Raj Sapru, Director, Advisory Services, and Julia Beier, Analyst, BSR

As part of BSR’s multipart series on sustainable urban growth, we recently spoke with several influential stakeholders about the outlook for Cairo, a city that has experienced tremendous political change in the past few years.

Given that Cairo is the largest and one of the most densely populated cities in the Middle East and Africa, the former Egyptian government had prepared a “Cairo Vision 2050” aimed at addressing density, traffic, environmental deterioration, and informal settlements for its 20 million inhabitants. But following the 2011 uprising and the government’s instability, cross-sector collaboration between the government, businesses, and civil society—which had focused on education, healthcare, poverty reduction, informal housing, and waste management—has halted, and questions remain about how the plan will be implemented.

Businesses that used to support public institutions and invest in Cairo’s sustainable growth can no longer rely on stable government relationships. So how can business advance sustainability in a place that has so much potential but suffers from an unstable political and economic environment? How can business support Cairo’s highly educated youth, who are willing to fight for democratic developments yet suffer from large unemployment rates?

One solution is for business to invest in quality education and women’s empowerment. There are currently large gaps between job market requirements and Egypt’s education system, which has led to an average unemployment rate of between 25 and 48 percent among young women. Business can help by providing scholarships and vocational training for girls.

In 2011, the Vodafone Egypt Foundation launched a Knowledge is Power campaign to improve literacy. By collaborating with UNESCO, the Life Makers Association, and 20 other civil society organizations and local partners, the campaign was able to establish political legitimacy while largely maintaining independence from the government.

BSR’s HERproject, which connects multinational companies and their factories with local NGOs to create sustainable workplace programs that increase women’s health awareness, provides another opportunity for business to help support women’s empowerment in Egypt.

Collaboration has been a recurring theme in our exploration of how cities can address the challenges of urbanization. We also know that while it’s ideal to have clear and concise government policies based on the needs of inhabitants, it’s rare to find such an environment—and when it comes to investing in sustainable cities, it’s not something business can afford to wait for. In a city like Cairo, business can play a proactive role by collaborating with NGOs and other companies on issues that benefit business and society, and by contributing to the kind of healthy civil society needed to sustain a growing democracy.

Later this year, BSR will feature more coverage in our sustainable urbanization series, including a deeper look at Cairo’s specific challenges and opportunities, with views from business and civil society leaders on how to scale up sustainable urban growth.

Also read our feature articles on scaling up sustainable urban growth and what this looks like in Hong Kong.