This is the first week of my professional return to the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). Until last Friday I held the job of Vice President of the Sustainable Development network at the World Bank, a truly rich and fulfilling engagement in a range of global enterprises from agriculture, to infrastructure, to climate change. I feel honored to assume the new role of MNA VP at this extraordinary time in the region’s history. Many eyes are on us and much will be expected. As history unfolds before us, in the Arab Spring, in the uprisings, in the revolutions, I have reflected much on what this will mean and where it will take us. I remain filled with optimism as people across the region have, in their own heartfelt formulation, “taken back their dignity”
In the spirit and calls for greater accountability and transparency, the World Bank is hosting a discussion bringing together high-level decision makers and civil society representatives from the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. They will exchange knowledge and reflect on the experiences of experts from Indonesia, Turkey and Philippines, who will share the work that have supported the development of social accountability during critical transition periods.
She stared at the money in her palm for a long time while tears slowly trickled down her face. After a long silence Hana, a 19 year old Yemeni woman spoke, “This is the first money I have ever held in my hand that is mine.” “How do you feel?” asked the director of the women’s shelter where Hana had been living in for the past four months. As if reborn and with an empowered voice, she replied, “Strong.” The story of Hana is one example of the barriers faced by Yemeni women. Born into a violent environment where her vicious father abused women, Hana lived her childhood believing that she was worthless.
World over, many aspects of gender inequality continue to persist. Women face higher risks of death at birth and throughout their life cycle. Women are under-represented in schools, jobs, boardrooms and parliaments. Women continue to earn less than equally qualified men. In many cases, women have less power to make decisions and choices about their lives even within their homes. Many of these persistent gender gaps are still evident even in the developed world. In the Middle East and North Africa, there is little difference between girls and boys in education or health outcomes.
The story of Ghalia Mahmoud published in the August 17th edition of the Washington Post took me by surprise. I had hardly finished the article when questions began to fill my head and my heart started to flutter with excitement. Was it because Ghalia, previously a maid, had succeeded in becoming a TV host? Or was it that the Washington Post was interested in telling her story, deeming it worthy of publishing? Or was it tied to my glimpse of the World Bank report on Food Price Watch a few days earlier? It reported that the high level of global food prices and continued price volatility, posed a constant threat to the poorest segments of the population in developing countries.
From different corners of the world, youth have been celebrating this particular year in an unexpected way. In this International Year of Youth, I reflect on the events shaped by and for youth. To me, to all the young people in my country and my region, International Youth Day means simply nothing; because this year, we made every day a celebration of youth expression, power, and liberation.
The filtering (blocking) of websites was once assumed by many to be something conducted by the most authoritarian of regimes. But while we’ve all heard of China’s Great Firewall--that imaginary wall that divides the Chinese-hosted Internet from the rest of the world’s sites, allowing for the government to easily block anything that doesn’t pass muster--China is only one of dozens of countries that censors the Internet. Across the board, the Middle East and North Africa rank poorly as a region. While some countries--such as the UAE, Kuwait, and Oman--mainly target “offensive” or “inappropriate” content, caught up in their filters are various social networking websites.
Have the Arab revolutions definitively rebuked the so-called Arab exceptionalism—the notion that Arab nations would somehow be immune to economic modernization and democratization? After the massive popular uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria and other parts of the Arab world, it would be tempting to say yes. Far from any exceptionalism, what the Arab streets are demanding is what everyone reaching a minimum standard of living eventually demands: dignity and freedom. This call for dignity has been a major departure from the post-independence Arab social contract made of subsidies, public employment, and various rents and privileges at the price of freedom. To use an economic terminology, the Arab revolutions happened because the “exchange rate” between entitlement and freedom became unsustainable and had to be corrected. “Dignity before bread” was the slogan of the Jasmine revolution.
There is widespread belief that consumers across Middle East and North Africa (MENA) are largely insulated from global food price increases due to government food consumption subsidies and other policies. This, perhaps, explains why prior to its April edition, the World Bank’s Food Price Watch and many papers written on the topic did not report changes in domestic food prices in any MENA country. Limited access to microeconomic data has been another reason for focusing mainly on the macroeconomic implications of food price shocks in the region. Still the absence of systematic monitoring of domestic food price movements and analysis of their implications for households in MENA are surprising.