Malak Labib, “Consultants, Technocrats and “Model Workers”: The Rise of Scientific Management in Egypt (1945–1968),” Arab Studies Journal, Vol. XXX, No. 2, Fall 2022.
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this article?
Malak Labib (ML): This article is part of a broader project I am conducting on the history of development planning in Egypt. There is a rich body of literature that focuses on the origins of planning, on development aid, and on five-year plans in Egypt. I was interested in exploring this history from a different perspective—that of state-owned enterprises. How were these enterprises managed? How did they operate, in practice, in the era of central planning and Arab socialism? These issues are difficult to explore given the restrictions in accessing public companies’ archives and more generally state archives of the post-1952 period in Egypt. As I started reading press materials and published sources issued by various planning agencies, I realized that the debates around factory management and labor productivity during that period were a key component of state development policies. I was most intrigued by the stress on labor productivity, especially in the 1960s, a period marked by the rise of a large, sprawling public sector and by the regime’s adoption of a socialist rhetoric. What attracted my attention, in other words, was the presence in the sources of a US-inspired managerial language, in such a context. That was the starting point of the research that led to this article.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the article address?
ML: The article focuses on the rise of managerial expertise and practice in postwar and postrevolutionary Egypt. It examines the international circulation and local appropriation of managerial techniques inspired by Fordism. Egypt, like other “third world” countries pursuing ambitious development programs, was a key site for the development of this expertise. I show how the 1950s and 1960s saw the rise of a network of Egyptian technocrats and US/western consultants, promoting new models of work organization in the industrial sector. In doing so, these actors played a central role in shaping the expanding public sector during Egypt’s “socialist experiment” in the 1960s. The article also traces the ways in which managerial techniques—like incentive mechanisms, for instance—were implemented and contested on the shop floor. By exploring the early origins of capitalist managerial thinking and practice in Egypt, my article shows how the Nasser regime foreshadowed the open-door policies (Infitah) of the following decade.
J: What sources did you use for this article and how did you obtain them?
ML: I began this research in Cairo, where I collected a number of published primary sources, including newspapers and magazines, economic studies, and studies in industrial psychology, as well as publications issued by workers in state-owned enterprises. While I did not have access to official archives, these sources provided insights into the views of various actors on the ground.
My research also took me to Geneva, to the archives of the International Labor Organization (ILO), where I found a large number of files documenting the role played by the organization—and other actors such as the Ford Foundation—in the field of productivity and management.
J: How does this article connect to and/or depart from your previous work?
ML: This is the first academic article I publish on development planning. My dissertation—which I am currently turning into a book—focused on the history of public debt and statistics in late nineteenth and early twentieth century Egypt.
However, my interest in the history of development is not new. In 2009, I conducted an oral history project for the Economic and Business History Research Centre (American University in Cairo), interviewing Egyptian economists and policymakers who worked in state planning agencies in the 1950s and 1960s. The interviews provided insight into the various and sometimes conflicting views held by the officials who worked in these bodies, and in that sense, they went against the common idea of a monolithic state economic sector. This is a question that I address in my current article and that has been discussed by scholars such as Robert Tignor and Julia Elyachar.
I also recently wrote a short blog article focusing on the first debates around public sector “inefficiencies” and reform in the late 1960s and early 1970s. I wrote this piece at a moment when the Egyptian government was engaged in a new wave of privatization and liquidation of public sector companies, including the Egyptian Iron and Steel Company, the largest industrial project of the Nasser era. While these steps were a continuation of the neoliberal policies pursued under Mubarak, I was interested in exploring an earlier moment in the discourse around economic reform.
