Building from the ashes: MENA’s future beyond conflict
Tunis- War has become the new normal for millions of people throughout the Middle East and North Africa. For years, conflicts in Syria, Libya, Iraq and Yemen have ground on relentlessly. The Red Cross reported that nearly half of all global civilian deaths from 2010- 15 occurred in Syria, Iraq or Yemen. Libya’s refineries burn and the undocumented migrants who leave its shores by the thousands drown.
However, following the fall of Mosul, the rout of jihadist militants from Benghazi and the advance of both peace talks and armies in Syria, it is at least possible to take stock of the havoc wreaked by war and attempt to conceive of a future beyond conflict.
Abdullah Dardari, deputy executive secretary of the UN Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA), last year said: “It is never too early to start planning for reconstruction. In fact, I think it is already too late.”
“Wars will end. Countries will have to be rebuilt. People will have to live. Schools will have to be reconstructed… Life will resume,” Dardari said.
In the meantime, the human and financial cost of war continues to mount. Any individual cessation of conflict is no guarantor of lasting peace. A study by Uppsala Conflict Data Programme said that since the second world war, the average time between wars within the MENA region was less than ten years.
The work that lies ahead is daunting.
“The war in Syria is tearing apart the social and economic fabric of the country,” World Bank Vice-President for the Middle East and North Africa Hafez Ghanem wrote in the preface to a recent report on the cost of the conflict. “The number of casualties is devastating but the war is also destroying the institutions and systems that societies need to function and repairing them will be a greater challenge than rebuilding infrastructure — a challenge that will only grow as the war continues.”
The report said Syria’s six bloody years of conflict have cost its economy $226 billion. Even assuming a relatively high annual growth rate of 4.5%, it would take Syria 20 years to regain its pre-conflict 2010 GDP level. Syria has, in seven years, gone from being a middle-income country to a place where six out of ten civilians live in extreme poverty.
In 2016, a confidential report by the World Bank, the United Nations, the Islamic Development Bank and the European Union estimated the total cost of war to the Yemeni economy was more than $14 billion. That report said: “The conflict has so far resulted in damage costs (still partial and incomplete) of almost $7 billion and economic losses (in nominal terms) of over $7.3 billion in relation to production and service delivery.”
A separate World Bank report stated that more than 80% of the country’s population — 20 million out of 24 million people — are considered poor, an increase of 30% since April 2015, when fighting escalated. The cost of reversing that damage is almost incalculable.
In Baghdad, reconstruction costs are expected to run to the trillions of dollars. In December 2016, the World Bank approved a $1.485 billion package to support reforms and improve public service delivery and transparency, stimulate private sector growth and support job creation. Despite this, Iraq faces an overwhelming humanitarian crisis with 10 million people — more than one-quarter of the population — estimated to be in need of assistance, of which 3.4 million are internally displaced people and 240,000 refugees.
In the Maghreb, the loss of Libya’s oil output and economic activity has been devastating. From 2013- 16, the Tripoli based National Oil Consortium estimated that Libya had lost more than $68 billion in potential oil revenues. The cost of restoring the country’s infrastructure was estimated by the group at $200 billion over the next ten years.
Adding the cost of bringing those countries to where they were before conflict are opportunities lost. In 2010, Syria had achieved a generally lower middle-class income. Expectations that this would become an upper middle-class average income by 2025 seem farcical.
Compounding this is the future human cost of MENA’s internecine conflicts and the generation of young people who have rarely if ever attended school or who have never known their parents.
For the legions of the dead, no reconstruction will truly be possible.