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Will the Middle East Remain Habitable?

Will the Middle East Remain Habitable?

Michael Young discusses in an interview with Olivia Lazard the political impact of environmental degradation in the region. It is about whether the Middle East Remain Habitable?

Will the Middle East Remain Habitable?

  • November 19, 2020

Olivia Lazard is a visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe. Her research focuses on the geopolitics of climate, the transition ushered by climate change and the risks of conflict and fragility associated with climate change and environmental collapse. Lazard has over twelve years of experience in the peacemaking sector at field and policy levels. With an original specialization in the political economy of conflicts, she has worked for various non-governmental organizations, the United Nations, the European Union, and donor states in the Middle East, Latin America, Sub-Saharan and North Africa, and parts of Asia. In her fieldwork, her focus was on understanding how globalization and the international political economy shaped patterns of violence and vulnerability. Diwan interviewed her in mid-November to examine how environmental issues are impacting the Middle East.

Michael Young: Climate change has been largely ignored by regimes and even societies in the Middle East, yet it is affecting them in fundamental ways. Can you outline some of the major effects of climate change and tell us why we in the region should pay attention.

Olivia Lazard: Climate change has been ignored the world over because we fail to understand that our governance and economic systems are exhausting nature’s capacity to function, and therefore to sustain us and other species. The challenge ahead is difficult to apprehend. It is not just a matter of energy transition; it is a matter of profound political and socioeconomic transformation. It is about disrupting the status quo. So it is easy to understand why this is not welcomed by autocratic regimes who may stand to lose grip on power, or by democratic societies where coordinated action can be even more complex. Even as certain parts of the world, such as Europe, move closer to a climate transition, we are still at the very early stages of a long journey toward the profound transformations that we are going to need in order to genuinely address the drivers of climate change and, more broadly, ecological disintegration that threaten our ability to survive as a species on this planet.

So, I agree with you that regimes in the Middle East ignore climate change, because they rarely like to talk about transformative change. But I wouldn’t say that the societies ignore climate change per se. In fact, I think it is fair to say that the Arab Spring was a climate-disrupted appetizer that upended the world’s understanding of the region, but also of the links between societal and environmental shocks. Arab societies were actually precursors in ringing the alarm bells on a combination of events that lead to disruption and protracted sociopolitical conflicts: drought, monoculture failings, speculation over staple goods leading to market failures, and worsening social disenfranchisement with no safety net in sight. Increasing temperatures, erratic weather patterns, the unreliability of rainfall, protracted drought, and increasing reliance on chemical inputs to grow crops were all the long-term backstory to these issues back in 2011, which few analysts picked up on. The biophysical factors that characterize climate change were already at play.

MY: How were the Arab uprisings climate-disrupted appetizers, as you’ve said?

OL: This is a side of the story that still doesn’t get told very often when we examine the Arab Spring and its aftermath, so let me dwell a bit on it by looking at Tunisia. In Tunisia, landscapes across the country are ecological deserts—export-oriented monocultures as far as the eye can see. It makes them very vulnerable to climate and economic shocks. Two years ago, I was traveling across the country and I could see that, between the touristy coast where inequalities could not be starker and the extractives regions of the south, decades-long agricultural and economic policies had turned a country which used to be fertile into a bare piece of rock and dust.

Today, a decade after the start of the Arab Spring, you have a country where unemployment is still soaring, where youths find no meaning or economic opportunities outside of the informal economy, where urban centers of the hinterland are boiling with anger and frustration, and where the free movement of people is extremely constricted from one governorate to another. Look around in a place such as Sidi Bouzid, and you either see depressing concrete in town or depressing desert as far as the eye can see. There is no life, there are no prospects. Both the land and the economy have come to a standstill. So people feel stuck. Local cultures have lost their vibrancy and intergenerational divides are growing wider. In this bare and inert environment, drug consumption, domestic violence, and radicalization are rising.

The land is actually the canvas of terrible policies that have favored extraction and predatory politics over resilient social fabrics, culture, and vibrant economies. And the problem is that climate change exacerbates problems that are already present. In Sidi Bouzid in 2010, the spark was Mohammed Bouazizi’s self-immolation. But his story was yet another reminder of problems running deeper and taking root in environmental exploitation, abuse of hard security at the expense of social and human security, enduring economic inequalities, poor governance, and rising violence. It is striking to see how national and international responses to these problems are missing out on the environmental story as a backdrop to social and economic violence. They just do not focus on it.

