Egyptian economy torn between thinkers and doers

In the second half of 2013, I was thrilled that a number of famous Egyptian economists whose work I have been observing and admiring for years were heading the Egyptian cabinet. Naively, I thought that all the constructive ideas that they had been advocating for years would come true. Then I realized that being good at teaching theory in a classroom is totally different to being exposed to real life where crafting any given policy is a challenge on its own.

This cabinet of academic ministers lasted for less than a year; it was followed by an action-oriented team who distances itself from theory and aspires to implement a large number of projects – without subjecting them to any kind of prior technical validation. The current members of cabinet tend to believe that the accumulation of projects will create an economic momentum that will have a positive impact on all citizens; an economic approach that many renowned international scholars denounce – but that our government insists on applying.

The dilemma in Egypt is that academicians are far too theoretical and doers are far too impulsive. The former tend to express their knowledge of any given subject by advancing one theory after another (theories that may conflict with one another), giving no thought to their effective application. Meanwhile, action-oriented executives, who believe that all that matters is project implementation, thoughtlessly put all their energy into aggressively pushing for the application of their ideas.

For decades, the Egyptian economy has been vacillating between an economy that is strongly linked to the application of a given economic theory and an action-oriented government overwhelmingly constituted of executives who realize their success through action. While the fluctuations of the Egyptian economy are often affected by external factors that have little to do with the economic philosophy of the cabinet in power, traditionally, doers in Egypt tend to undermine theoreticians, who in return often accuse them of having too narrow a focus.

Egyptian academicians and action-oriented executives represent two completely different career paths that neither overlap nor share the same experiences. Citizens who believe that knowledge is the ultimate wealth concentrate on maximizing their knowledge, while doers are convinced that actions speak for themselves and believe that moving from one point to another is an achievement in itself (regardless of whether the move is necessary or what, if any, its added value is).

Many Egyptians argue that the red tape and inflexibility of government bureaucracy make it very difficult for either academics or doers to apply real reform. I could have accepted this argument had I observed strong insistence on reform implementation (by any given government). In Egypt, we hesitate to apply any economic model thoroughly and have instead been switching from one idea to another.

We have no single consistent economic policy that functions regardless of cabinet changes. Appointed ministers always work on coming up with their own ideas, which are implemented during their terms in office (whose duration they can’t foretell). What we need in Egypt is an accumulation of knowledge that is made available to every minister to help him or her to craft proper decisions. However, very few ministers value this kind of comprehensive knowledge; therefore, it does not exist.

Culturally, Egyptian society tends, on all issues, to prefer narrow, vertical outlooks to a broader, horizontal approach. We have large numbers of economic experts, but each is well versed in his / her own very narrow field of specialization and completely disconnected from reality. Their intellectual capacity is filled with their desired knowledge, making it difficult for them to digest new challenges. Our action-oriented executives, on the other hand, tend to be over-excited about the things that they are good at doing – without submitting them to any kind of proper evaluation.

Ultimate knowledge without any practical application is of no value – as are consistent applications that are not based on knowledge. Egypt is in real need of executives with solid leadership skills who are capable of connecting the dots between the academicians and the doers, who can put academicians’ knowledge to good use and who know how to galvanize doers to apply this knowledge. The undermining of both academics and doers is detrimental to our future economic prosperity.

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