Sima Bahous: Towards sustainable human development in the Arab region: Progress, challenges, and the world we want

Mar 3, 2013

Remarks of Dr. Sima Bahous, Assistant Secretary-General, Assistant Administrator and Director of Regional Bureau for Arab States, United Nations Development Programme

Columbia University, Middle East Research Center
Amman, Jordan

I am very pleased to be here in Amman for this regional workshop on “Post-2015 Development Priorities for the Arab World.”

My thanks go to Her Majesty Queen Rania Al Abdullah of Jordan for her Patronage and with sharing Her perspective on the topics we will discuss today and the importance of the Post-2015 process for the Arab region.  Her Majesty’s support is a testament to Her long-standing commitment to advance sustainable human development here in Jordan, in the Arab region and around the world.

I also thank the United Nations Foundation and the King Abdullah II Fund for Development for hosting the workshop, in collaboration with the Columbia University Middle East Research Center and the Jordan University Center for Strategic Studies.

I am also grateful to be here with Dr. Omar Razzaz, who has done so much to contribute to the understanding of development in Jordan and around the Arab region, as well as Susan Meyers and Amina Mohammed, who are playing leading roles in bringing the international community towards a reinvigorated and transformational global agenda.

It is a pleasure to be with partners from civil society, the private sector, research institutes and academia here today. I know that you will have much to contribute to the shaping of the future development agenda in this region. Your active engagement in the Post-2015 Agenda will be vital if it is to be as inspiring and relevant as we know it can be.

The aim of this Workshop is to share experiences on progress across the region on the MDGs and on the priorities for the road ahead in the Arab region. The Post-2015 process is our effort to dream of a better future, it is inspiring and I am happy to be a part of it with you.

Our discussions today will be reflected in a Report which will be submitted to the Secretary-General’s High Level Panel of Eminent Persons on the Post-2015 Development Agenda. This is an excellent opportunity to contribute our views to the global discussion. Our proceedings can also complement and inform the national and regional consultations being undertaken here in Jordan and around the region.

The UN is currently supporting national consultations in Algeria, Djibouti, Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, Morocco, Sudan, Yemen, and right here in Jordan. We aim to support even more than these nine. We are also undertaking important regional consultations, including one in Beirut in less than two weeks and one hosted in Amman in mid-April.

It is fitting that we are holding this consultation here in Jordan, a country that is doing much to shape the new development agenda. Our UN Country Team here has already facilitated a number of events for the Post-2015 national consultations, bringing to light, in an inclusive and transparent approach, people’s views on priority issues, like quality education, youth employment opportunities, protection of the environment, inequalities.

Over 1,300 people have been directly involved so far, and as many are expected to join by the end of March. Nearly 5,000 have engaged in the discussion on social media. They represent youth, civil society, the private sector, media professionals and government. Their feedback has been encouraging: there is enthusiasm, great interest in participating and a high sense of ownership. Their messages are already being gathered and are feeding into the global discussion, and I am pleased that today and tomorrow we will be able to add a regional perspective to this important insight.

[Many of you will be very familiar with the background of the MDGs. In 2000, leaders of the world community set forth a shared vision for development based on the fundamental values of freedom, equality, solidarity, tolerance, respect for nature and shared responsibility, in the form of the Millennium Declaration adopted by the UN General Assembly. It was an ambitious vision for a better future through advances on rights, development and peace.

The MDGs were created as a framework for making that vision a reality, and have since provided concrete milestones for global and national development efforts, setting goals and targets for making real improvements in people’s lives by the overall target date of 2015.

The MDGs provided a unifying vision for policymakers, development experts, and civil society. Their clarity brought a range of actors together around a common cause.

The MDG framework also represented an important step forward in shaping new thinking on development since they went beyond an emphasis on economic growth alone, and drew attention to the multiple dimensions of development. 

At the same time, however, some of the MDGs core strengths have also been perceived as weaknesses.

