Sahar Nasr: The superwoman helping President El Sisi shape Egypt’s economic future

As the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) went on in New York, visitors from various UN member states thronged the Egyptian investment pavilion, which was erected on the sidelines of the 73rd session of the UNGA. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El Sisi and Investment Minister Sahar Nasr inspected the pavilion organized under the rubric “Invest in Egypt”.

The pavilion had a presentation about the country’s efforts to achieve the sustainable development goals by embarking on several national mega projects, enacting legislative reforms, especially as regards investment, restructuring and bankruptcy. A team from Egypt’s Investment Ministry displayed the country’s investment plan, showing more than 1000 investment opportunities in the different sectors and fields. Visitors to the Pavilion were impressed and gave the president and his minister thumbs up for how they have changed Egypt’s investment climate. The minister is a woman.

Years ago, if the reforms currently being seen in Egypt were even possible, it would be because of the genius of a male minister who was allowed to succeed by his president. Women were not relevant.

In 2013, Egypt ranked the worst country in the Arab World for women, according to a survey conducted by the Thomson Reuters Foundation. Harassment, sexual violence and high rates of female genital mutilation contributed to Egypt’s place. But things are changing. The women who survived decades of ill-treatment in the Arab state are now free to contribute their quota to the growth of Egypt. Nasr’s role as head of Egypt’s Investment and International Cooperation ministry is not the only win for Egyptian and Arab women; more victories are being recorded from Saudi Arabia to Tunisia. In August, Manal Awad Mikhail became the governor of the coastal city of Damietta. She is the first female Christian governor and second female governor in Egypt. Women like Mikhail and Nasr are showing the Arab world what they have been missing for decades of keeping women in the background.

Sahar Nasr has thrived and has made major strides in government, becoming a major influence on women in, and beyond the Arab world.

Egypt’s International Cooperation Minister Sahar Nasr (front L) and South Korean first Vice Foreign Minister Lim Sung-Nam sign an agreement, witnessed by Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi (back – L) and South Korean President Park Geun-Hye (back-R) at the presidential house in Seoul, South Korea March 3, 2016. REUTERS/JEON HEON-KYUN/POOL

Influence and Power go beyond the position one occupies. This saying is true for Nasr who has relentlessly worked to make a positive impact in the Arab world, carving a niche for herself among the most influential women in Egypt and Africa at large.

Far from the woman Mae West described, Nasr climbed the corporate ladder of success, from being the lead financial economist at the World Bank to taking charge of a ministry in the Egyptian government. Her extensive experience in negotiating and securing international grants while working at the World Bank enabled her function efficiently as Minister of Public Business Sector, even though it was temporary.

Picked up in and out of the school walls, Nasr’s giant steps began in the walls of school and transcends to everything she does. She was a Professor of Economics at the American University in Cairo and a Lecturer at several Egyptian and foreign universities.

When knowledge meets passion, the result is the publication of more 60 research papers, technical reports and books; All these Nasr did during her academic year where she began showcasing her negotiating and business skills. She merged her technical and practical expertise in the fields of international finance, economic development, the private sector and transferred the Knowledge through publications.

These papers and reports which were published in scientific periodicals by Cambridge, Oxford University and Berkley including publications by the World Bank, have contributed to the drafting and structuring of economic policies in various developing countries and emerging markets, including Egypt.

Knowing that education is a gift none can take away, and learning a treasure, Nasr actively works to ensure that others are given the opportunity to learn. She signed five grant agreements worth $45 million, more than half ($27 million) of which was directed towards developing a highly educated workforce that will supply the job market’s needs and boost job opportunities.

Not one to overlook mentorship, Nasr has a role model in the person of Nigeria’s former Minister of Finance, and former managing director of World Bank, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala who Nasr learnt a lot from while at the World Bank. Egyptian President, Abdel Fattah Al Sisi is also a role model for Nasr.

As a lead economist at the World Bank, Nasr successfully managed funds worth over $4.3 billion that were injected into the Egyptian economy. These funds came in form of economic reform, economic policy development, small and medium enterprise (SME) development and social housing.

At 54, Nasr’s career has actively involved designing and supervising numerous reforms and finance programs in the Middle East, Asia, Latin America, and Central and Eastern Europe. Songs of her accomplishments are sung in areas of economic and financial strategy design; monitoring progress and implementation of financial sector programs.

