In my previous article, I mentioned that I was going to address three fundamental problems that underlie the MENA region, and I started by addressing ignorance first. Ignorance is the first among equals. Poverty is the second. As I mentioned in my previous article, these three fundamental problems, like cancerous tumors, threaten not only the MENA region, but all countries and societies in the world. These three problems are undoubtedly closely interrelated, and it is almost impossible to find solutions that address only one of them.
Poverty may be defined as a global problem, affecting nations’ economies, politics, and social stability. Poverty can be a source of social and political unrest, undermine democracy and good governance, and exacerbate inequalities within and between countries.
Moreover, poverty is not confined to a single country or region, but is a global phenomenon affecting millions of people around the world. Tackling poverty requires a coordinated and collaborative approach involving governments, civil society and the private sector, both within and between countries.
From an international relations perspective, particularly in regions where poverty is concentrated and resources are scarce, poverty is often seen as a driver of conflict and instability. The fight against poverty can help to reduce the risk of conflict and to promote stability and prosperity in the long term, both within and between countries.
International organizations such as the United Nations and the World Bank have an important role to play in the global fight against poverty through the provision of development assistance, the promotion of inclusive economic growth and the support of social protection systems. Through these efforts, the international community can work together to eradicate poverty and promote sustainable and inclusive development. This will reduce the risk of conflict and promote long-term peace and stability.
Poverty is one of the most pressing challenges facing the MENA region, and its effects are far-reaching and profound. At its core, poverty is a denial of human dignity, with potentially disastrous consequences for the individual, family and society. In the Middle East and North Africa region, poverty is characterized by a lack of access to basic necessities such as food, water, health care and education. This may lead to a cycle of deprivation and exclusion that limits opportunities for personal and social development and perpetuates social inequality.
In addition, poverty can be a source of social and political unrest and a source of instability and conflict. As people living in poverty are often marginalized and excluded from the political process, it can also undermine democracy and good governance. This can exacerbate the challenges facing the region by perpetuating the cycle of poverty and political instability.
For women and girls, who face additional barriers to education and employment, the effects of poverty are particularly acute. This has the potential to perpetuate gender inequalities and limit opportunities for personal and social development, thereby exacerbating the challenges faced by the region.
Poverty remains a serious problem in the region. Yemen, Syria and Egypt are the three most affected countries.
Yemen: With an estimated 80% of the population living below the poverty line, Yemen is one of the poorest countries in the world. The ongoing conflict has created a humanitarian crisis with an estimated 24 million people in need of humanitarian assistance, exacerbating poverty and displacement.
Syria: The conflict in Syria has caused poverty to skyrocket, with an estimated 80% of the population living below the poverty line. The conflict has been a major cause of displacement and disruption of economic activity, which has exacerbated poverty and social inequalities.
Egypt: Despite recent economic growth, poverty in Egypt continues to be a major challenge, with an estimated 32.5 per cent of the population living below the poverty line. It is especially prevalent in rural areas and among marginal populations such as women, children and older people.
Several countries in the MENA region have significant wealth and resources, including oil producers like Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar. This creates a dilemma, highlighting the stark contrast between rich and poor in the region.
The concentration of wealth in the hands of a small elite has the potential to exacerbate social and economic inequalities, to limit opportunities for personal and social development, and to perpetuate poverty and exclusion. It can also give rise to resentment and social unrest, as those who live in poverty feel that they are left behind and marginalized.
Moreover, while natural resource wealth can be an important source of revenue for governments, it can also create dependence on a single industry, limiting economic diversification and leaving countries vulnerable to fluctuations in commodity prices.
The key to addressing this dilemma is the promotion of inclusive economic growth and the reduction of inequality, both within and between countries in the region. This entails promoting economic diversification and making investments in educational, healthcare and other social protection systems to enable everyone to have the access to basic services and the opportunities for personal and societal development.
It is also important to foster good governance, including transparency and accountability, to guarantee that resources are used effectively and efficiently to support development and reduce poverty. This entails strengthening democratic practices, advancing the rule of law, and fighting against corruption to make sure that all people have a voice in the political process and that resources are distributed fairly and effectively.
It is reasonable to question the viability of solutions to the challenges facing the MENA region. However, it is critical to note that progress has been achieved in a number of areas in recent years, and there are several examples of individual countries in the region that have made significant progress in poverty reduction and promoting development.
In the United Arab Emirates, for example, significant investments have been made in infrastructure, education and health care, leading to significant improvements in human development indicators. In Morocco, to support the most vulnerable populations, the government has implemented social protection programs and targeted subsidies.
