Cairo based writer and researcher, Holly Dagres offers her perspective on one of Egypt’s most serious but largely overlooked development challenges.
Iran, Islamic Republic of
Governments in the Arab world have long subsidized the price of energy. This gives citizens throughout the region access to cheap petrol and diesel, and electricity supplied at below-market rates. But what has been the real impact of subsidies, and do they justify the huge financial burden they place on national budgets? This is a critical question in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), as the region represents a disproportionate share of the world’s energy subsidies.
If you think the summers in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region are hot—think again. Summers are likely to become much warmer. Global temperatures are rising; the question now is by how much and what the impact of them will be. People in the region already face very high summer temperatures—and these could get worse. Compared to the rest of the world, the MENA region will suffer disproportionally from extreme heat.
Half the world’s energy subsidies are in the Middle East and North Africa Region. These subsidies have been criticized on grounds that they crowd out public spending on valuable items such as health, education and capital investment. Egypt for instance spends seven times more on fuel subsidies than on health. Furthermore, the allocation of these subsidies is heavily skewed towards the rich, who consume more fuel and energy than the poor. In Yemen, the portion of fuel subsidies going to the richest quintile was 40 percent; the comparable figure in Jordan was 45 percent and in Egypt, 60 percent.
One of the targets of the Millennium Development Goals for poverty and hunger is monitored in part through a measure called Prevalence of Undernourishment. This is defined in the World Development Indicators (WDI) database as the proportion of the population whose food intake is insufficient to meet minimum dietary energy requirements continuously.
Comparative data (see figure below) show two, somewhat contradictory, aspects of undernourishment in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. During 1991-2012, the MENA region has had very low levels of undernourishment; among developing regions, it is tied for lowest average with Europe and Central Asia. But the average level of undernourishment in the region appears to have worsened over time. The latter is surprising because the MENA region is made up of middle and high income countries (with the exception of Djibouti and Yemen) and has not been subject to any prolonged negative food or income shocks in the past two decades. Indeed, all other regions have experienced a steady decline in undernourishment since 1991.
The Middle East and North Africa region has a large diaspora. According to the latest United Nations estimates, 11 million citizens from the MENA countries lived abroad in 2013. Many of the members of this group hold prominent positions in their adopted countries. They have the potential to contribute to the development of industries in their countries of origin. Executives in multinationals can influence the choice of locations abroad in increasingly defragmented supply-chains. This is especially relevant for members of the diaspora. Seddik Belyamani, originally from Morocco, was Boeing's top airplane salesman, and was instrumental in converting an initial push-back by Boeing’s executives into an interest and a first mover investment in Morocco.
A former hotel owner in one of the region’s major cities, who wants to remain anonymous, tells a story that should have had a happy ending. Her 40-room hotel was doing well. It had built a reputation for excellent service. She decided to capitalize on her success and expand the business by adding a restaurant. This would have provided her with another revenue steam and allowed her to attract more customers, especially foreign tourists. Apart from expanding her business, the need for new kitchen and wait staff would have meant jobs for the local community. It would also have meant more business for local suppliers of everything from food to tablecloths.
With such a long list of potential benefits, who would want to stand in the way?
What makes smart politicians? Jeffrey Frankel has an idea. His recent blog examines the allure, and trap, of universal subsidies. For one thing, they know that pulling the plug on bad policies should be done sooner rather than later. The same can be said of other policies related to investment and labor legislation. Economic democracy is a great thing. However, beware of misguided routes to achieving it.
- Egypt, Arab Republic of
- Iran, Islamic Republic of
- Saudi Arabia
- Syrian Arab Republic
- United Arab Emirates
- West Bank and Gaza
- Yemen, Republic of
- Middle East and North Africa
- Global Economy
- Labor and Social Protection
- Public Sector and Governance
Seven countries in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region --Egypt, Tunisia, Iran, Lebanon, Jordan, Yemen and Libya (MENA 7)--are facing similar economic problems: i) volatile growth that has remained significantly below potential; ii) limited fiscal space resulting from rising budget deficits, public debt and declining foreign reserves that have reduced savings available for public and private investment; and iii) a weak private sector that is far from becoming a driver of growth and creator of jobs.
Unemployment rates in Egypt, Iran, Jordan, Lebanon, Libya, Tunisia and Yemen (the MENA 7) have remained stubbornly high, particularly among youth (15–24 years) with an average rate of 22 percent for young males and 39 percent for young females. Some estimates show that the youth unemployment rate is as high as 40 percent in Tunisia and even higher in the inland governorates