The picture that I am trying to paint here is one of interconnectedness between the environment and human security, which has always existed but that we really have only started noticing more as a result of climate disruption. Climate change will have two consequences—to exacerbate and disrupt. The Middle East knows this well. The history of landscapes in the region is one of abundance that cradled human civilization. But mismanagement of resources led to natural exhaustion and cycles of violence for centuries. Today, the region is in an advanced stage of desertification, with fewer and fewer resources to support human populations. The environmental degradation is coupled with an atmospheric accelerating force resulting in extreme natural shocks—floods, devastating droughts, and resulting fires. Unsurprisingly, the Middle East concentrates yet again all the ingredients that mark the history of our times.

Where human security is weakened by predatory and hard security-oriented regimes, economies tend to be more extractive toward nature. But nature can no longer sustain extraction. Resources are not just running lower—such as water or land fertility—they are also more erratic. The Middle East is now replete with foretellers of climate catastrophes—massive floods in the Arabian Peninsula, fires in the Levant, and drought everywhere.

These disasters are mostly showing one thing, namely that people have no safety nets to rely upon from their governance systems. There is no preparedness, no relief capacity. This means, once again, that Middle Eastern populations are left to struggle for their own dignity, or karama, the key word during the Arab Spring. It may well become a refrain of disruptions to come related to climate shocks.

Still, some regimes in the Middle East are talking about climate change. I am thinking particularly of the United Arab Emirates, but they do so in a “business as usual” way. They aim to demonstrate that economic power and technological innovation are a way to face the crisis. This is not going to work. Governance and socioeconomic systems need to be rethought in terms of their relationship with nature. We also have to look a lot more in the direction of nature-based solutions in order to navigate the unfolding disaster.

MY: There has been an argument that the Syrian uprising was caused by the drought between 2007 and 2010. Your thoughts?

OL: Without a doubt the drought played a role in the multidimensional uprising in Syria. But the drought itself has a story. It began in 2007 and became protracted over the years. Rainfall patterns were becoming more erratic. This was the result of two things: global warming resulting from excess carbon dioxide accumulation in the atmosphere and changes in landscapes at the local level. Apart from the coastline, over time Syrian land was denuded of natural vegetation, which is responsible for stocking water underground and pumping it into the atmosphere.

In addition to breaking the ecological integrity of the land (which regulates local climates), there were other things that created additional stress for the agricultural capacity in the area of Dar‘a and elsewhere. The Assad regime relied on two main crops for export—wheat and cotton—both of which are highly water intensive. So, atmospheric conditions were not providing rain, and on top of it there were agricultural incentives, such as subsidies, pushing unsustainable ground water consumption. In parallel, the liberalization of the economy led to hikes in diesel prices which farmers could not afford. The crops eventually failed, collapsing an already fragile economy and pushing people into acute food insecurity and economic vulnerability, which they were left to navigate mostly by themselves.

What followed was a mass movement from rural to urban zones, as well as a boom in the informal economy, which is often accompanied by abuse and insecurity for all members of a family household. This is an extremely violent process of the disintegration of livelihoods and security that spirals out of control. In those cities to which people moved, the population influx led to unsustainable water consumption, which created tensions between “old” and “new” communities. The land was impossibly stretched, and the state only concentrated on containing a bubbling situation by unleashing the security forces. Populations were squeezed between scarcity and violence. No wonder communities revolted. So, again, this is a story of exacerbation and disruption.

I was in Syria in 2009, and I remember then that all the communities with which I spoke accepted President Bashar al-Assad as the “devil they knew.” They knew that the equilibrium between the central state, the clans, and the various communities was precarious, but it was an equilibrium to which they could adhere for lack of a better alternative. When mass displacement, impoverishment, and violence started increasing, this equilibrium was upset. The state reacted in a such a way that it broke irremediably the multiple contracts that Assad had with various constituencies.

When you look through the lens of the environment, you can actually retrace the story of peoples, economic policies, and governance structures. Ask any elder in the Middle East what the land was like 60–70 years ago, and they will spend hours telling you stories about fruits and vegetables tasting better, people being more resilient, and communities being more intertwined. The state of the land is usually a reflection of socioeconomic situations—either of resilience or destitution. With increasing liberalization over the last decades, especially through structural adjustments, there have been inequalities and social dislocation. In the Middle East, governance structures are highly centralized and informally organized according to ancestral cultural and identity groups. The mix between the two has led to politics of group benefits and zero-sum games. In modern economies, that means that land and other natural resources are mostly integrated in an economic trickle-up model in which resources accrue to a few at the expense of social and natural public goods.

