Learning the lessons of years past

Friday 06/11/2015

A recent edition of the World Bank’s MENA Economic Monitor sheds light on the roots and prospects of instability in the Arab world.
The report, entitled Inequality, Uprisings and Conflict in the Arab World, dispels the notion that the turmoil that has plagued the region since 2010 was the result of deteriorating standard development indicators. On the contrary, the MENA region had been making progress in eliminating poverty and boosting prosperity.
According to the report, a major factor driving the instability was instead the dissatisfaction and frustration people felt about their lives despite such progress. The middle classes, in particular, were unhappy about a decline in the standard of living, the dearth of quality jobs and the deterioration in the quality of public services and government accountability. A related factor was widespread pessimism about the future. “Average life satisfaction” was shown to be low in countries such as Syria, the Palestinian territories, Lebanon and Libya. Not surprisingly, “happiness levels were higher in the [Gulf Cooperation Council] countries”, the report found.
The report notes that since the 2011 uprisings, the situation has deteriorated as decades of development were lost and “uprisings morphed into civil wars” in some countries. The loss in economic output in the countries suffering from civil war is dramatic and disturbing:
According to the World Bank, the cumulative loss of real gross domestic product (GDP) in Libya and Syria was 35% and 55%, respectively, between 2013 and 2015. The statistics for Yemen are likely even worse. In the Levant alone, according to the World Bank report, war and terror cost at least $35 billion from 2011 through 2014.
The immediate lessons of the report are obvious. In many MENA countries, then and in recent months, people took to the streets because of deep dissatisfaction with public services and quality of life, even as overall development indicators were improving. The problem is that improvement of life conditions was happening at a pace well below the expectations of increasingly demanding populations. This discrepancy could be a cause of further instabil­ity down the road, especially since many are increasingly sceptical of politicians’ motivations and are therefore unwilling to wait out their problems or participate in public life.
Compounding the already-difficult situation, the World Bank report warns that “within MENA the incidence of people who think that it is morally justified to resort to extreme violence and target civilians is on the rise”, especially among young people.
The risk of wide-scale violence, the report notes, is higher when grievances are spun along sectarian and ethnic lines.
Many of the lessons of the World Bank report seem obvious but they remain unheeded. The socio-economic consequences of recent years of turmoil have been immeasurable. Worse still, there is unfortunately no shortage of political actors in the MENA region who are tempted to channel grievances towards ethnic and sectarian conflicts.
If this process continues, an already disastrous situation will be pushed further to the brink. And no one stands to gain.