight other countries in the world show higher rates.
According to the World Bank, some 45 percent of Egypt’s poor are also illiterate.
Women remain the hardest hit. The incidence of illiteracy among female-headed households in rural areas is 85 percent, while in urban areas it lies at around 57 percent.
The middle classes in Egypt have also been affected by poverty, according to Cairo University economist Sahar al-Tawila.
“The vast majority of people who belong to the so-called middle classes suffer from severe problems,” al-Tawila said. These range from limited opportunities, escalating education costs and inflated prices disproportionate to salaries, she added.
Economists, meanwhile, estimate that effective Egyptian government programmes targeting the poor would cost approximately US $180 billion over the next 10 years, according to al-Tawila.
“The proposed budget may seem costly,” she said. “But the cost of not implementing these programmes will be much higher.”
The Egyptian government has pledged its commitment to raising living standards and achieving the UN’s Millennium Development Goals, first set down at the UN Millennium Summit in 2000.
Chief among these goals are poverty reduction; the establishment of universal primary education; promotion of gender equality; reduction of child and maternal mortality; environmental sustainability; and the combating of infectious diseases like HIV/AIDS.
Summit participants took 2015 as the deadline for the achievement of these aims.
At the report’s release, Egyptian officials were optimistic about the prospects for national development.
“We’re witnessing the creation of a new mentality in Egypt, which focuses on human development,” said Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif. Cairo, he added, intended to implement calls for greater popular participation in the political, civil, social and economic arenas.
Rights activists, however, have criticised what they say are empty promises.
Hafez Abu Saeda, director of the Egyptian Organisation for Human Rights, said: “There has been no change on the ground. Legal and bureaucratic obstacles remain in place, preventing all independent civil action or human development work from being carried out.”
“Social assistance programmes in Egypt are in a state of collapse,” he added.