After over 20 people were killed and 45 injured in the Ramses Railway Station train crash last week, the country inevitably began debating the causes of the tragedy. But how can you prove beyond doubt that one action leads to a specific outcome, and if it is just probable causation, then when does the action determine the outcome in some cases but not others? When does correlation means a causation, and when does it not? Where does the ripple effect begin and where does it end, if ever?
Unfortunately, there is not, and probably never will be, an agreed upon answer to these questions about multifaceted social phenomena. The issue of causation is one of the most contentious in social research and statistical work.
However, in order to manage all aspects of life, there is no way around having to deal with this problematic terrain. How can we go about our lives without trying to identify what kills us, makes us poor, etc.? The debates about the responsibility of the recent train crash in Egypt also remind us that the issue of causation is not void of political and ideological bias.
For most supporters of the regime, the cause of the tragedy is the micro-level negligence of the driver, wholly separate from more structural macro-level issues. Some have gone as far as to say it was a terrorist act by the Muslim Brotherhood. The most nuanced explanation coming from this camp was that this is an old problem, one that will need time to fix and cannot be blamed solely on the current administration.
On the other hand, those critical of the regime, focused on macro and structural causes — by definition less direct — blaming the lack of investment, accountability, and the wrong investment priorities. Per this account, political responsibility for the incident rose all the way up to the presidential level.
However, most of those who discussed causes for the incident did not consider the global dimension, and, in that sense, the accounts offered were both ahistorical and decontextualized, or at least they did not contextualize beyond the national historical level. For example, I did not come across any attribution to the global and historical trend of austerity, despite the fact that its role in the deterioration of public services should be quite obvious.
I believe there are at least two reasons for this: First, this lense brings many more players and dimensions into the analysis and complicates it much more. Second, it is not as safe of a discursive endeavor, because it does not fit age-old narratives and prejudices about Global South despotism, rampant corruption and lack accountability that trained us to internalize our crises, even if, in reality, they have a wide set of international enablers. This is the result of the hegemonic workings of the neoliberal system: despite its global outlook, corruption/despotism remains mostly a national issue and belongs almost exclusively to the Global South.
According to a 2017 IMF report, Egypt’s public investment expenditure, which includes spending on infrastructure improvement including the railways, is expected to drop to 2.4 percent of GDP in fiscal year 20-21, down from 4.4 percent of GDP in FY 16-17, which is the year that the pound was devalued and the IMF-sponsored, austerity-heavy economic reform program was implemented. As for general government expenditure, it is slated to drop to 22.7 percent of GDP by 2020-2021, from 30.4 percent in 2016-2017.
Let us take a look at how austerity has impacted the Egyptian railways. Based on figures published by Mada Masr, the budget of the already struggling railways has dropped from LE21.3 billion in 2015-2016 (before the devaluation) to LE20.6 billion in 2018-2019. However, if we look in dollar terms we would see a drop from about $2.7 billion in 2015-2016 (based on December 2015 exchange rates) to about $1.17 billion in 2018-2019 (based on current exchange rates). Adjust for inflation, spending in real terms has been nearly halved in just three years.
Of course, the situation should not be simplistically reduced to austerity and under-spending. It is very possible for the government to increase its spending on the railways but lose the funds in channels of corruption, or spend it on decorating the offices of the top bureaucrats. On the other hand, it is almost certain that under conditions of such extreme underspending these types of crashes will keep happening, claiming the lives of innocent passengers and passersby. Of course, every time we can blame the drivers, the government, or even fate, as several television commentators declared. But let us not forget in this blame game those who created the global and ideological conditions for this to occur.
Surely, it is never as caricatural as the IMF telling the government explicitly to cut spending on railway infrastructure used by millions, and spend billions on an administrative capital that no one will live in. However, the IMF has been deafeningly silent about the government’s spending priorities and used all its weight and leverage to push for austerity, even when the government expressed willingness to back down on — or at least postpone — some aspects of it, such as with the implementation of the regressive Value Added Tax, and the removal of fuel subsidies. It was widely believed that the fifth installment of the loan was delayed because the government wanted to postpone the removal of subsidies, and that it was only cleared once the government promised not to. As for the VAT, the initial loan agreement was pending the government’s implementation of VAT and devaluation, which, for obvious reasons, the government was reluctant to implement, but the IMF made it clear that without VAT and devaluation, there would be no loan.
Massive underspending is not only the result of the most recent austerity program, but a product of sustained efforts dating back at least four decades that ideologically demonized any and every form of public investment and collective ownership, backed by extremely powerful interests.
In their book The Body Economic: Why Austerity Kills, David Stuckler and Sanjay Basu show that austerity is not just an economic policy with fiscal and monetary consequences, but a policy that actually has a death toll. They explore the impact of austerity on public health, and among their findings is that, in London, 2,000 heart attacks were attributable to the market turmoil caused by the financial crisis. Death rates from suicide and alcohol also increased.
Drug abuse and suicide have caused the US life expectancy rate to drop three years in a row, which is a longest sustained drop of life expectancy in a century. It is hard to make a direct link with austerity, but drug/alcohol abuse and suicide are one of the social phenomenon most closely associated with economic hardship. The United Kingdom has witnessed near-stagnation in its life expectancy — the worst slowdown in nearly 120 years, which some have linked to recent austerity policies.
According to WHO data, women’s life expectancy in Egypt has dropped in the last few years. No one to my knowledge has discussed or researched the causes of this, but one would not be completely surprised if tightening economic conditions is one of the causes. Just to avoid choosing data selectively, it is important to point out that the pattern might not always be clear, and it is possible to find regions that have increased their life expectancy despite undergoing an austerity program, but it is also important to note that austerity does not impact everyone equally within a nation and among nations. These life expectancy rates are national aggregates, not stratified by income levels, region, etc., which would allow a more precise examination of the correlations between the impact of austerity and life expectancy, especially on poorer populations or those most affected by austerity.
Finally, it is important to note that in the case of the recent train crash, even with the individual responsibility on the driver, the fact that this “individual” responsibility is quite recurrent means that it is no longer really individual and that there is something more structural about it, something linked with systems of accountability, the training of drivers, and their general well-being, including psychological well-being. One wonders if the indifference of the driver and his negligence are not themselves a result of extreme and ever increasing economic pressure, or at least poor training and the lack of psychological monitoring resulting from under-spending on this vital utility.
When austerity kills, it usually kills slowly, quietly, and individually, in isolated, minor events, which do not make headlines or have collective and symbolic value on their own. However, a collective, well-documented, dramatic and sudden event like the recent train tragedy is much more likely to prompt such debate.
The underinvestment is not just true of railways, but also of education and health and other aspects of public investments, as has been shown in research by the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights. However, since schools and hospitals do not move at high speed on rails with the possibility of crashing into buildings and exploding, they do not cause this form of collective dramatic deaths, but rather death of the quiet and isolated type.