Clark: After the Arab spring, toward political and economic inclusion

22 Jun 2011

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Speech by Helen Clark
“After the Arab Spring: Toward Political & Economic Inclusion in the Arab World”
At the Academy for Educational Development
Washington, D.C.
22 June 2011

My thanks go to Ambassador Chamberlin and the Middle East Institute for co-hosting this event with UNDP today focusing on events in the Arab States region.

Nearly ten years ago, UNDP began commissioning Arab Human Development Reports. The first four Reports drew attention to deficits in freedoms and governance, in education and the production and use of knowledge, and in women’s empowerment in the region.

The most recent report, in 2009, highlighted widespread challenges in the area of human security, including the high rates of youth unemployment throughout the region. 

In recent months, the Arab Human Development Reports have been taken off the shelves again, dusted off, and quoted widely around the world. The credit for them, and for the salience of their findings, must go to the authors. They were writing and speaking from within the region, and not to the region from afar. 

While covering different topics in depth, the central message of the reports has been clear – that in the interests of human development in the broad sense, change was needed in the region.

Those who have filled the streets and squares of the Arab States at great personal risk in recent months have called for that change to take place now.

They have braved batons and bullets to express their deep desire for dignity, opportunity, and the protection of their human rights.

They have called for a meaningful say in the decisions which shape their lives, and for an end to corruption, injustice, and repression.

A number of factors have contributed to the groundswell of anger against both economic and political exclusion and the denial of basic freedoms.

First, times became even tougher for many people in the region as growth rates declined with the global recession. As it was, even before the recession, according to the 2009 Arab Human Development Report the proportion of those in the Arab States living on under $2 a day is estimated to have declined only from about 22.5 per cent in 1990 to a little over twenty per cent in 2005, the most recent year for which this data is available.

In Egypt, the World Bank estimates that around nineteen per cent of people lived under $2 per day in 2005. Using a  $3 a day poverty line, over fifty per cent of the population was poor. By this measure, around half of all Egyptians are particularly vulnerable to any income or price shocks – as there have been with the recession and with food and fuel price volatility. In a number of other countries in the region people suffer from similar vulnerabilities.

Unemployment has been a major challenge in the region, especially for young people. The under-25s make up over fifty per cent of the population, and they suffer rates of unemployment which are nearly twice the global average for youth.

There is also a mismatch between the supply of university graduates and the type of jobs available in this region.  In Egypt, over twenty five per cent of young people with university degrees are unemployed. In Tunisia, that figure stands at around forty per cent.

It’s also worth noting that the unemployment rate counts only those in the job market – not those who are out of work but not job seekers.  According to the ILO, Arab labour markets have the lowest labour force participation rates in the world. The female participation rate is especially low, at 27 per cent.

Many developed societies have also been deeply shaken by the global recession, food and fuel price volatility, and high rates of unemployment.

But the impacts tend to be cushioned there by social protection systems, and democracy has its own built-in safety valves for expression of discontent and for peaceful transfers of power.

In countries in the Arab States region with significant numbers of people under or close to the breadline, with large youth populations, without the democratic safety valve, and in many cases with outright repression of human rights, resentment boiled over into uprisings aimed at systemic change. That now opens up the prospect of building more inclusive economies, societies, and political systems and guaranteeing basic rights previously denied.

In order for the reform processes now underway to succeed and be sustainable, they have to be led and driven by national actors. Yet the international community can support the process. Let me mention some of the ways in which UNDP is doing just that.

A core part of our mandate is to support countries’ efforts to build democratic governance. In that work, we draw on the wide experience we have gained from our experience around the world, and the fact that we are a trusted partner and able to work in sensitive areas.  

While in Cairo recently, I took part, together with the Egyptian Prime Minister, in an event UNDP organized for a broad cross-section of Egyptians and others from the region. The aim was to share experiences with those who had helped lead transitions to democracy in other parts of the world, including Latin America, South Africa, and Indonesia.

Beyond that event, we are supporting the formal multi-party national dialogue process in Egypt, and helping to identify ways to encourage young people to participate in the processes which will shape the future of this nation.
 
We are mobilising support for the development of the human rights architecture, anti-corruption mechanisms, and the decentralisation and local governance agendas.  We are fielding experts to provide advice on asset recovery and security sector reform.
 
In Tunisia, UNDP is giving support to the new electoral commission and to the development of political parties.  Work is also being done to help develop policy options for a strategy against corruption; to support an inclusive national dialogue; and to help strengthen civil society, including by supporting work on the new NGO regulatory framework. UNDP has also been asked to assist with security sector reform.

In all this work, I do believe it is essential to protect the rights of women and girls, to ensure that their voices too are heard, and that they are represented at the decision making tables.

We know, however, that building democratic governance alone is not enough. It has to be supplemented by supporting more inclusive economic growth which will reach young people and marginalized groups in general.

While longer term strategies are put in place, quick-win job creation is needed – an area in which UNDP has experience which can be drawn on by policymakers.
 
In Egypt, UNDP has been promoting job creation through small- and medium-sized enterprises and micro-credit schemes.  We are also helping to design a public works programme to address short-term economic recovery challenges.
 
In Tunisia, we are designing coaching programmes for young people, and supporting labour intensive public works in a province whose economy has been badly affected by the Libyan crisis.

Country by country in the region, we are reviewing our programmes so that we can respond effectively to changing circumstances. 

The full outcome of the events unfolding in the region is as yet unknown. Where regimes have fallen and transitions are under way, hopes are riding high, but there will be bumps along the way. Rapid transitions bring not only new opportunities, but also new lines of division and tension. The decline in economic growth in countries undergoing transitions has also created more hardship.

In conclusion, we have seen the success of popular movements in forcing political change in key Arab States.

That now needs to be followed by the difficult and detailed work of building more inclusive societies, economies, and governance systems.

That will take perseverance, patience, and partnerships, but it  is essential if the legitimate aspirations of those who have already brought about change and those who continue to struggle for it are to be met.

Leadership
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Helen Clark became the Administrator of the United Nations Development Programme on 17 April 2009, and is the first woman to lead the organization. She is also the Chair of the United Nations Development Group, a committee consisting of the heads of all UN funds, programmes and departments working on development issues.