The UN General Assembly debate and the Arab world
The 193 nations that agreed during the UN General Assembly to adopt a road map for achieving sustainable development set a very ambitious goal: the elimination of global poverty and inequality over the next 15 years at a cost of $3 trillion per year.
But the high cost is not the only challenge to achieving the plan’s goals. Any sustainable development in the Middle East and North Africa will depend more than anything else on extinguishing the fires of war and vanquishing the scourge of terrorism.
Unfortunately, the unpredictable consequences of Russian and Iranian interventions in Syria and Iraq may further complicate those nations’ crises and render achieving peace and stability all the more difficult.
While the world was not watching, the situation in many “Arab spring” countries was deteriorating. In his UN speech, US President Barack Obama criticised the passivity of the international community — including the United States — as the situation in Libya unravelled after 2011.
Debate at the United Nations, as inside the European Union, focused a great deal on the refugee problem. Lebanon and Jordan, understandably, tried to draw attention to the disproportionate burden they have borne since millions of refugees started flowing out of Syria. Jordanian Foreign Minister Imad Najib Fakhoury told the United Nations that his country’s efforts in hosting refugees are comparable to the United States absorbing 64 million more people or the European Union 100 million.
But the refugee problem only became a “crisis” and got the world’s attention when thousands of refugees started crossing to Europe. “Unfortunately, only when the poor enter the halls of the rich do the rich notice that the poor exist,” said UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres.
As tragic as the crises in Syria and Iraq are, the situation in many other parts of the Arab world are even more dire. In Yemen, the misery of the poor — the vast majority of Yemenis — is getting worse and international humanitarian agencies warn of starvation.
International neglect and continuing Israeli intransigence risk escalating the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. The World Bank just published a report warning about the explosive situation in Gaza and the West Bank. “Palestinians are getting poorer for the third year in a row,” said the report, pointing out that 25% of Palestinians live below the poverty level. Unemployment is 42% in Gaza and 16% in the West Bank.
With population growing and gross domestic product per capita shrinking, the Palestinians have to deal with draconian Israeli restrictions and declining donor support.
“The status quo is not sustainable and downside risks of further conflict and social unrest are high,” warned the World Bank.
A durable and just settlement of the conflict is needed more than ever. It is short-sighted on the part of the Israeli government to think of peace with the Palestinians as something it can avoid or postpone indefinitely, considering the turmoil the region is going though.
The UN debate sadly revealed another fact: The international humanitarian system is increasingly impotent in the face of proliferating crises. UN humanitarian chief Stephen O’Brien described the system as “broke”. Even after the G7 group of leading economies, European countries and Arab Gulf states pledged $1.8 billion in funding to meet the needs of refugee crisis, many feel that is not enough. Self-help may be the only path open to the Arab world as it braces, unfortunately, for more instability.