The Zabbaleen – Functional Informal Waste Management in Cairo – Part II

By Jakob Hebsaker and Renard Teipelke*

In our first article, we introduced the waste management system in Cairo. Now, we want to shed light on recent developments and further implications for the future.

The waste management system in Cairo knows three important groups: the Wahis (license owners and fee collectors), the Zabbaleen (waste collectors and sorters), the Mo’allimin (recycling processors and resellers; former Zabbaleen). Focusing on the two opposing groups – the Wahis and the Zabbaleen – one has to underscore that the Wahis are an influential, well-educated group in the Cairene society, while the Zabbaleen are socially marginalized. Most of the 60,000 Zabbaleen are Coptic Christians and are thus part of a religious-social minority in Egypt. However, the recycling business is profitable for all stakeholders and even the Zabbaleen are in a relatively better position than other low-income groups in Cairo. Nevertheless, because of their dependence of the Wahis and their marginalized role in the Egyptian society, the Zabbaleen have only low social and economic capital as well as little political leverage. Furthermore, they are living in currently six informal neighborhoods (slum settlements), such as Manshiyat Nasser (aka Garbage City) in the outskirts of Cairo at the base of Mokattam Hill.

The Zabbaleen have seen activities by the World Bank and NGOs in the past years mainly in Manshiyat Nasser to improve their living conditions with regard to infrastructure and public health. Having been active in this part of the city since 1984, the Association for the Protection of the Environment has played an important role in further increasing the efficiency of the waste management through the development of various recycling projects and facilities such as for textile fabric remnants and paper. They also supported a health improvement project and cooperated with the Spirit of Youth Association for Environmental Service (SoY) to build a school for disadvantaged children in Manshiyat Nasser where they acquire reading and writing skills as well as learn something about recycling and health issues.

Actors, such as the SoY that acts as the representative of the Zabbaleen, are trying to find a stage for their demands in the current situation of political changes in Egypt – and they actually seem to find open ears and supporters in some of the newly founded parties for the integration of the Zabbaleen into the Cairene society. This is exemplified by the efforts to establish the Syndicate for Workers in the Cleansing and Beautification Sector, which has been permitted by the government in spring 2012. With financial support from UNESCO, USAID, and other public and private actors (such as CID Consulting), they are targeting a new waste management system in which the Wahis are removed as middlemen. The Zabbaleen shall directly negotiate with the European multinationals that want to outsource the contracted services they obtained for several years from the Egyptian government. It comes with no surprise that the Wahis have no interest in changing the status quo that perfectly works for them in that they are making profits from simply playing an intermediary role in a system that is sustained solely by the Zabbaleen.

The next step will be to find a functional organization form for the syndicate. Later on, SoY is planning to rename the waste collectors, currently known/called “Zabbaleen” meaning “garbage people” in Egyptian Arabic, and introduce working uniforms as well as uniform collection vehicles in order to change the general appearance of the Zabbaleen, which will probably help to improve their perception in the Cairene society.

What is important to take home from this discussion on the Zabbaleen is that we can find many similar informal waste management systems worldwide. The often non-formalized systems promise high profit margins for private enterprises. Therefore, Western-influenced international organizations are pressuring developing countries to privatize their (informal) waste management systems. The conclusions that could be drawn from the Cairene example emphasize the essential role of long-time established informal settings/agreements that form the backbone of a (somewhat) functional urban system. At the same time, the example of the Zabbaleen points to historically rooted imbalances or even inequalities that need to be addressed by local initiatives, especially in times of political changes.

* The corresponding research has been conducted during a field trip in February in Cairo by the following members of a study group: Jakob Hebsaker, Juan Hernandez-Westpfahl, and Eugenia Winter. We would like to thank Dr. Laila Iskandar Kamel for sharing her time and expertise.

Al Jazeera Video: Egypt’s recycling community

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One Response to The Zabbaleen – Functional Informal Waste Management in Cairo – Part II

  1. Pingback: The Zabbaleen – Functional Informal Waste Management in Cairo – Part I | Place Management & Branding

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