The focus on only a few goals caused certain development dimensions to be undervalued. Certainly the MDGs did not adequately address many issues which matter to people in the Arab region, such as productive employ­ment, inequalities, peace and security, governance, the rule of law and human rights. Neither did the MDG framework account for vulnerability to natural hazards and other external shocks, which have caused setbacks in MDG achievement.

Furthermore, the emphasis on global targets did not allow for thorough consideration of national circumstances and differences in initial conditions. This has led in some cases to perceptions of failure even as substantial progress had been made. Nonetheless, the MDGs have provided a global rallying point and have left a positive mark on the world. And as we move towards 2015 we have a tremendous opportunity to take both the strengths and the weaknesses of the MDGs into account as we build a new, elevant and inspiring framework.]

Progress in the Arab Region

The Arab region has achieved progress in many MDG areas,   including significant strides in health, education, and access to sanitation. However gains have been uneven. Much less progress has been made on tremendously important goals, including poverty reduction, maternal mortality, and access to improved water sources.

Progress has varied, with setbacks such as insufficient investment, and global economic disruption hindering national efforts to achieve development objectives.

Moreover, the Arab region is characterized by sharp disparities between the different sub-regions, particularly between the High-Income Countries, the Middle Income Countries and the Least Developed Countries.

Conflict, instability and occupation have also taken their toll, impeding progress in many parts of the region, and rolling back hard-won gains where they have been made.

Considering the mixed progress of the Arab region, our foremost commitment at present must be to continue to invest in achieving the MDGs. That’s why around the region we are working with national partners to make as much progress as possible by 2015.

Transitioning to Post-2015

As we move towards 2015 we must build upon our achievements within the MDG framework while also coming to terms with new challenges.

In our region the food, fuel, financial, and economic crises have shown how difficult it can be to make rapid gains on many fronts of development, and how fragile gains can be.

We have seen the tremendous importance of environmental sustainability, with climate change leading to increasing droughts and floods, forcing unplanned migration to already-strained cities and eroding livelihoods in rural areas. 

We have seen clearly that where there is no peace, where there is no security, and where there is no social cohesion,  there is little prospect for making the advances needed to achieve sustainable human development. Solutions for peace and security are fundamental for the transformational change we seek.

And we have seen the emergence of a cohort of youth different than any generation before. Youth who are plugged into the world, demand a better future, and are ready and willing to advocate for the change they want.

In this region we have felt many of these forces come together in different combinations, reinforcing one another and culminating in a watershed moment over the last two years, an unmistakable signal across the region that new approaches are needed—now more than ever.

In this sense I would suggest that we see the Post-2015 framework not only as the next stage of implementing the vision of the Millennium Declaration, but also as an excellent opportunity for the Arab countries to define a roadmap through our most pressing challenges and towards our most cherished opportunities.

With this said, I will share a few reflections on the specific themes which will be discussed today and tomorrow. The agenda is highly relevant and timely. The five issues presented are of great importance for this region and will surely feature prominently in the Post-2015 Agenda.

I am pleased to see that education and skills is on our programme. Education is the foundation of human development. We have made incredible progress on education in recent decades. Several countries are close to universal enrolment and have achieved a net enrolment rate above 95 per cent.  But LDCs are lagging behind, and the backlog of illiteracy from earlier generations is proving stubborn across the region.

As education has expanded however we have become increasingly aware that quality is unsatisfactory. Participants in national consultations in the region have indicated clearly that there is a need for improved curricula, and for what is learned in school to be much more applicable to the labor market. Indeed, a Post-2015 consultation in Egypt highlighted an unfortunate regional truth: that the more educated a person is in the Arab world, the more likely he or she is to be unemployed.

However the labor market functions not only on the basis of supply, but also on the basis of demand. Job creation depends on sustainable growth, and this linkage between sustainable growth and employment is the topic of our second session.

