Arab world needs broad governance reform | Mohammad Pournik

03 Jan 2013

 Libyan students at Tripoli University attend the first ever United Nations human rights workshop. UN Photo/Iason Foounten

High unemployment and inequality fuelled Arab Spring uprisings that began in 2010, but the Arab world needs broad governance reform to achieve sustainable, equitable growth. Ousting dictators alone isn’t enough. People want bread, but they also want social justice and freedom.

Experts at the UNDP Regional Center in Cairo reached that conclusion after lengthy study, culminating in the Arab Development Challenges Report that has now been launched in capitals around the world. 

Having spent nearly three decades in the field, I believe this is indeed the case—governance and rule of law are essential to the sustainable, inclusive development the Arab world so acutely needs.

In Egypt, the problem wasn’t simply political exclusion--it was political and economic exclusion. Reform will succeed only when it addresses both.

Unemployment remains a critical challenge, but reliably measuring joblessness is difficult in countries without unemployment insurance and a system of registering for it.

Enormous challenges such as food security, water scarcity, and management of natural resource also remain. Arab states must invest better in managing water resources and improving irrigation and agricultural productivity and devise incentives for investment in renewable energy.

Governance failures helped create this situation: Here we see institutions that perpetuate themselves, corrosive constituencies for social justice and no meaningful labor unions or employers’ associations. But this model has run its course and can no longer buy social peace. Citizens are asserting a central role, and the state and the market must respond.

We need a new development vision and a new social contract, an inclusive political system and capable, accountable state and competitive, transparent markets.

After 30 years with UNDP, I retire soon with much hope for real transformation in the Arab region. After many years in which I found myself dealing with politicians and bureaucrats who paid lip service to development but were interested only in safeguarding their privileges, I will never forget attending a meeting of Tunisian officials in March 2011, where one after another spoke of the need for a genuine reappraisal of policies and listened attentively to youth demands for change.

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