Climate change is a systems-disruptive force. It will upset old equilibriums to which authoritarian states and inefficient bureaucracies are ill-adapted to respond. So, yes, climate change is tied in with politics in the region, and it will have exponential effects over the coming years.

MY: One consequence of drier climates is that it will exacerbate water scarcity. Can you outline potential scenarios if the question of water is not adequately addressed by Arab states? What might be some ways of resolving the issue?

OL: Let’s fix a slight misconception first. Water scarcity leads to climate disruption leads to water scarcity. In other words, climates become drier because of inadequate water and land management. When you do this globally, all the while burning fossil fuels, you end up with a global climate regime deregulation. Agricultural, energy, and extractive policies are the primary drivers of water scarcity. Climate change exacerbates an already existing state of water scarcity.

Now, on scenarios. It is very hard to lay these out, because they depend on water levels, water sources and flows, water infrastructure, and socioeconomic relationships to water. What I can tell you is that water scarcity is a process of man-made depletion. It is not an overnight shortage. So, necessarily, the disruptions and sociopolitical breakdowns that result from it also take place in a process of exacerbation until it reaches points of disruption.

We can look at two different countries to understand how water scarcity impacts stability. Jordan is currently experiencing its worst drought in 900 years. The consecutive refugee flows coming from Palestine, then Iraq, then Syria over the last decades have led to repeated sudden bursts of population concentration in various parts of the country. In recent years, Mafraq and Irbid Governorates have been under acute water stress every summer, leading to severe tensions between refugee and host communities, higher criminality, xenophobia, and the reinforcement of tough security measures on the part of the Jordanian state. As a result of water running low, people have dug random boreholes into local water tables, which tends to worsen water stress for everyone, but also can lead to water pollution.

At a more structural level, in and near those governorates you have intensive forms of agriculture that drain water tables further. In Amman, where the government is under more direct political pressure, the city has been moving toward more efficient water infrastructure, and it is looking at desalination plants to increase the availability of water. But it is not the same story across the country. Water vulnerability is increasing and is having a series of knock-on effects. These effects are so far contained, so the two questions we need to ask are “until when?” and “and then what?” Here, we need to look at policy responses and ecological interdependencies underpinning Jordan’s water resources. It gives us an idea of the type of violence that may emerge and how far it can go geographically.

From an ecological standpoint, technology can only get you so far. As long as Jordan can make up for water shortages that sustain its economies, it will maintain a level of stability and water conflicts may remain confined to social tensions or to geographically confined zones. But that will have a growing cost over time, which will destabilize the country’s economy and sociopolitical fabric. If Jordan also reacts with force rather than rethinks its investment in the social and environmental fabric, it will likely pay a heavy price in the coming decade.

Iraq, on the other hand, is moving into active water conflict, especially around the ancestral ecosystem of the southern marshes. The water branches feeding into this ecosystem are impacted by hydroelectric infrastructures reducing the flow of water, general pollution, growing salination, and the collapse of local biodiversity. Because of the environmental degradation, people are moving into cities, which are themselves facing water stress. This has led to greater demand for water imports, forcing all households, including vulnerable ones, to spend their income on making up for the lack of available water. This leads again to growing social tensions, but also growing frustration with a central state that remains crippled by its inability to provide basic services, and therefore needs to constantly find ways of legitimizing itself.

Iraq is dependent for its water supply on Turkey and Iran. The more the Iraqi government fails to deliver at home, the more it is likely to escalate tensions with its neighbors. Over time, if this doesn’t lead to open warfare—which it probably won’t given Iraq’s weak defense capacity—it will reduce the chances for water-based cooperation to stop water depletion. This will impact all countries’ stability negatively, and will make them more vulnerable to climate change. The more individual states prioritize their national needs first, rather than cooperating on the basis of ecological integrity and environmental regeneration, the more they will undermine their own stability and cause environmental degradation. In other words within decades this region of the world may simply become uninhabitable.

