Challenges in the Arab States

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Fighting poverty in the occupied Palestinian territory

Human and income poverty in the Arab region reflect a convergence of political, social, economic, gender-based and environmental exclusion.

Weak social, political and administrative accountability mechanisms and politically-oriented socio-economic planning models have resulted in the neglect of large parts of the Arab population – inequality and exclusion were at the heart of the uprisings that many Arab countries have witnessed since December 2010.

The proportion of people living on less than $1.25 a day fell from 6%in 1990s to 4%in 2000s, remarkably lower than other developing regions (with an average of 24%). GDP per capita varies from a high of 77,987 in Qatar to 980 in Comoros. 

However, the magnitude of poverty and the ranking of the Arab region changes considerably with higher poverty lines. In 2008, based on the $1.25 line, the region has almost the same headcount poverty rate of the far richer Latin America & Caribbean region, yet based on the $2.75 line its poverty rate is double of that of Latin America& the Caribbean. 

High unemployment rates prevail. Despite the region’s oil wealth, states have not succeeded in increasing human wellbeing. Agriculture, the primary occupation in rural inhabitants (40% of the Arab population) accounts for only 7% of the Arab GDP and employs only 26% of its work force. 

Arab countries have made steady progress over 40 years in income, education and healthcare as measured by the Human Development Index (HDI). Oman, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco are all among the top 10 HDI performers, while Libya was among the leading 10 countries in non-income HDI achievement since 1970.

This is predictable, given the extremely low starting values for all three components of HDI and the large investments in social services undertaken by many Arab governments since the 1970s. However, the rate of progress on human development slowed down noticeably since 1990.

Moreover, the overall HDI shows marked divergence in patterns of human development among Arab countries, with the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, and Bahrain all ranking in the top quarter of countries while Sudan, Djibouti and Yemen are among the lowest. 

Gender inequality across the region is prevalent. Maternal mortality rates are high when compared to other regions with similar incomes. Statistics show that only 23% of Arab women participate in the labor force, half the average for developing nations. Because of a prevalent male-centric culture in many Arab societies, many women experience limited roles outside the home.

According to the Gender Inequality Index (GII), a summary index measuring labour force and political participation, educational achievement and reproductive rights, Yemen ranks as the world’s most unequal country, while Saudi Arabia and Sudan perform among the least equitable nations from a gender perspective.   At the other end of the scale, the United Arab Emirates leads the region’s gender equality due to health and educational factors, followed by Bahrain and Tunisia.

Sustainable use of environmental resources remains a major long-term challenge, specifically with respect to water. In most Arab countries, the per capita share of renewable water resources falls below the international water poverty line and continues to decline. Increasing drought prevalence due to climate change further exasperates water scarcity.

Food security is also becoming an increasing problem. Yet, with innovative approaches to resource management and organization, Arab states can combine their financial, technical and environmental assets to devise effective solutions. Policymakers have discussed the possibility of establishing a regional funding mechanism for such purposes. Sudan for example, is a country that could be invested in to grow large amounts of food because of its wealth in water and land resources.

Several countries in the region are in a state of political transition, facing the challenge of forming new, accountable governments that reflect popular aspirations. The development of Arab civil society organizations that are capable of serving as champions for social justice is of particular importance in that vein.

How we address these challenges

UNDP works with national and international partners in order to contribute to the eradication of extreme poverty and the substantial reduction of overall poverty. Our collaboration with national and local authorities in many countries of the region gives priority to the following activities:

  • developing and implementing national poverty reduction strategies;
  • conducting poverty assessments and cross-country comparisons to build actionable awareness of the status and dynamics of poverty;
  • assessing progress towards the Millennium Development Goals;
  • developing specific socio-economic policies aimed at enhancing pro-poor strategies for human development;
  • strengthening institutional capacities in poverty analysis and pro-poor policy formulation capacities;
  • advocacy, communication and Knowledge networking and sharing of good practices in poverty reduction;
  • technical assistance and capacity support to promote and expand private sector ventures; and
  • strengthening capacities of civil society organizations to contribute effectively to development, strengthening participatory governance, and fostering inclusive participation and national ownership.

Facts & figures

  • With assistance from UNDP and other UN agencies, almost all 22 Arab states have produced at least one MDGs National Report. The total number of national MDGs reports produced in the region is around 40 reports. In addition to monitoring progress, these reports analysed what is needed and recommended specific policies, strategies and plans to achieve the MDGS.
  • Over the past 10 years, more than 10 regional reports were issued: five Arab Human Development report (2002, 2003, 2004, 2005 and 2009), three MDG s progress reports and two reports on development challenges. These reports have highlighted the root causes and the deep drivers of development challenges in the region, and outlined a vision for the fulfilment of human development through the full enjoyment of freedom as the cornerstone of good governance, access to quality education and knowledge, empowerment of women, human security, and pro-poor and employment-led inclusive growth and equity.
  • The joint League of Arab States-UNDP report on Development Challenges in the Arab Region, concentrating on poverty, unemployment and food sovereignty was endorsed by Arab Heads of State and Government in their first Economic, Social and Development Summit in Kuwait in 2009.


The 3rd Arab MDGs Report for 2010

According to the Third Arab Report on the MDGs (AMDGR)  for 2010, the Arab region continues to be characterized by sharp disparities between the different sub-regions, particularly between the high-income countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and the Least Developed Countries (LDCs).

Development Challenges for the Arab States 2009

The report highlights six key interrelated challenges facing the region, including: institutional reform; job creation; the promotion and financing of pro-poor growth; the reform of educational systems, economic diversification, and increased food security and self-sufficiency within existing environmental constraints.

Arab Human Development Report 2009

Arab Human Development Reports (AHDRs) engage institutions and citizens in the Arab countries in global concerns so as to build understanding and consensus around regional and national development priorities.