The Arab transition countries, Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, and Libya, are grappling with complex issues relating to personal values, the extent of freedom of speech, individual rights, family matters, that all orbit around deep issues of identity and the respective roles of the individual, the state and society. These social conversations are constructive in that they reflect a rich pluralism of views in societies where conformity was the rule under dictatorship. But unfortunately, these dialogues are polarizing society, leading to violence and threatening chaos and a possible return to authoritarianism. In fact, the current social polarization to a large extent reflects attempts by political entrepreneurs to use existing social fault lines, and even exacerbate them, in ways that mobilize passions among possible supporters, driven to over-reach by the political vacuum created by the departure of the historical autocrats. The dynamics in Morocco, Jordan, Algeria, and Lebanon are slightly different, but here too, the intense and exclusive focus on identity is crowding out more important and immediate social and economic challenges.
It started with the first cries of “degage” that resonated across southern and central Tunisia to the streets of the capital in the winter of 2010. Through the ups and downs of Tunisia’s transition, one constant has been the citizens’ demand that the government listen to their voices and for greater accountability. Public opinion polls, banned under the former dictatorship but common today, rarely touch on bread and butter issues, such as how citizens feel about the most basic public services. One such issue is access to and the quality of health care, where systematic feedback from citizens has long been lacking.
Let’s face it. If we are ever going to successfully address the worldwide youth unemployment crisis, we need to act together — as a global community. That’s why last year, with the publication of Opportunity for Action, Microsoft and the International Youth Foundation called on leaders in the public, private, youth, and civil society sectors to join a “collective, massive and global” effort to expand job and livelihood opportunities for today’s youth.
Since then, there’s been a real sense of momentum on the issue, particularly among high-level policymakers. Just last week, the World Bank sponsored a lively roundtable discussion the day before its Annual Meetings in Washington, D.C. that echoed the urgent call for collective action around youth unemployment. Speaking to a packed hall filled with finance ministers, private sector executives, and development experts from around the world, the panelists at the “Boosting Shared Prosperity by Getting to Youth Employment Solutions” event offered concrete examples of practical and sustainable solutions to the current crisis. Yet the conversation kept returning to the need to act together to have real impact.
Tunisia has traditionally been perceived as a paragon of good practices in logistics in the MENA region. According to the Logistic Performance Index 2012, Tunisia is the best performer within the MENA region with a score of 3.17 over 5 (after U.A.E and Saudi Arabia) when Egypt scored at 2.98, Morocco 3.03 and Algeria 2.41. Tunisia also performs better than the regional benchmark countries in the trading-across-borders ranking of the Doing Business indicator. Tunisia is ranked 40th, far before Turkey (67th rank), Morocco (72nd rank) and Algeria (122nd rank).
At the same time, many importers in Tunisia complain about the inefficiency of Radès, the main Tunisian port, corruption in customs, and so on-- apparently with good reasons: dwell time, which is a good proxy for logistics efficiency, is benchmarked at around 3-4 days in middle income countries, whereas in Radès dwell time is officially around 6 days and more than 9 days according to the recent Tunisia investment climate assessment (with high dispersion), making it comparable to Mombasa in Kenya and much worse than a port like Durban in South Africa.
The numbers are staggering. Almost one third of the populations of Algeria and Morocco are under the age of 15, with Tunisia following close behind. This ‘youth bulge’ is placing immense pressure on the education systems of the Maghreb.
The Middle East and North Africa region is on the front lines of climate change. According to the World Bank report Turn Down the Heat: Why a 4 ͦ C Warmer World Must be Avoided (WB, 2012), the region is steadily getting hotter and drier. Of the 19 countries that set new national temperature highs in 2010, the warmest year globally since records were first kept in the 1800s, five were Arab states.
This week’s mass demonstrations in Egypt and assassination of an opposition leader in Tunisia -- not to mention the continuing conflict in Syria -- highlight the turmoil and uncertainty facing many countries in the Middle East and North Africa.To track the effects of these and other developments on the economy, the MENA Quarterly Economic Brief provides a real-time review, using high-frequency data, of five countries that are at risk of sluggish economic growth in 2013.
Peer learning has great potential as an effective tool for sharing knowledge and good practice. For it to work, the right environment is needed; one that is conducive to learning and knowledge-sharing. In a recent case in Georgia, however, it all came down to the right crowd, a great host and relevant experiences. Good food and nice weather may also have helped some.
Is the World Bank working with Non-Governmental Organizations to address high rates of unemployment in Tunisia? I remember this question clearly. It was asked by an NGO advocate during a recent workshop on public works in the Tunisian capital, Tunis. The World Bank team I was with had just finished highlighting the importance of developing public private partnerships for the delivery of employment services when the question was posed.