The worst is yet to come for the Arab world
If you are marking the New Year with the traditional review of what has changed and what is in store ahead for the Arab region, you are missing the greatest threats to the region's people and their states.
Climate change, ideological conflicts, and active wars will continue to cause havoc in most states, but older and more corrosive dangers today endanger the wellbeing of families and the integrity of entire states, as a batch of new international reports last week reminds us: a big majority of Arab families – over two-thirds in some critical sectors like poverty and education – can no longer meet their basic needs, and slowly, quietly, they slip into destitution, desperation, or worse.
The flurry of new reports shows how the COVID-19 pandemic has worsened the already alarming Arab condition in essential realms for a decent life: education attainment and its associated human capabilities, access to sufficient food, inequality among citizens and states, and the pan-Arab failure – after half a century of trying – to create sufficient decent jobs for citizens.
"Many will likely become directionless and alienated young men and women who typically are prime candidates for radical and violent movements that ultimately shake the integrity of countries and social systems"
The most frightening new findings – in a report by UNICEF, the World Bank, and UNESCO on the COVID-19 pandemic's impact on educational progress in Arab states – start with the bad news that nearly two-thirds of 5 to 14-year-old children in the region were unable to read with proficiency even before COVID-19. The new calamity is that this could soon rise to nearly 70% of all children due to their missing out on normal schooling in the past two years, and the proportion of 15-year-olds who perform badly in international standardised education test scores could rise from 60.1% to 71.6%.
This guarantees that several cohorts of undereducated Arab youth will not be able to contribute to their national economies beyond menial and manual labour in the informal economy. They will suffer lifetimes of poverty, vulnerability, and marginalization, with problems of mental health, socialization, and low wellbeing and self-satisfaction.
Many will likely become directionless and alienated young men and women who typically are prime candidates for radical and violent movements that ultimately shake the integrity of countries and social systems. Once strong, centralised states could polarise and fragment, with some ultimately shattering (usually with the involvement of foreign military action, as we have seen in recent years in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Somalia, Palestine, Lebanon, Libya and others).
The minority of young Arabs who do get a good education will either dominate the private and government sectors or emigrate to find a better life abroad. This has been happening for the past four decades at least, as governments are unable or unwilling to fix the distortions in their policies and economies. This will further aggravate the existing inequalities gaps within and among Arab countries.
The World Inequalities Report 2022 issued last week confirms that the Arab-dominated Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region is the most unequal region in the world. In our lands, the top ten per cent richest people control 58% of income (vs. 36% in Europe). It seems hard to get any more unequal, given UN studies in recent years that repeatedly show that poor and vulnerable Arabs account for over two-thirds of the total population – and the COVID-19 crisis has worsened this, too.
Arab poverty, vulnerability, and inequality continue to spread in part because young people are not trained to assume better jobs, and in part – a new paper from the respected Economic Research Forum says – because Arab private sectors do not create sufficient decent new work opportunities.
A majority of educated young Arabs end up taking low-paying informal jobs, because of state policies and private sector practices since the 1990s economic reforms—policies that have not generated sufficient decent formal sector jobs, but rather favoured informal work, low-productivity sectors, and corporate profits, which resulted in low labour force participation.
So it is no surprise that youth unemployment in many Arab countries reaches 40-50 %, and seems stuck there. These structural issues are the result of deeper and chronic dynamics like political instability, poor regulatory frameworks and labour market institutions, fiscal constraints, corruption, and lack of economic diversity.
The last two years of COVID-19 pressures have only tightened the screws of citizen helplessness and erratic state social protection responses. Even in Arab countries that offered some emergency assistance to needy families, another ESCWA expert working group heard in a September meeting, their cash contributions were inadequate in most cases, averaging less than 20% of average national income or spending. These experts came in like a chorus in a cathedral hymn, noting the harsh realities for Arab families are due to poverty and associated economic and social problems and longstanding structural barriers to wealth redistribution and equitable economic-political participation.
A UN Food and Agriculture Organization report issued last week revealed that the percentage of undernourished Arabs increased by 15.8% since 2014, and, more alarmingly, by 91% over the past two decades. COVID-19 has added another 4.8 million undernourished people, for a total of some 69 million. Moderate or severe food insecurity also has expanded in recent years, to reach 141 million.
The deterioration in access to food has impacted all sectors of society, including the shrinking middle class. The FAO report notes: "An estimated 32.3%, or nearly one-third of the region’s population, did not have regular access to sufficient and nutritious food in 2020."
And, no surprise, that same old bell rings in our ears yet again, as the FAO says that hunger and food insecurity result from, "pre-existing vulnerabilities and exposure to multiple shocks and stresses such as poverty, inequality, conflict, climate change and many others."
"These trends paint a stark picture of the hard years ahead, as more and more people lack the jobs, income, or health, water, food, and education services needed for a life of dignity"
In other words, all these new reports tell us in slightly different ways that during the last 40 years or so most Arab societies and economies have been managed inefficiently, inequitably, and often incompetently.
These trends paint a stark picture of the hard years ahead, as more and more people lack the jobs, income, or health, water, food, and education services needed for a life of dignity. All Arab citizens also lack any credible power of political accountability to force their governments to stop this disastrous descent to national collapse, on an ever-widening base of human misery.
The long-term consequences of all this are all the more frightening because poor families today find it almost impossible to escape poverty and enter the middle class. Governments that lack the funds, expertise, or will to reduce poverty and improve overall citizen wellbeing these days react to their people's distress predominantly militarily, and by clamping down on freedom of expression and other basic rights. Not surprisingly, angry, hungry, degraded, and increasingly desperate citizens across the region have erupted in uprisings against their ruling elites since 2010.
A few more reports like last week's, reconfirming the worsening condition of most Arab citizens in the face of their uncaring states, suggest that more difficult days are ahead for both of them.
Rami G. Khouri is Director of Global Engagement and senior public policy fellow at the American University of Beirut, and a non-resident senior fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School's Middle East Initiative.
Follow him on Twitter: @ramikhouri
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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.