A new joint report by the United Nations Development Programme and the Arab League – issued ahead of the September 2010 international gathering to mark the tenth anniversary of the Millennium [poverty-reduction] Goals – does not reflect well on the Arab world.
The region is singled out for the incredibly high degree of poverty between the 25 Arab countries and Palestinian occupied territories. In an Arab world of 358million, 140million live in poverty. That’s 40% of Arabs.
Poverty levels vary from one nation to the next, but even oil-rich countries like Saudi Arabia have high percentages of their population living below the poverty line. Egypt, the most Arab populous country with 80million people, records a poverty level of 40% – defined as living on less than $2 a day.
More depressingly, the report noted that “there has been no decrease in the rates of poverty in the Arab region over the past 20 years.” Caveat: the face of poverty has changed in the region. Extreme forms of poverty has been greatly reduced in many nations. Nonetheless, the percentage has not changed, but this is in larger measure due to the high level of population growth. Many people move out of poverty, but many are also born into poverty as birth rates remain high in the region.
Either way, the statics are unfortunate. Besides the high rate of poverty, youth unemployment is the highest in the world.
The percentage of youth unemployed “is more than 50 percent for most Arab countries,” the report stated. The region will need to create 51million jobs – which would be a miraculous feat – over the next 10 years not even to reduce unemployment but just to maintain current levels and “preventing its increase.”
Again, a high Arab birth rate is partly at fault for such facts. The region’s population will add roughly 75million people by 2025. But high birth rates only exacerbate the situation and are not the cause. Productive societies can easily absorb such growth and they would be a blessing for the economy.
But no Arab country can be pointed to as a model of production. Oil aside, Arab nations export less than Belgium. R&D and patent filing are sorely lacking. This is a shame on the Arabs (only the Palestinians are excused given what Israel has done and continues to do to them) that they have fallen so far behind and live in societies where economic prospects will only worsen in the next years if radical change does not take place. Youth employment is already so high, it is unimaginable that 51million jobs will be created in just 10 years. So unemployment will raise and that is a tinder box ready to go off. But that is the blessing. Arabs need major overhaul.
They need to finally usher in democratic, rule-of-law, and free-market economies that will produce the wealth sorely needed. Arab states have remained stagnant under authoritarian regimes that have crushed critical thinking and driven out the best brains. The Mubrakas, the Sauds, the Ben Alis et al are to blame for the decline of the Arabs.
A new renaissance will only come once a new order is in place.