In terms of solutions, there are a few. But I’ll focus on broad strokes. First, states and regions would need to transition away from activities that deplete water tables. This is no small feat as it is multisectoral. You need a shift toward regenerative agriculture, energy-efficient systems, and infrastructure development that do not encroach on ecosystems. The process does not just require an economic transition at the country level, it also requires a change in economic infrastructures and frameworks at the international level. Agricultural produce for example should be isolated from international speculation, and production should primarily serve for internal consumption and to reinforce resilience. Countries should encourage a diversity of cultures, including a return to indigenous seeds and crops, rather than systematized crops that are simply not suited to the ecological make-up of areas undergoing desertification.

Secondly, Middle East states need to adopt regenerative landscaping practices that literally help them to plant rain into the soil again. Globally, we need to harness the hydrological cycle in order to recover livable climates at local and global levels again, and preemptively manage floods. The interesting thing is that this is a sector that requires new competencies and which is also labor intensive. It is about redesigning landscapes so that they retain water, leading them to again become productive. This is a message that particularly resonates in the Middle East because rebooting functional ecosystems is also about rebooting local soil-related cultures. The Middle East was the cradle of civilization and culture as a result of its agricultural might for an enormous part of its history. There is the potential to recover for the future.

MY: Do you envisage a time when governments in the region will be able to wean themselves off the extractive policies that have damaged their environments? Or are they not thinking in these terms?

OL: They are not. Nor is it just governments in the region. Extractive policies are a function of growth-oriented economies that require energy. As long as we don’t change what extractive policies are used for, extraction will not cease. A tree will be worth more dead than alive. Underground resources will be more valuable unearthed and used than buried. Aggressive underground resource extraction made the Middle East what it is today. It came with economic growth as well as economic predation, inequalities, disenfranchisement, corruption, violence, and war. It also came with authoritarianism.

Unfortunately, we are likely to see the same type of story develop over the new scramble for resources related to renewable energy. For a long time, the Middle East played a central part in the global economic march that led us to where we are. But the Middle East won’t hold the same importance in tomorrow’s energy competition because it is not endowed with the needed resources such as rare earths and related materials. Admittedly, Middle Eastern countries are endowed in natural sunlight that can help their power transition, but the materials and technology used to harness this renewable energy is where the resource competition will play out, and give rise to new drivers of instability globally. These materials and technology are not located in the Middle East, which means that the center of gravity in energy politics will incrementally shift. This transition will be unsettling, but it may also represent an opportunity to try out different economic models on the basis of ecosystems regeneration. The European Union has already indicated its readiness to work with Middle Eastern partners on multiple transitions. It is however necessary to have a hard look at which type of governance systems are needed to usher in truly resilient transitions in a way that revive local and national economies from the ground up—literally.

MY: What for you are the top three most pressing environmental problems that countries in the region will need to prioritize in the coming decade?

OL: Water scarcity and land degradation will lead to crop failures. Floods will create more humanitarian and economic disasters, and will damage infrastructures that are already fragile. Urbanization is likely to increase, depleting water tables even more. Global energy shifts will lead to changes in oil price structures that may actually lead to more revenues in the short term and, possibly, more investments in security forces. The most pressing environmental problem is that we are entering an era of vicious cycles rather than isolated shocks. But this is not inevitable and what’s at stake is to break those cycles.

The overall challenge across the Middle East, like elsewhere in the world, is to rebuild ecological integrity. That means recreating landscapes that can hold carbon and water, and therefore sustain human activity again. It is about restoring equilibriums that help both to chart another socioeconomic path forward as well as to adapt to climate change and reverse it over time.

So that requires two tempos of change: adaptation and transformation. With respect to adaptation, climate-related disasters are already locked into the planet’s system due to past emissions and environmental degradation. The most pressing thing is to anticipate where and how disasters will hit and prepare accordingly. It requires ensuring continuous and shock absorption relief capacity in the future, which will demand internationally and regionally pooled resources. In addition, it will require redesigning landscapes in such a way that they can buffer the impact of disasters and store as much flood water as possible. This sounds abstract when you are not familiar with ecological design, but if you have a look at projects such as Greening the Desert in Jordan or regenerative projects in Saudi Arabia, you can get a sense of how to work with landscapes to adapt to new challenges.

On transformation, achieving this is hard work. Climate change calls for a profound redesign of political and socioeconomic systems. It is about transforming the way in which agriculture, energy, infrastructure, and other economic systems are set up and relate to the environment. And it is about investigating which governance systems best deliver on a safe operating space for human populations in a viable environment.

