Waiting for springtime

By Frank-Jürgen Richter

Khaleej Times, October 17, 2012

The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) published its fourth Arab Human Development Report in 2005 wherein it worried about the structural inequalities in the Arab nations; they suggested there were indicators of strife to come.

Prophetic words, indeed. We have seen outbursts in several countries – Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, and Yemen; with civil unrest in several others, and fiercely in Syria. Commentators have pointed to “… a lack of ‘contemporary revolutionary ideologies’ binding these movements together” and the fact that the catalyst effect of satellite television [Al Jazeera] has declined somewhat as the TV programmes maintain contact with ‘news’ rather than long-term visions. Nevertheless, the newly developing governments of Egypt and Tunisia offer hope to others as their new governments come to grips with the balance between Islam and secularism, adherence to old views and the creation of new visions.

The UNDP continues its research and offers an interactive map of the Arabic world in its StratPlanet. In terms of overall GDP growth, the Arab states have grown from four per cent annually in 1990 to a peak of 14 per cent in 1997, falling then to a relatively stable 3 to 5 per cent. In 2009, the region looked thriving at seven per cent growth. But the ‘Arab Spring’ affected regional confidence – only now is recovery becoming visible, but it depends upon which nation and which aspect one looks.

For instance, the UNDP published a report on the levels of fuel subsidy. It notes that of the world’s energy subsidisers the largest are in the Arab world – often exceeding social spending on pro-poor sectors such as in health and education. Energy subsidies are an important social safety net for the poor in many parts of the Arab world, but they are often a costly and inefficient way of achieving policy objectives. They also distort the economy by encouraging waste and holding up investment in renewable energy and other important infrastructures.

There are other structural difficulties across the Arab world that arises from an historical inclination to exclusiveness, whereas many states elsewhere are stressing inclusiveness for the development of their societies. This aspect affects strongly the overall unemployment rate, the proportion of women in employment and the literacy levels of men, as well as women. Most of the region is an agricultural society, but that sector only contributes about 15 per cent of its GDP: far too many people are unemployed (often well over 10 per cent) and many affected are young.

I stressed the need for better education across the Arab world in reflecting on my 2010 Arab Global Business Meeting held in Ras Al Khaimah, the UAE, and this topic will be discussed during my next meeting in December. I noted that the education cycle, irrespective of any gender discrimination, is from five years old until maybe 23 years by the time a person leaves university and becomes a change-maker. For most nations this is too long to wait, but any alternative is at times difficult to comprehend.

As the 2011 UN ‘Youth Year’ report says, few young Arab men and women are aware of the importance of participation and its relevance for them, their societies and their future. However, entrenched institutional arrangements, dated governing procedures, and inadequate evaluation and accountability mechanisms have to date contributed to limited youth participation in decision-making.

Though the Arab Spring uprisings and the easement of other nations’ regulations we see new, youth-led and youth-oriented civil society organisations are flourishing, with more young people utilising information and communication technologies. The Arab youth are now more able to voice opinions, address existing inequalities, and shape community priorities. The problem is that this youth has no real experience of drafting new, inclusive policies, and the older people may revert too easily to their historicism. I am sure, given this new open trend, it will be possible to establish a development agenda that firmly recognises Arab youth’s rights and aspirations. Doing so can advance economic growth, social inclusion, and political stability in the region. It will take time and it needs to be nurtured.

Frank-Jurgen Richter is founder and chairman of Horasis, a global visions community. Horasis hosts the Global Arab Business Meeting in Ras Al Khaimah, 9-10 December