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Some scary numbers to ponder

Mar 30,2017 - Last updated at Mar 30,2017

Few people in the Arab world or abroad will take seriously the regular Arab summit of heads of state in Jordan this week, which is a tragedy for all concerned.

Pan-Arab action could have generated worldwide respect for the views and policies of sovereign Arab states, and could have improved the lives of hundreds of millions of men, women and children across our region, who now gravitate steadily towards lives of chronic vulnerability and suffering.

These two positive trends broadly did happen in the initial half-century of Arab independence and modern statehood, between the 1920s and 1970s, when total Arab population grew from 60 million to 150 million people.

That trajectory reversed itself over the past 50 years, as Arab sovereignty, self-determination and independence have all frayed visibly at the edges, while the living conditions and future well-being of the 400 million Arabs today have deteriorated steadily for at least half the population.

One reason for this is that Arab leaders have become more distant from their own citizens. They rarely, if ever, feel the daily pain and discomfort that ordinary families experience when electricity is cut off for six or ten hours a day, fresh water taps emit saline water from over-exploited aquifers, or children aged 8 or 12 come home from school reporting that they have graduated to the next class, while testing results show that almost half of these same students effectively cannot read, write or do basic maths.

Arab summitry has always had an element of pageantry, usually with sincere intentions. Yet the problem remains — even worsens every year, as Syria, Libya, Bahrain, Yemen, Iraq, Egypt, Palestine and Somalia remind us daily — that pageantry and sincerity are not acceptable substitutes for responsible policymaking and genuine, structural improvements in people’s living conditions.

The following few numbers reflect realities in our Arab region and should spark some lively discussions among heads of states and their officials in charge of national development policies.

Arab families living in “hardship” or “in need” in 2016 amounted to 78 per cent, according to the Arab Opinion Index survey by the Doha Centre for Research and Policy Studies.

The unemployment rate in the Arab world, 20 per cent, is the highest in the entire world, and it has not budged much in decades.

Youth unemployment, also the highest in the world, stands at 30 per cent; 22 per cent is the female labour force participation in the Arab world, which is the lowest in the world.

Ninety-five per cent is the percentage of start-ups in the Arab world that, five years later, remain small start-ups or closed, mainly due to the stranglehold on the economy by larger, older companies that enjoyed monopoly and are connected with political elites.

The average rate of absenteeism of doctors in public sector clinics is 32 per cent in Egypt, 27 per cent in Morocco and 37 per cent in Yemen, because they were making more money running their private clinics during their working hours.

Similar absenteeism patterns hold for many public school teachers, who make more money tutoring students after class instead of teaching them in class.

The real GDP growth rate of the entire Arab region in 2014 was 0.9 per cent, and 1.6 per cent and 6.4 per cent were the rate of contraction of Maghreb economies in 2015 and 2014, signalling that most Arab family-level indicators (job opportunities, income, social services, etc.) will continue to decline because economic growth is well below population growth.

The average percentage of primary students in school who do not meet basic learning levels is 56 per cent (from 33 per cent of children in Bahrain to 91 per cent of children in Yemen).

The average rate of lower secondary school students who do not meet basic learning levels is 48 per cent (from 26 per cent in Lebanon and the United Arab Emirates to nearly two-thirds of students in Morocco).

Forty per cent is a rough estimate of the labour force in Arab countries engaged in the informal sector, without meaningful legal protections, social safety nets or future prospects.

These are the realities that define perhaps half the total Arab population’s stressful lives, maybe as many as 200 million people, while the other half gets along comfortably.

 

This should be the first item of action on any agenda of discussion for Arab leaders, because it is how just leaders govern and also because it may be the most serious security threat they will ever face.

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