J: Who do you hope will read this article, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
ML: I hope this article will be of interest to scholars working on the history of development and the global history of management, as well as to students of Nasserism. It is also my hope that the article will contribute critically to the history of state-led development in Egypt. The legacy of the 1950s and 1960s in Egypt still holds a central place in political imagination and the Nasserist regime has been hailed, by many leftist intellectuals and activists, as a model for state-led economic modernization. Engaging with this narrative is important to produce a more complex understanding of our past. It is also a way to engage critically with the present, in the context of the new wave of public sector liquidation and of the expansion of the state/army’s role in the economy.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
ML: I am currently working on an article which explores the gendered dynamics in the industrial development policies of the 1940s to 1960s. I am also collecting primary sources—archival documents, private papers, and oral histories—relating to specific industrial projects of the era of state-led development; my focus is currently on the Egyptian Iron and Steel Company. I am interested in the social, rather than the institutional business history, of these projects.
Excerpt from the article (from pp. 20-24)
In September 1961, only a few months after nationalization decrees brought most large- and medium-scale industries under government ownership, another presidential decree created the National Institute of Management Development (NIMD). The EO had hatched the plan in consultation with Harbison and other foreign experts in 1957. The Institute received most of its funding from the Ford Foundation. The rapid expansion of the public sector in the early 1960s gave urgency to the question of staffing state-controlled enterprises at the managerial level. In this context, the Ford Foundation— which had financed the Inter-University Study of Labor project—became directly involved in the fields of productivity and management development. Between 1961 and 1966, American consultants and Western-trained Egyptian faculty of the NIMD trained around one thousand public-sector top and middle managers in the fields of production planning and management, human relations, marketing, and behavioral skills. The Ford Foundation’s involvement in such activities was part of a broader trend. Since the 1950s, the philanthropic organization had become a key international promoter of productivity programming through seminar series, training programs, and publications. By spreading the “gospel of productivity,” it sought to orient strategically important countries and regions toward a pro-US/Western approach to development. In other words, it envisioned itself “doing for the rest of the world what the Marshall Plan had done for Europe,” as historian Robert McCaughey has argued. The ILO also expanded its field of action in the 1960s. By 1966, the Productivity Center was providing production planning, supervisory, and vocational training to around eleven thousand Egyptians annually. Its consultancy work for individual companies continued apace.
Thus, the regime’s shift to “socialism” did not alter the forms of expertise the state relied on. The package of “socialist laws” adopted in the early 1960s theoretically positioned industrial workers as partners in management. Workers attained the right to be elected board members in their workplaces and to share a percentage of the annual profit. Labor legislation also guaranteed a minimum wage, reduced the working week to forty-two hours, and placed restrictions on overtime. Such measures had little effect on management development policies. Indeed, the NIMD and the PVTC continued to expand during the years of “socialist transformation.” Significantly, the economic press and specialized publications of the 1960s featured many discussions on the similarities and convergences between capitalist and socialist management. The NIMD research series, for instance, included articles on “The Determination of Productivity Measures in a Socialist Society” or on “Management Development in U.S.A. and U.S.S.R.,” while al-Ahram al-Iqtisadi featured articles on the science of management and on the rising figure of the technocrat. In one of these articles, management professor Fu’ad al-Sharif observed: “At the time of the October 1917 revolution, Marxists described the system of incentive wages as one of the worst techniques invented by capitalism to exploit workers. Today, ILO statistics indicate that this system covers a higher proportion of workers in Soviet industry than in US industry.” Such statements were not surprising given Sharif’s own background as someone who received his training at American institutions. He was one of the first Egyptians trained in business administration, obtaining his Ph.D. from Chicago University in 1953. Sharif later became a member of the EO and the National Planning Committee before assuming NIMD’s chairmanship in 1961.
This expansion of US- and Western European-inspired managerial expertise may appear paradoxical in light of what we know from previous studies about the “inefficiencies” of the public sector in 1960s Egypt. The Nasser regime’s “socialist transformation,” launched with the 1961 large-scale nationalizations, involved a vast expansion of public-sector employment—especially in administrative posts—with a parallel relative decrease of worker posts. This imbalance, in turn, hurt labor productivity, which “declined after 1962 after twenty years of steady if unspectacular growth,” as Waterbury has argued. A number of authors contend that industrial efficiency was further hampered by the pyramidal, centralized structure of the public sector and the “excessive hierarchy in the economic structure,” which left managers with little autonomy.
