The end of the twentieth century was a tumultuous period for much of the world. Many countries were experiencing economic turmoil, and many hard-won gains in health and social indicators were stagnant or backsliding. Traditional models of humanitarian aid, through financial assistance or direct transfer of goods like food, were proving insufficient. Development initiatives were fragmented, overlapping in some sectors but completely ignored in others. It was clear that to tackle the problems of the coming decades, a more focused global development agenda was necessary.
Millennium and Sustainable Development Goals
In 2000, a United Nations (UN) summit introduced eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), targeting the most challenging global issues, including eradicating extreme hunger, achieving universal primary education, and reducing child and maternal mortality. The novelty of the MDGs was twofold: coalescing around a series of specific goals worldwide and developing quantitative measures to assess progress in each country. The summit also set a deadline to meet the goals by 2015. While the MDGs were launched with great fanfare, the weaknesses in the agenda became apparent quickly. Insufficient attention was paid to challenging issues like human rights, governance, and equity, with the chosen indicators reflecting outcomes seen as “politically palatable.” Importantly, the measures themselves did not reflect population dynamics or each country’s starting point. Additionally, the measures reflected only baseline achievements—for example, focusing on expanding primary education but essentially ignoring secondary and tertiary education or its quality—and discounting the needs of moderately developed countries.
The middle- and high-income countries performed relatively well on some measures, such as expanding education and improving health indicators.
Progress in the Arab world was varied, due in large part to the diversity of the region itself. The middle- and high-income countries performed relatively well on some measures, such as expanding education and improving health indicators. Yet, the countries in greatest need of development were left behind and, in some cases, indicators worsened over the MDG period. Development aid to the countries in the region differed significantly, historically focused on Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, Palestine, Sudan, and Yemen, while meaningful economic and political reform did not occur. Many of the countries throughout the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) did not even have consistent data on most measures for most years. Ultimately, the region did not meet many of the MDG targets, especially in conflict-affected nations and rural areas and because of instability in the aftermath of the Arab Spring.
The successor to the MDGs, for the years 2015-2030, were the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) which had to meet a high standard: learn from the lessons of the MDGs to face the ever-growing challenges of modern times. The SDGs are more comprehensive—seventeen goals instead of eight—and cover not only issues of poverty, hunger, health, and education, but also energy, employment, inequalities, sustainability, climate, and peace and justice. Countries that were economically developed and may have easily met some of the MDGs were now forced to be judged according to a more holistic measure. The least developed and most fragile states would now have even greater challenges to overcome. These tensions are playing out throughout the Arab region today, and specifically with the disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. The United Nations recognizes that there are three intertwined dimensions to sustainable development: economic, social, and environmental. How will the Arab states fare in this global pursuit for sustainable development?
What Kind of Development?
The MENA region has made significant strides in development since the early-to-middle part of the twentieth century when many of the states were established in the aftermath of world wars and regional tensions. Economic, educational, and health indicators greatly improved; life expectancy, for example, increased more in the Arab world from the period of 1970-2010 than any other region. The Human Development Index, a measure compiled from life expectancy, average and expected years of schooling, and gross national income, increased by 65 percent in Arab states in that same time period. It is undeniable that for most MENA residents, many aspects of life have improved significantly.
The Sustainable Development Goals take a more universal approach to development, rather than these standard indicators that measure only baseline successes.
The SDGs, however, take a more universal approach to development, rather than these standard indicators that measure only baseline successes. According to HDI measures, the Gulf Arab states rank high, indicating high levels of development. Yet few of them are on their way to achieving most of the SDGs. The lower-income states of the wider region fare even worse. Broadly speaking, sustainable development is that which “meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” In the MENA region, however, a cursory look at some of the goals presents worrying signs.
Many of the SDGs, from clean water and good sanitation to quality education, are deeply related to levels of poverty and economic advancement across the region. The first goal aims to eradicate poverty by 2030, obviously a priority. Prior to COVID-19, many MENA states were making some strides on reducing poverty and much of the world was succeeding in reducing extreme poverty (defined by the World Bank as living on less than $1.90 per person per day). In MENA, however, extreme poverty nearly doubled from 2015 to 2018, to 7.2 percent. Although MENA reported fewer COVID-19-related cases and deaths than most other regions, the economic fallout has been significant, from reduction in remittances (on which the region depends heavily) to closures of borders which limited movement of goods and people. For most of the region, it is certain that poverty will only increase as a result of the pandemic.
Recent analysis indicates that the Middle East is the most unequal region in the world. While an aggregate 56 percent of national incomes goes to the top 10 percent, the bottom half of the population of the region receives only 12 percent.
