Egypt’s veil of ignorance and the social contract

Iris Boutros
8 Min Read
Iris Boutros

“[A]pply the following test. Recall the face of the poorest and the weakest man whom you may have seen, and ask yourself, if the step you contemplate is going to be of any use to him. Will he gain anything by it? Will it restore him to a control over his own life and destiny? In other words, will it lead to swaraj [freedom] for the hungry and spiritually starving millions? Then you will find your doubts and your self melt away.”

This was Mahatma Gandhi’s advice on writing the social contract. This was his way of thinking about social justice, fairness and opportunity. In Egypt, we have heard much about these things since the start of the 25 January Revolution – about “bread, freedom and social justice”.

But what is it that we Egyptians define as a just society? Certainly many things need to change to move ours closer to that image. We all acknowledge that. But how does that happen? What do we change? We need some practical guidance, a set of rules or perhaps a process, that we can apply to the wide spectrum of issues to make Egypt a more just society based on our ideas about social justice. What is our standard or approach, for instance, which we practically use to make education or health care in Egypt more just – for all?

If we take the concept at the heart of Gandhi’s approach, we can start to decide how to achieve a more just society with the resources we have available in our society. Let’s imagine the provisions of the social contract, those that define the basic rights and duties of citizens. This is the contract that would define what we are entitled to, what we have to contribute, and how much we as citizens cooperate with each other.

Now, as we all know, in Egypt, as elsewhere, corruption and the differential application of the rules based on who you are have been great barriers to achieving a more just society. Those that are richer, stronger, more talented, or more connected have been able to take more than their fair share of the nation’s resources for their own personal gain, most often to the detriment of others. This invalidates the social contract. We recognise that.

Now imagine we were to try to apply Gandhi’s idea to the issue of education in Egypt. We dedicate a lot of resources to education, close to 8% of GDP, which includes: the public budget dedicated to schools and salaries, as well as the high amounts of money spent by parents for tuition fees and tutoring. By most accounts, Egypt has a poor-performing but well-funded educational system, comparatively speaking. How do we change how we allocate those resources to develop an education system that is more just?

A process or approach has to be developed that decides how to spend that money to achieve greater social justice. In education, we probably want a system where all citizens receive some basic level of education, as well as one where Egyptians who wish to further their education have the resources to do so, for their betterment and society’s.

Before we start deciding how to use our resources to accomplish that, imagine that you are not who you are now. Before you redesign Egypt’s education system and its goals in performance and fairness, remove yourself from your own reality. Forget the amount of money that was dedicated to your own education. Forget the school you went to and the teachers and tutors who helped you reach your educational achievements. Forget how talented you are and forget whom you know.

Now start to decide how Egypt would now spend its massive resources for education, money and personnel, to build a system where you would be happy to be any person in our society that is in that system. You can choose the system – all aspects of resource allocation, as well as the rules that govern. But you must do so without knowing who you will be in our society. What system would you design? What would and would not be allowed? Decide on the principles for the distribution of our resources.

From behind a veil of ignorance about who you would be in the system, design one. Design a system that includes your ideas of justice for all Egyptians with the money and other resources the system has, but without knowing who you would be in that system you design. Would it still be OK with you that poorer, talented Egyptians never reach higher-grade levels because families cannot keep up with the tutoring costs if you could easily be that Egyptian?

Through this thought experiment, think about the practical aspects of our education system. This is one way we move from our ideas about social justice to more concrete provisions in our social contract. The ones that define our rights and responsibilities – what we are entitled to, what we contribute and how we cooperate with each other.

Take for instance, the very real issue of the extremely high number of administrators to actual teachers. In some governorates, there are more administrators than teachers and they most often collect higher salaries, meaning more money is spent on paying people to organise than is spent on paying people that are actually educating the children in that governorate’s schools. If you could end up being a student from that governorate, would this be part of the system you would design?

Extend this thinking to other features of the system, like poor teacher performance, absent continuing education for teachers, or corruption in textbook printing. If we consider issue by issue in the real system, we begin to define our social contact. We can more clearly define the rights and responsibilities of all of the people in the system, student, teachers, and administrators, guided by our ideas about social justice.

From behind a veil of ignorance, we may come to more concrete ideas on how to make Egypt a more just society, more fairly using its resources and more clearly defining the rights, responsibility and cooperation to make it so. We listen everyday to the many different types of voices drawing attention to the need to redefine the social contract. As people speak of – bread, freedom and social justice – let’s find concrete approaches to deciding on how to move our society closer to those goals and what that means for our rights, responsibilities and cooperation with each other.

Iris Boutros is an economist and strategist. She focuses on growth, impact investment, and decision-making. Follow her on Twitter @irisboutros.

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Iris Boutros is an economist and strategist. She focuses on growth, impact investment, and decision-making. Follow her on Twitter @irisboutros