Growth has been higher in the Arab region than in some others, but it has been tremendously volatile and has left national economies and communities vulnerable to shocks.

Job creation has been insufficient. In a Post-2015 consultation workshop last December, a young Jordanian told us that “Seeking a job is an arduous journey into the impossible.”

That young person is not alone in this view. Indeed the region has both the lowest labor force participation rate, including for women, and the highest rate of unemployment. The time has come for us to measure economic performance not only in terms of GDP, but in terms of how many decent jobs are created, and how many opportunities people have to be productive, and economically secure. More supportive laws and tax policies are needed, and more investment in youth entrepreneurship and microfinance is an imperative. More space must be opened for the private sector to create good jobs and drive development.

This afternoon we will discuss the important issue of inequalities. Inequality has often been thought of as purely an economic phenomenon. And it is true that all across our region we see large economic disparities.

But one of the lessons we have learned over the course of MDGs implementation is that inequalities in income are connected to gaps in access to education, to health services, to decent housing, and to opportunities to participate in political life.

Moreover, often these disadvantages are reinforced by discrimination based on gender, which I will turn to in one second, and also discrimination based on such aspects as cultural background, faith, location of residence, or disability. And in many Arab countries disparities between urban and rural areas are stark. Redressing such inequalities will be essential if opportunities for progress are to be shared in our region by those most in need of its benefits.

While at the global level much of the consultation on gender is sometimes tucked within the inequalities framework, I am pleased that in our consultation we will discuss women’s empowerment as a stand-alone topic.

Achieving progress towards development targets very much depends on enhancements of women’s empowerment and gender equality.  But in our region discrimination against women is seen in every dimension of the development experience. This discrimination is detrimental to women, but it is also damaging to men, to girls and boys, to families, to communities and to society as a whole. The obligation to address and tackle gender inequalities must be front and center in the new development framework if the region is to achieve its potential.

Tomorrow we will turn to an important cross-cutting issue, the issue of governance and freedom. For long at UNDP we have emphasized that governance plays a critical role in broader human development.  It is a fundamental human right for people to be able to participate in the shaping of the decisions that affect their lives. And experience with the Millennium Development Goals has shown that, in many cases, sustained progress towards development targets has been underpinned by good governance and by political participation, and hampered by their absence.

While our position that governance is essential to human development has not always been popular in the region, recent events in the Arab World make clear that this basic truth can no longer be avoided.

As the session title suggests, our consideration of governance must be connected to the concept of freedom. I suggest that in our context we recognize that our notion of freedom is broad. It is not only as the ability of people to make their own decisions, but also of freedom from oppression, freedom from violence and conflict, freedom from occupation, and freedom from injustice of all kinds.

Having considered these five issues the group will come together to consider priorities for the future in the region. I am pleased that this session will be informed by the results of the My World Surveys taken offline by the group as well as feedback from the region to the online My World Survey. It will be interesting to compare the results, and then to carry the discussion forward in future events.

As you reflect on priorities I would only urge that we recall that so many development challenges are interconnected. Progress on education can strengthen the economy. Progress on the environment can lead to gains in health. And progress on women’s empowerment directly results in advances across the board.

And I would like to suggest that we keep in mind the principles of sustainable human development.  In the Post-2015 Agenda human development and sustainable development must be two sides of the same coin.

I hope we will also consider the specificities of the Arab region, the particular challenges we face and the priorities we hold dear.  The world has never been more positively interested in this region, and I believe that the Post-2015 process is an excellent opportunity for us to share what we have learned and shape the global agenda on behalf of the region and peoples around the world who face similar challenges.

I would further suggest that we consider the Post-2015 Agenda as in a sense the next stage of the implementation of the noble vision of the Millennium Declaration. We should approach our deliberations with the core principles of that vision in mind. As UNDP Administrator Helen Clark has put it, the MDGs taught us to aim high and think big – the Post-2015 process allows us the opportunity to aim higher and think bigger.

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