Jul 29th 2012

Sustainable Economic Development: Central To The Durability Of Political Reforms In Arab States

by Alon Ben-Meir

A noted journalist and author, Dr. Alon Ben-Meir is professor of international relations and Middle East studies at the Center for Global Affairs at New York University. Ben-Meir holds a masters degree in philosophy and a doctorate in international relations from Oxford University. His exceptional knowledge and insight, the result of more than 20 years of direct involvement in foreign affairs, with a focus on the Middle East, has allowed Dr. Ben-Meir to offer a uniquely invaluable perspective on the nature of world terrorism, conflict resolution and international negotiations. Fluent in Arabic and Hebrew, Ben-Meir's frequent travels to the Middle East and meetings with highly placed officials and academics in many Middle Eastern countries including Egypt, Israel, Jordan, the Palestinian territories, Syria and Turkey provide him with an exceptionally nuanced level of awareness and insight into the developments surrounding breaking news. Ben-Meir often articulates

There is a pressing need in the Arab states, especially the countries with nascent democratic restructuring such as Egypt, Tunisia and Libya, to adopt sustainable development projects in parallel to, and concurrent with, political reforms in order for the latter to endure and develop further. Indeed, the rush to hold elections in these countries that faced popular uprisings will continue to experience political instability not only because they have never developed a culture of democracy but also because the public wants more than the right to vote. These newly formed governments must find the means, especially through sustainable development projects, to provide the public with their basic needs or they will soon face another upheaval, no matter how committed these governments remain to political reforms.

The root causes of the many regional uprisings stem primarily from the deprivation and economic inequalities suffered by the majority of Middle East populations. Historically, Arab governments tended to favor state-run development projects and exercise near-to-complete control of their economies which exacerbated socioeconomic inequalities and created a new class of enriched elites, many of whom benefitted from the largesse of autocratic regimes (Syria and Libya being good examples of this). When these countries moved from the socialist economic model to engagement in the liberalization and privatization of their economies, the neoliberal processes did not lead to sustainable and egalitarian development that could serve as a new source of legitimacy for the regime or enhance its stability.

Though the overturning of despotic regimes in Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt can be counted as tangible successes, the reality is that vast numbers of youth in these countries (and throughout the Middle East) remain despondent. They want food, health care, education, and the opportunity to grow and prosper with dignity. If peaceful and orderly transitions are to be the reality, there must be an immediate concurrent undertaking of sustainable economic development projects. Such projects may include the farming of produce and animals including poultry, the planting of fruit trees, building irrigation systems, the reclamation of wasteland and scores of other projects. The great benefit in engaging in sustainable development is that small communities are empowered to collectively decide on projects of their choice from which they can benefit, while the principles of democratic culture are simultaneously fostered through the need for majority consensus about any project that the community decides to adopt. Moreover, such projects require limited capital and employ less-sophisticated technologies without the need for a continuous infusion of money or new technologies before these projects develop a strong financial base.

Sustainable economic development invariably creates wealth both for the communities, which adopt such projects, and for the state treasury, which can generate more income through increased tax revenues, which in turn can be used toward improving the social safety net and the overall health of the economy. Moreover, given that these projects are community-orientated and designed to create local wealth, providing block loans or financial assistance directly to the state, however large, will not serve a broader (or moral) societal purpose. In giving money directly to communities, however, governmental agencies such as the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) could go a long way in financing thousands of community projects from the bottom-up. Such an approach makes it possible to locally enhance education, achieve better health care and develop the necessary infrastructure that allows for the expansion and sale of the product or produce that the community has created.

In addition to international organizations, domestic non-governmental organizations (NGOs) can play an integral part in ensuring the success of the sustainable development model. Due to the participatory principles that formed them, NGOs have a greater commitment toward democratic processes while enlisting people’s ideas and material contributions for developmental interventions without threatening the government. The goals of local communities organized by NGOs reflect local interests more than government-driven initiatives. The resources NGOs procure locally or through international donors to help marshal development include a mix of educational, technical, and material support. The United States, for instance, could dramatically expand the Peace Corps from its current total of around 10,000 to well over 100,000 and increase its financial aid, which proportionately pales in comparison to France or the United Kingdom.

When communities choose their own projects based on their immediate needs through collective decision-making (based on advice and consent), the basis of democracy is developed. Morocco’s post-protest approach, for example, to, “wed [democracy and development] together so that each is advanced by way of the other,” can serve a good model for reform (albeit still on a small scale). Morocco’s stated goal of decentralization emphasizes the “participatory method,” a democratic approach applied by local communities to assess their development challenges and opportunities, and create and implement action plans that reflect their shared priorities.

Apart from Morocco, Israel has had notable success in the area of sustainable development. TheKibbutz and Moshav movements, for instance, sought to base their development on collectivity and self-reliance. Before the formation of the State of Israel, the early Jewish settlers overcame poverty through community development and methods of settlement. Notwithstanding the hostilities between Israel and many of the Arab states, Israel’s eminent success in sustainable development offers a model that can be emulated by most underdeveloped and developing Arab states.

In contrast to states that have experimented with sustainable development, others in the Middle East region, notably the Gulf States such as Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, had to “buy” their populations off with generous handouts in order to pacify them in an effort to quell the region’s revolutionary trend from knocking down their doors. By doing so, the concentration of power is left in the hands of the government and the political status and financial dependence remains unaffected. Indeed, sustainable development could theoretically pose a threat to the existing governance, as it directly empowers people to work within their own communities and take control over issues that affect their daily lives. That said, those Arab countries that have not experienced a social uprising (the Arab Spring) as of yet can avoid being swept up by the revolutionary fervor if preference is given to sustainable development rather than resorting to “handouts” to stultify their populations which offer only a transient respite.

The uprising in Egypt, following Libya’s revolution and Tunisia’s “Jasmine Revolution”, opened a new chapter of change in the Arab world. For the long-entrenched Arab regimes to avoid the same fate as the regimes in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Syria, they must heed the powerful message being expressed on the streets throughout the region. Some Arab tyrants, such as Assad of Syria, may temporarily succeed in subduing popular resistance but it will take tremendous violence to achieve that. Realizing the inevitability of change, however, Arab governments should now rethink their approach by adopting gradual and political reforms that must be accompanied with sustainable participatory development projects including, if not especially, the countries that have already gone through the revolutionary process. In doing so, and as long as the public is clear and trusts their governments’ commitment in this regard, these governments can avoid potential new upheaval, as the Arab Spring is not a passing phenomenon. Indeed, no Arab government should engage in wishful thinking as the Arab youth have finally been awakened to a reality that they are no longer willing to accept, however long the struggle may take.

In the final analysis, the democratic dividends that can be reaped from the Arab Spring will be squandered unless accompanied by sustainable development projects. By following this path, local communities will be empowered through decentralization and consensus-building while fostering durable democratic principles with sustainable economic growth.

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