The Daily Star

Arab Spring

Four years ago, I addressed the Mediterranean Commission on Sustainable Development in Montenegro, to present an Arab perspective on regional priorities. This was at the onset of the Arab uprisings that started in December 2010. At that time, we hoped that what was referred to as the “Arab Spring” would usher in a new direction for economic and environmental sustainability. However, the prospects for both were not good at the time. And today the situation is gloomy at best, and in many instances nearer to chaos.

It was hoped that the expected political reforms would put an end to administrative corruption as well as the mismanagement of natural resources. More representative governments were expected to bring stronger political will to the sustainable management of environmental resources, through effective public policy, whereby people whose lives are most impacted by these concerns and the civil society would have more say in shaping political decisions. Hence we expected that better governance, in general, would have spillover effects on environmental governance. Inequality, oppression and poverty are at the core of environmental destruction. As part of the transformation, it was hoped that civil society would become freer and more effective.

The fact is that, four years later, the region is in overall turmoil. But does this mean that people should give up the drive for change? Last month I heard a head of an Arab state warning, as guest speaker at a regional conference, that “change is not destruction.” The audience cheered, especially that the words rhyme in Arabic (taghyeer and tadmeer) and the public often likes rhetoric. However, I felt that the comment, as true as it was, might have also concealed a hidden agenda to justify oppression. I wished that, if not for the protocol requirements, I could tell him then and there that sustainability cannot depend on a choice between change and freedom, with chaos on one side and stability with suppression on the other. We cannot win a “war on terror” if we fail to wage a determined war on poverty, oppression and injustice.

The Mediterranean Strategy for Sustainable Development is being debated under conditions of uncertainty and instability in the south-eastern part of the Mediterranean basin. Draft documents clearly reveal that the main challenge is that of governance. For in the absence of good governance, any ad-hoc programs will be wasted; even growth, if achieved, will be short-lived and cannot produce sustainable development.

Four objectives were set in 2005 for the Mediterranean Strategy, which were to contribute to economic development, the reduction of social disparities, as well as change in unsustainable production and consumption patterns and improved governance. Seven priority areas were selected: water, energy, mobility, tourism, agriculture and rural development, urban planning, sea and coastal areas. After many meetings and extensive review exercises, it is obvious that the priorities set 10 years ago as a regional response to the global sustainable development agenda, remain the same today. The main outcome of the review was regrouping sectors in clusters, and adding climate change as a crosscutting area.

We knew all along what the problems were; we didn’t agree on how to solve them. In the debate we concluded that a green economy needs to be deployed as an implementation tool to achieve sustainable development in all the priority sectors.

The outlook from the Arab region, which shares 6,000 kilometers of the Mediterranean coast, is not different regarding the necessity of transitioning to a green economy. Arab countries have adopted aggressive economic growth models, but in doing so have gravely undermined progress on social and environmental issues. The ensuing forms of poverty, unemployment, food and water security threats, and environmental degradation continue to plague Arab economies. These shortfalls are not necessarily borne out of natural limitations. Rather, they are the outcomes of policy choices.

The shortcomings in the performance of Arab economies have also significantly contributed to deteriorating social conditions. The persistent poverty and unemployment have led to social marginalization, which is further compounded by income disparities. The aggregate impacts of these shortfalls have caused social and political instability. Demands for change across Arab countries reveal that the mounting economic, social and environmental strains and the resultant implications on livelihood security have become unsustainable.

Successive reports of the Arab Forum for Environment and Development advocated a development model rooted in a green economy. AFED has argued that balancing economic development, social equity and environmental sustainability provides a sound foundation for addressing the shortcomings of Arab economies, from curbing poverty and unemployment, to attaining food, water and energy security, to achieving more equitable forms of income distribution. Moreover, a green economy places great emphasis on the efficient use and deployment of natural assets to diversify the economy, which in turn provides immunity against the volatilities and recessionary pressures of the global economy.

The systemic strains caused by Arab development models can be understood by examining indicators across a range of dimensions. Poverty continues to afflict 65 million people in Arab countries. Economic insecurity is further aggravated by disturbingly high unemployment rates of up to 15 percent for the general population, reaching 30 percent among the youth. Sharp disparities still exist among Arab countries, and in many cases high growth figures conceal deterioration in regenerative natural capital.

An AFED report on Ecological Footprint, produced jointly with the Global Footprint Network, revealed that the deficit between ecological footprint and biocapacity in the Arab region is 50 percent. This casts doubt on the ability of Arab economies to create the 50 million new jobs projected to be required by 2020 to accommodate new entrants into the work labor force, while keeping current unemployment rates the same.

Arab development strategies continue to be dominated by investments in extractive commodity products earmarked for export markets. Despite generating high GDP growth, this model leaves Arab economies more vulnerable to global market volatilities, while failing to significantly create jobs. The lack of income diversification is a primary cause of the structural weakness of Arab economies.

Making the transition to a green economy will require a fundamental review and redesign of public policies to stimulate shifts in production, consumption, purchasing and investment patterns.

Arab governments need to prioritize agricultural rural development as a strategic policy objective to alleviate rural poverty and reverse years of neglect. Policy shifts in the water sector must begin with the introduction of institutional and legal reforms that affect water use, regulation, and governance. Arab states need to concentrate on policies that control and regulate water access, promote irrigation and water use efficiency, which stand at less than 50 percent.

Sustained investments in energy efficiency and in renewable energy sources are also needed, through a mix of regulatory standards and economic incentives. A reduction in the average annual per capita consumption of electricity in Arab countries to the world average, through energy efficiency measures, would generate electricity consumption savings that are estimated in monetary terms to reach $73 billion annually. A 25 percent reduction in energy subsidies would free some $100 billion over a three-year period, an amount that can be shifted to finance the conversion to green energy sources.

To create healthy and economically competitive urban communities that offer a high quality of living for their inhabitants, governments need to adopt zoning regulations and mixed-use development. Spending $100 billion in greening 20 percent of the existing building stock in Arab countries over the next 10 years is expected to create 4 million jobs.

In Arab countries today, mainstream economic planning is still anchored in short-term GDP growth and quick fixes, while disregarding the underlying causes of poverty, inequality, unemployment and environmental degradation. As such, growth often fails to produce sustainable progress.

A response anchored in a transition to a green economy is the obvious choice. The region does not have to choose between economic development, social equality or healthy ecosystems. By design, the green economy seeks to achieve economic, social and environmental policy goals.

The transition to green development is not a one-time event that can be achieved by a single high-level decision. Rather, it must be viewed as a long and demanding process guided both by top-down policy prescription as well as bottom-up public participation. This approach gives transition the political and social legitimacy needed to ensure wide-scale mobilization of efforts to make it a reality. Good governance is the basic requirement to achieve this, and that’s where the thrust of Mediterranean development cooperation should be directed.

Najib Saab is secretary-general of the Arab Forum for Environment & Development. This commentary is based on his keynote address at the United Nations Environment Program conference on Feb. 17 inMalta to review the Mediterranean Strategy for Sustainable Development. He can be contacted at nsaab@afedonline.org.