International Day for Tolerance

International Day for Tolerance

The International Day for Tolerance is an annual observance day declared by UNESCO in 1995 to generate public awareness of the dangers of intolerance. It is observed on 16 November.

International Day for Tolerance

“Tolerance is respect, acceptance and appreciation of the rich diversity of our world’s cultures, our forms of expression and ways of being human.” UNESCO’s 1995 Declaration of Principles on Tolerance.

In 1996, the UN General Assembly adopted Resolution 51/95 proclaiming 16 November as International Day for Tolerance.

International Day for Tolerance

This action followed the adoption of a Declaration of Principles on Tolerance by UNESCO’s Member States on 16 November 1995. Among other things, the Declaration affirms that tolerance is neither indulgence nor indifference. It is respect and appreciation of the rich variety of our world’s cultures, our forms of expression and ways of being human. Tolerance recognizes the universal human rights and fundamental freedoms of others. People are naturally diverse; only tolerance can ensure the survival of mixed communities in every region of the globe.

In 1995, to mark the United Nations Year for Tolerance and the 125th anniversary of the birth of Mahatma Gandhi, UNESCO created a prize for the promotion of tolerance and non-violence. The UNESCO-Madanjeet Singh Prize for the Promotion of Tolerance and Non-Violence rewards significant activities in the scientific, artistic, cultural or communication fields aimed at the promotion of a spirit of tolerance and non-violence. The creation of the Prize has been inspired by the ideals of UNESCO’s Constitution that proclaims that “peace, if it is not to fail, must be founded on the intellectual and moral solidarity of mankind”. The prize is awarded every two years on the International Day for Tolerance, 16 November. The Prize may be awarded to institutions, organizations or persons, who have contributed in a particularly meritorious and effective manner to tolerance and non-violence.

MESSAGE FROM THE DIRECTOR-GENERAL

International Day for Tolerance

“At a time when extremism and fanaticism are unleashed too often, at a time when the venom of hatred continues to poison a part of humanity, tolerance has never been more vital a virtue.”

 — Audrey Azoulay, Director-General of UNESCO
on the occasion of the International Day for Tolerance

Download the full message in PDF format
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WHAT DOES UNESCO FOR TOLERANCE

HOW CAN INTOLERANCE BE COUNTERED?

1. Fighting intolerance requires law:

Each Government is responsible for enforcing human rights laws, for banning and punishing hate crimes and discrimination against minorities, whether these are committed by State officials, private organizations or individuals. The State must also ensure equal access to courts, human rights commissioners or ombudsmen, so that people do not take justice into their own hands and resort to violence to settle their disputes.

2. Fighting intolerance requires education:

Laws are necessary but not sufficient for countering intolerance in individual attitudes. Intolerance is very often rooted in ignorance and fear: fear of the unknown, of the other, other cultures, nations, religions. Intolerance is also closely linked to an exaggerated sense of self-worth and pride, whether personal, national or religious. These notions are taught and learned at an early age. Therefore, greater emphasis needs to be placed on educating more and better. Greater efforts need to be made to teach children about tolerance and human rights, about other ways of life. Children should be encouraged at home and in school to be open-minded and curious.

Education is a life-long experience and does not begin or end in school. Endeavours to build tolerance through education will not succeed unless they reach all age groups, and take place everywhere: at home, in schools, in the workplace, in law-enforcement and legal training, and not least in entertainment and on the information highways.

3. Fighting intolerance requires access to information:

Intolerance is most dangerous when it is exploited to fulfil the political and territorial ambitions of an individual or groups of individuals. Hatemongers often begin by identifying the public’s tolerance threshold. They then develop fallacious arguments, lie with statistics and manipulate public opinion with misinformation and prejudice. The most efficient way to limit the influence of hatemongers is to develop policies that generate and promote press freedom and press pluralism, in order to allow the public to differentiate between facts and opinions.

4. Fighting intolerance requires individual awareness:

Intolerance in a society is the sum-total of the intolerance of its individual members. Bigotry, stereotyping, stigmatizing, insults and racial jokes are examples of individual expressions of intolerance to which some people are subjected daily. Intolerance breeds intolerance. It leaves its victims in pursuit of revenge. In order to fight intolerance individuals should become aware of the link between their behavior and the vicious cycle of mistrust and violence in society. Each one of us should begin by asking: am I a tolerant person? Do I stereotype people? Do I reject those who are different from me? Do I blame my problems on ‘them’?