This view of the public sector as a tightly regulated, top-down entity largely relies on an analysis of legal documents and overlooks how state-controlled firms functioned in practice. Overlooking the shop floor lends the public sector a coherence that it did not enjoy in practice. Company directors, managers, and lower-level supervisors were not just passive executors of policies dictated from above. Various sources—including experts’ correspondence, managers’ reports, and press debates—provide insights into how actors on the shop floor appropriated, negotiated, or ignored management expertise. Some of the reports and correspondence reveal the extent to which the foreign consultants, who travelled to Egypt for short-term missions to offer management consultancy to public-sector companies, had little knowledge of local conditions prior to their missions. Officials in Cairo and Geneva regularly raised concerns about foreign experts’ “inexperience” and, in some cases, criticized consultants’ recommendations for being vague or unsuited to the local context.
In addition, the economic press and literature of the mid-1960s offers rich accounts of how company directors and executives navigated the nascent public sector amid the implementation of the first Five-Year Plan (1960–65). These accounts provide insights into the ways in which managers framed productivity problems in their companies and the kinds of “solutions” they considered. For instance, a key issue in these accounts related to work incentives and how they were implemented on the shop floor. While work measurement and incentive techniques were key components of the various productivity improvement schemes promoted in the industrial sector, their implementation was a site of negotiation and struggle between workers and management.
A close reading of managers’ accounts indicates that there were significant differences in wage and incentive systems among public-sector companies. The boards of directors of nationalized or newly established firms often had the final say on job evaluation and job classification. Thus, the work of rating and ranking employees was done at the company level, rather than at the level of the public-sector supervising bodies, the mu’assasat ‘amma. Wide variations existed in practice. Within the same plant, and sometimes on the same production line, different systems of pay coexisted. Some workers were entitled to incentives, while others were not. Some worked according to a piece-rate system or some other incentive mechanism, while others received a fixed salary with annual increases. There was also a wide gender wage gap, which managers justified with reference to women’s “lower productivity” and inferior qualifications. By the mid-1960s, public-sector advisors were mentioning the problems created by “incentive inequities.” In a 1968 report, ILO chief of project Erwin Poetter noted that “labor unrest may occur” if such inequities persisted.
At the factory level, incentives were highly dependent on workers’ relations with their supervisors. Supervisors emphasized workers’ behavior as a key element in their performance assessment. At the Misr Industrial Silk Company, for instance, workers were entitled to production rewards, amounting to up to fifteen percent of their basic monthly pay, based on production quantity and quality. Yet personal and behavioral elements also counted. “The normal worker who behaves well does not receive an extra reward, whereas the worker who demonstrates bad behavior should have his production reward diminished, based on his individual report,” noted ‘Abd al-Muhsin al-A‘sar, an engineer at the company. Similarly, Ahmad Zaytun, the chairman of Abu Za‘bal Chemicals Company, described how the incentive award scheme, which the company introduced in 1959, included financial rewards for workers who met some or all the criteria of the “model worker.” The “model worker” was “not absent without permission; did not visit the (factory) doctor; was not victim of, or responsible for a (work) accident; was not subject to sanctions; and engaged in sports and social activities.”
During the preparation of the second Five-Year Plan in 1966, the government issued new regulations aimed at standardizing assessment and incentive procedures across companies. Notions related to workers’ morality and behavior remained as key elements in these procedures, as illustrated by the case of the Ahliyya Paper Company. In this factory, the assessment report forms used in 1967 were divided into two sections. The first focused on “productivity and behavior” (al-kifaya wa-l-suluk), including the worker’s speed, precision, initiative, and relations with his directors and colleagues. The second part measured the worker’s health and fitness, concentration at work, attendance, and level of obedience (ita‘at al-awamir). In that sense, assessment and incentive schemes combined some form of work measurement with an evaluation of the worker’s “good behavior” and obedience, based on the supervisor’s opinion.