With the Arab spring bringing into sharper focus the long-standing challenges of inequality and unemployment in the Arab world, the question is what to do. It is clear that in the medium term only a dynamic market-based economy can generate good jobs for the unemployed and, importantly, the underemployed. It might seem tempting in the face of popular pressures to expand the public sectors further, but it is not feasible and not desirable. That said: "In the medium term we are all dead" (this was a famous Keynes statement and he actually said it about that favorite economist phrase "in the long run" but it suits me here).
Among the saddest iconic stories to come out of MENA’s rapidly changing political landscape was the first: the dramatic self-immolation of a fruit vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi, and how his act was a response to government officials trying to confiscate the fruit he was selling, taking away from this young man the sole means he had found to support his family.
The revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt have celebrated the values of freedom, justice and human dignity. They have reignited hope in the ability of communities to work together to bring change. They encourage taking risk coupled with a learning spirit.
The challenge now is to sustain citizen engagement and grow the culture of holding each other accountable. Community action cannot be from revolution to revolution. I love how one of Egypt's Shabab AlThawra said to his people: “Now that you have woken up, don’t go back to sleep”. The other challenge is to make sure that the energy does not become manipulated by various players with contradicting values or derailed by certain media stunts.
The Arab world is all too often in the headlines for geo-political tensions and cross border conflicts. Today it is in the grip of a peoples' uprising that is demanding change in political regimes, respect for citizens' rights, governance and quality of life.
The breadth and force of this peoples' voice has caught the world and the most politically astute of analysts by surprise. The Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia lent confidence in turn to regime change in Egypt, the largest population in the region. These events have been further motivation across the Middle East and North Africa.
The democratic movements sprouting all over the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region are arousing high optimism for greater voice and inclusiveness. Democracies are about sharing power, and about reflecting the will of the people through peaceful processes at the ballot box. But, will the will of the people and people power usher in greater gender equality and women’s empowerment, particularly as women fought shoulder to shoulder with men for change?
The Arab world was a center of intellectual fervor and scientific discovery when my forefathers in Northern Europe were a rather backward people raiding neighbors and toiling for the King. Over time the tables turned and the last several decades in the Arab world were a period of political control, few basic freedoms and widespread exclusion.
Meanwhile people in other parts of the world enjoyed increasing freedoms and an information and media revolution making information accessible to more and more people. Now, almost overnight, millions of Arab citizens have joined this global table of exchange and openness. Twitters, facebook posts and blogs are buzzing around the Arab world with new-found freedom and excitement.
Labor and unemployment challenges in the Arab world have been seen as core ingredients of the revolutions. So now, more than ever is a golden opportunity to tackle these difficult questions and propose bold solutions true to the overwhelming sense of hope and desire for true change.
In the midst of all the new debate, there are some recent lessons, some successful pilots of the near past to provide a springboard for quick starts in this hopeful moment. (After all, those crowds of good people protesting in the streets were engaged in some good things before our Jasmine and January 25 movements cleared a wider space.)
This Arab Voices and Views Conference brings together a group of outstanding activists, academics, scholars and experts from around the Middle East & North Africa, is very significant, in that it does not reflect the World Bank or its views, whose role has been to simply offer the opportunity and the space for the discussion to take place.
It is a unique gathering, not meant to lecture or give presentations, but to discuss and share views on what is happening in the region. More specifically and meaningfully, it is not a forum meant to analyze the changing political dimensions of the current events in the Arab World, but to look more deeply into the issues that have triggered some of them, and map a way forward for the future.