In addition, several organizations and initiatives, including the United Nations Development Programme, the World Bank, and regional organizations such as the Arab League, are working to promote development and reduce poverty in the MENA region.
While challenges such as political instability, economic volatility and social tensions must be addressed, it is important to recognize that progress is possible and solutions exist. It will take concerted efforts and a long-term commitment from governments, civil society, and the private sector, both within and outside the region, to reduce poverty and promote sustainable and inclusive development in the MENA region. But it is possible to drive positive change and reduce poverty and inequality in the region with the right policies and investments.
Some more specific examples and solutions for MENA are listed below:
Promoting economic diversification: Many MENA countries rely on natural resources such as oil and gas, which can lead to economic volatility and limited opportunities for employment and entrepreneurship. National governments could make investments to promote economic diversification, assist small and medium-sized businesses, and create an environment conducive to private sector development. This might include infrastructure development, promoting innovation and technology, and investing in education and training to build a qualified labor force.
As an example, Saudi Arabia is heavily dependent on its oil and gas industry, which accounts for about 50% of GDP and 90% of export revenues. The Saudi government has embarked on an ambitious economic diversification plan called Vision 2030, which aims to lessen the country’s dependence on oil and gas, encourage private sector development, and generate new jobs for Saudi citizens. The plan also includes initiatives to promote tourism, renewable energy, and logistics, as well as investing in education and workforce skills development.
Invest in social protection: Social protection systems can help reduce poverty and inequality by providing a safety net for the most vulnerable, through cash transfers, food assistance, and healthcare insurance. National governments can make investments to strengthen social protection systems, channel resources to those in need, and ensure that these programs are well planned and implemented effectively.
In Lebanon, for example, the country has been facing an economic and financial crisis since 2019, which was exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic and the explosion in Beirut in August 2020. This has led to rampant poverty and food insecurity, with an estimated 55% of the population living below the poverty line. The Lebanese government and international organizations have launched social protection programs, such as cash transfers and food aid, to support vulnerable populations. However, further investment in social protection is needed to meet the population’s growing needs.
Addressing gender inequality: Gender inequality is a major challenge in the MENA region and can contribute to widespread poverty and marginalization. National governments should invest in supporting women’s economic independence, enhancing access to education and health care, and eliminating discriminatory laws and social norms. This can include the development of policies and programs that encourage women’s entrepreneurship and participation in the labor force, supporting women’s participation in political and economic leadership, and investing in the education of girls.
For example, Tunisia has made significant progress in promoting gender equality, with women’s labor force participation increasing from 22 percent in 2000 to 26 percent in 2018. Nevertheless, gender-based violence and discrimination remain major challenges. The Government has undertaken a number of policies and programmes to support gender equality, such as the enactment of a new law on violence against women, the introduction of a gender budgeting mechanism, and the launch of a national strategy for gender equality. However, further investment is needed in women’s education and skills development, as well as measures to eliminate discriminatory social norms and stereotypes.
Strengthen governance and institutions: Weak governance and institutions can lead to corruption, inefficient economies, and limited accountability, which can all fuel poverty and exclusion. Governments could invest in improving governance and institutions, increasing transparency and accountability, and promoting citizen involvement and participation. These could include formulating anti-corruption policies, facilitating open data and access to information, and building the capacities of public officials and civil society organizations.
For example, in Egypt, which has undergone significant political and economic changes since the 2011 revolution, challenges related to corruption, weak institutions, and limited citizen participation persist. The Egyptian government has initiated a number of initiatives to address these challenges, including the establishment of the National Anti-Corruption Academy, the introduction of e-government services, and the adoption of a new investment law. However, further investment is needed to strengthen the rule of law, promote transparency and accountability, and increase citizen engagement and participation.
Addressing conflict and fragility: Conflict and fragility are major challenges in many parts of the MENA region and can lead to poverty and exclusion. Governments should invest in promoting peace and stability, addressing the root causes of conflict, and supporting conflict-affected populations.
For example, Syria has faced a protracted conflict since 2011, resulting in widespread population displacement, infrastructure destruction, and a growing humanitarian crisis. The international community has been providing significant support to tackle the crisis, including humanitarian assistance, development assistance, and peacebuilding initiatives. However, additional investments are needed to provide assistance to refugees and hosting communities, encourage political dialogue and reconciliation, and address the underlying causes of the conflict, such as inequality and exclusion.
These are just a few examples of specific solutions that could be tailored to the MENA region. The key is to develop solutions that are context-specific, taking into account the unique challenges and opportunities faced by each country in the region.
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