Stability in the Maghreb

Sunday 30/10/2016

First, the good news: Extreme poverty, or the inci­dence of people living on less than $1.90 a day, is falling across the Maghreb. The bad news is that income inequality stubbornly persists in Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia and Libya.
This rather takes the shine off the good news, a point the World Bank makes in its Taking on Inequal­ity report. The greatest threat to the world is inequality, it says, warning that hard-won development gains such as child survival, primary school enrolment, poverty reduction and human well-being could regress.
“More equal countries tend to have healthier people, be more economically efficient, and have greater social stability than highly unequal countries,” says the report, the first in an annual series on Poverty and Shared Prosperity.
The Maghreb in 2016 illustrates the subtext of that statement all too well. Inequality, and more importantly the perception of it, can assuredly accelerate social instability. The feeling of unfair deprivation and marginalisation can end in violent resentment of the status quo. This would cause political volatility and radicali­sation, which are hardly conducive to economic growth.
Poverty rates are “unlikely to change while economic growth is slow” and for as long as “some regions left less developed than others”, notes the World Bank.
Sadly, youth unemployment is a fact of life in Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia and Libya. In all four countries, it hovers around the 30% mark and is even higher for young women, probably the highest level in the world.
The situation in Libya, where official statistics have not been compiled for years, is particularly dire. The United Nations recently estimated that as many as 435,000 Libyans could be clas­sified as displaced, about 1.3 million as food insecure and 2.4 million need some form of humanitarian assistance.
Without jobs, young people in Libya and the rest of North Africa are drawn to illicit activities, extremism and illegal migra­tion.
Restoring peace and stability in Libya will have a positive ripple effect in the rest of the Maghreb, especially in Tunisia, long hailed by the world as the Middle East and North Africa region’s best hope of democratic transition but still facing many socio-economic challenges.
From 2013 to 2016, the proportion of Tunisians living in extreme poverty has stayed constant, the World Bank says. “Moderate poverty”, which is to say, people who live on less than $3.10 a day, has declined slightly but unemployment remains high — among youth, of course, while regional disparities and other factors of discontent demand to be heard.
There is no easy way forward but, at the very least, Europe, which shares part of the Mediterranean Sea with the Maghreb, must be more engaged. It will have a chance at the end of Novem­ber when Tunisia has an international investment conference. Perhaps the key point about tackling inequality is that all stake­holders must assume responsibility.
For the sake of stability and growth, the Maghreb needs to provide more economic opportunity to its young people, “whose energy and creativity can be an engine of growth”, as emphasised by the report.
The Maghreb has to do its bit and the world must help.