Although the pandemic’s impact is ongoing, the wealthy Gulf states, Jordan, and Morocco have reported the best economic outcomes. Yet, sustainable development goal 10—reducing inequality—has not been met both within and between countries. Recent analysis indicates that the Middle East is the most unequal region in the world. While an aggregate 56 percent of national incomes goes to the top 10 percent, the bottom half of the population of the region receives only 12 percent. Interestingly, the Gulf states are the most unequal. The region also has the world’s highest rate of youth unemployment, especially for women, and more than half of the world’s refugees. This does not bode well for the future potential of building economic equality in the region and, to date, there have been insufficient state efforts to address these dire conditions.
One of the primary criticisms of the Millennium Development Goals was their lack of consideration of peace, governance, and human rights issues. SDG 16 aims to address some of these concerns by calling for peaceful and inclusive societies, justice for all, and accountable and inclusive institutions. There are disastrous wars in Palestine, Syria, Yemen, and Iraq, significant state fragility in Lebanon, Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, and Sudan, authoritarianism throughout the region, a significant role for disruptive non-state actors, and prevailing injustice, corruption, and little accountability. These factors have precipitated a high dependence on humanitarian aid that can mitigate the worst of outcomes; but it does little to build long-term capacity within states and often overtly avoids requiring fundamental political and economic reform. Protracted regional strife has been a consistent source of lagging progress on development, including many of the SDGs promoting economic growth, health, education, water, and food security. MENA is also backsliding on issues of inclusivity, access to justice, and building effective institutions that help sustainable development.
Protracted regional strife has been a consistent source of lagging progress on development, including many of the SDGs promoting economic growth, health, education, water, and food security.
Aside from conflict and instability, the subjugation of women is a significant barrier to development in Arab states. SDG 5 calls to end all forms of discrimination against women and girls. MENA’s record is abysmal on many measures of gender equality, including mobility, workplace rights and pay, rights within a marriage, and ability to accrue assets. This is a primary area where a state that would be considered developed by traditional measures falters by SDG requirements. For example, the United Arab Emirates, home to the world-class city of Dubai, only recently passed laws that ended a woman’s obligation to obey her husband. Women play an outsized role in ensuring food security, children’s education, and many other factors considered by the SDGs. While many Arab states are making some slow progress on advancing women’s rights, it is an insufficient pace to achieve the SDGs by 2030.
Climate change poses an existential threat to populations around the world. The MENA region, already a mostly hot and arid environment, faces an even higher burden than most others. With a top-level goal of sustainability, it is not surprising that many of the SDGs reflect targets related to the environment, like affordable and clean energy, sustainable cities, responsible consumption, climate action, and the wellbeing of life under water and on land. As with reducing poverty, development across sectors depends on success with preserving the environment in the region.
Climate crises in MENA will increase poverty, hunger, and conflict, worsen health conditions, and likely lead to cascading negative effects in every SDG indicator.
Climate crises—which are almost certain to occur in coming decades if no significant reform is undertaken—will increase poverty, hunger, and conflict, worsen health conditions, and likely lead to cascading negative effects in every SDG indicator. Already, no MENA state is performing well on achieving zero hunger (SDG 2). This will become an even greater challenge when more natural disasters disrupt food supply chains or degrade arable land, reductions in precipitation decrease crop yields, and increased poverty reduces household purchasing power. Indeed, these challenges should be a high priority for Arab states for sustaining not just their environment, but the health and wellbeing of their societies.
The Potential of Success by 2030
Unfortunately, the prognosis for widespread attainment of the SDGs in MENA is quite bleak. As of early 2020, with data collected prior to the pandemic, MENA was performing poorly across the board, with few exceptions (including reducing infant mortality and increasing internet availability). If conflict and injustice persist and the needs of the youth—the largest population segment—are ignored, we are unlikely to see significant improvements by 2030.
This is not to say that many states across MENA are not making efforts to achieve the SDGs. Many Arab nations have taken steps to incorporate sustainable development in their national plans, yet action takes place by and within systems that are often corrupt and concerned with economic growth at the expense of human rights and equity. Arab states are making efforts to increase use of renewable energy, for example, but these efforts seem to be bolstered by necessity and the interests of investors, rather than a broad commitment to environmental justice. The purpose of the SDGs was to take a wide-ranging look at how a society functions. The current leaders of MENA states, many unelected and slated to be in power throughout the SDG period, are not known for sacrificing power and achievement today for a better society tomorrow. This reality is what has led many Arab states to their current limited development outcomes and is likely to stymie meaningful efforts to achieve the SDGs.
MENA is a very diverse region that makes sweeping prescriptive recommendations to achieve sustainable development goals difficult. There are some factors that are clearly underappreciated by all Arab states. A genuine commitment to human rights and equality is a baseline requirement to meaningful reform; yet it is seemingly the least likely to be prioritized. As a result, most advances in development will be superficial and thus not reflective of the principles of sustainable development. There is still nearly a decade left until the end of the SDG period in 2030 and the beginning of what will likely be another development agenda. Without a willingness to invest in solutions for the problems of the future, development in MENA, with its high levels of population growth, is in fact unsustainable.
* Photo credit: Flickr/Travel Aficionado