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”. But of course I also remain deeply concerned about the violence and the loss of life which continues still. The calls for genuine participation and a say in the decisions and policies that affect peoples’ lives have spread inspiration, spilling the spirit of protest across borders. These are extraordinary times, but as we are all aware, there are still many unknowns ahead and many economic and social challenges remain; much work lies ahead to realize the dreams that have been unleashed by the Arab Spring.
What I’m thinking hardest about in my new role is figuring out how we best engage this new spirit, support it, offer assistance. How to do this in appropriate measure without getting in the way of the historic social processes that are underway and to which we are but outsiders and observers, albeit passionate ones? I join a team of professionals who have been working flat out to do just this. I trust some of my prior knowledge of the region and its complexities will help me as I join this group of dedicated colleagues. We need to be quick, responsive and flexible. And we also need to be thoughtful, respectful and open, tuned in acutely to changes happening faster than we may always know.
What the Arab Spring has taught many of us, I think, is that access to information, transparency, accountability and the ability of citizens to make their voices heard matter absolutely. At the World Bank, we can’t just help authorities in MENA put in place policies, laws and regulations. Those laws and regulations matter only if there is an opportunity for people to have a say about whether they are being properly applied, or indeed abused.
Finding ways to listen to our clients – and sometimes helping our clients listen to their citizens – will be critical to the usefulness of our work and any advice we offer. We might have knowledge as a global development institution. But we need to temper it with humility, and adapt it to changes in societies now redefining themselves, or our knowledge will be the dry rustle of a previously used blueprint.
I hope to use this blog as a thinking space about these challenges before us. And I hope you will join me in an exchange that feeds our knowledge, contests ideas and brings new ones to light.