As a public business sector minister, supervisory roles in legislation; structural reforms; development of micro, small and medium enterprises that promote inclusive growth and job creation, design and management of social housing finance programs, as well as constructing partnership schemes between the World Bank Group, Governments of a diverse group of developing countries and other local/international organizations, are part of her weighty resume.

In February 2017, she was sworn in as Egypt’s Minister of investment and International Cooperation.

Previously, Egypt’s Ministry of International Cooperation and its Ministry of Investment were separate units before it was merged into a single unit in September and offered to Sahar Nasr to chair. With the merger, Nasr began restructuring and reforming the Ministry.

She made several strides in establishing a unit for monitoring, evaluation and policy development. Ensuring the ministry does not lag behind, she began exploring new opportunities for cooperation by establishing a strategic planning unit to increase the efficiency and effectiveness of Official Development Assistance (ODA) to Egypt.

As a woman on a mission, she is self-tasked with improving investor confidence in an economy that is gradually recovering. Slowly but steadily, she is rebuilding Egypt’s framework to make it a top destination for investors.

From 2012, Egypt began experiencing a drastic fall in both foreign investment and tourism revenues, followed by a 60 percent drop in foreign exchange reserves, a 3 percent drop in growth, and a rapid devaluation of the Egyptian pound. After a long period of stagnation, economic conditions in Egypt began improving considerably following the government’s adoption of more liberal economic policies.

The reforms Nasr made in the ministry, made a huge impact in bringing in investors as economic growth exceeded expectations to record 4.2 percent in the 2017 Financial Year. Recent trends in investment in Egypt showed outstanding improvement.

Private investment grew by 18 percent in 2017 financial year to reach $15.1 billion. Also, Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) grew significantly by 29 percent in 4th quarter of 2017 compared to the same quarter the previous year, making a total net FDI for 2017 fiscal year to grow by 14 percent to reach $7.9 billion.

All these are because Nasr, as minister went to great lengths to encourage local and foreign investments that ensure economic growth in her country. The Minister made strengthening Egypt’s ties with its existing international partners and establishing mutually-beneficial partnerships her main focus.

As a minister of a country linking northeast Africa with the Middle East, she works towards expanding and deepening ties with other African nations while exploring new relationships with Asian partners.

Her drive to deepen ties with other African nations stems from the need to sustain Africa’s growth. She believes that the continental agenda can be pushed by delivering the needed structural reforms and addressing Africa’s development finance constraints and its infrastructure gap. This is following a World Bank report that Africa needs to spend $93 billion (5 percent of GDP) each year on infrastructure and the African Development Bank (AfDB) notes a $50 billion financing gap in achieving this.

Her passion stretches out to women empowerment and she often advocates for it. Severally Nasr has noted that empowering women is smart economics because sustainable and inclusive growth can only be achieved by giving women an equal opportunity to play active roles in the economic, social and political sphere.

While serving as Egypt’s Investment and Cooperation Minister, Nasr has not only driven Investment to Egypt, she has also fostered International cooperation and positioned Egypt for better deals that will be beneficial for the country and its citizenry. Early September, she co-signed a $1 billion agreement to fund the purchase of subsidized basic commodities. An agreement signed with the International Islamic Trade Finance Corporation (IITFC) to enable offer more subsidized basic commodities to citizens.

Her influence has grown beyond Egyptian borders that in 2015, she was awarded the prize of the most influential woman in the Arab economic sector, a feat no other Egyptian woman has been able to attain.

Long before becoming Egypt’s investment and cooperation minister, Nasr has been a member of the Economic Development Council of the Presidential Office, a membership she utilized by providing economic consultations to the President and drafting countless proposals for the development of Egypt’s economic policies.

Egypt is considered to be a regional power in North Africa, the Middle East and the Muslim world, and a middle power worldwide. Egypt’s economy is one of the largest and most diversified in the Middle East and is projected to become one of the largest in the 21st century.

As a woman on a mission, her efforts aided in significantly boosting economic development, as she was coordinating and streamlining development initiatives and programs across different ministries and authorities, as well as ensuring that the economic performance system in use became modernized.

Boosting economic development goes beyond establishing new policies for Nasr, it also entails seeking better ways to make lives easier by ensuring food and agriculture industries are established, people have access to better job opportunities and basic services for local communities.

Currently, she is the National Coordinator of the National Committee for the Follow-Up on the Implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals. Nasr also serves as Governor of Egypt to several institutions such as The World Bank, The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, Arab Bank for Economic Development in Africa, and Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.