5. Fighting intolerance requires local solutions:

Many people know that tomorrow’s problems will be increasingly global but few realize that solutions to global problems are mainly local, even individual. When confronted with an escalation of intolerance around us, we must not wait for governments and institutions to act alone. We are all part of the solution. We should not feel powerless for we actually posses an enormous capacity to wield power. Nonviolent action is a way of using that power-the power of people. The tools of nonviolent action-putting a group together to confront a problem, to organize a grassroots network, to demonstrate solidarity with victims of intolerance, to discredit hateful propaganda-are available to all those who want to put an end to intolerance, violence and hatred.

International Day for Tolerance

RESOURCES

What is the State of Human Capital in the MENA Region?

What is the State of Human Capital in the MENA Region?

The answer to What is the State of Human Capital in the MENA Region? is given by Keiko Miwa, Regional Director, Human Development, Middle East & North Africa – World Bank and Jeremie Amoroso, Strategy & Operations Officer, Human Development, Middle East & North Africa – World Bank.


Countries in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) have made good progress in improving human capital over the past decade. And yet a child born in MENA today can expect to achieve (on average) only 57 percent of her future productivity. On top of that, the COVID-19 crisis poses significant risks to hard-earned improvements in human capital in MENA. We can—and should—do much more to preserve and improve human capital in the MENA region.

The World Bank recently released the Human Capital Index 2020 (HCI). This update covers 174 countries—17 more than when the index was first launched in 2018. Not surprisingly, the HCI scores among MENA countries vary widely from 0.67 in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to 0.37 in Yemen. Countries affected by conflict, such as Iraq and Yemen, score low on the index, which poses an important question on how to support the protection and enhancement of human capital even in the midst of conflict.

Looking at the 10-year trend, the HCI improved in 11 out of 14 MENA countries (with available data). Morocco, Oman, and the UAE registered the largest gains in the HCI during this period. School enrollment—at the preprimary and secondary levels—as well as harmonized test scores and adult survival, are the main drivers of the region’s HCI improvements. During this period, girls surpassed boys in educational attainment. On the other hand, enrollment declines in primary and lower-secondary school outweighed gains in other components of HCI for Kuwait, Tunisia, and Jordan.

Figure 1. Change in HCI 2020 and HCI 2020 in MENA countries
Figure 1. Change in HCI 2020 and HCI 2020 in MENA countries

Source: World Bank. 2020. The Human Capital Index 2020 Update: Human Capital in the Time of COVID-19.

Note: Arrows indicate a decline in the HCI between 2010 and 2020. Data unavailable for Yemen, Iraq, Lebanon, and West Bank and Gaza for HCI 2010. See World Bank’s list of countries/economies by region.

WHAT’S NEW IN THE HUMAN CAPITAL INDEX 2020?

The HCI 2020 update introduces the Utilization-Adjusted Human Capital Index (UHCI). This is quite relevant in several MENA countries since there is a large gap between human capital and labor market outcomes. The utilization of human capital accounts for the fact that when today’s child becomes a future worker, she may not be able to find a job (Basic UHCI). And even if she can, it might not be a job where she can fully use her skills and cognitive abilities in better employment that increases her productivity (Full UHCI). When adjusting for the proportion of the working-age population who are employed, MENA’s HCI value declines by at least one-third—from 0.57 to 0.32 (Basic UHCI) and 0.38 (Full UHCI). Low female labor force participation rates in MENA countries are a key factor for the region’s low Utilization-Adjusted HCI.

Figure 2. The average MENA HCI value declines by more than a third when accounting for the proportion of the working-age population who are employed.
Figure 2. The average MENA HCI value declines by more than a third when accounting for the proportion of the working-age population who are employed.
Source: World Bank. 2020. The Human Capital Index 2020 Update: Human Capital in the Time of COVID-19.

RISKS TO HARD-EARNED HUMAN CAPITAL

COVID-19 has cascaded into education shocks and the worst economic recession since World War II. At the height of the pandemic, almost 84 million children were out of school in MENA, and now countries that started to open schools are now reconsidering their decision due to the second wave. This could result in the loss of 0.6 years of schooling (adjusted for quality). Nevertheless, some MENA countries took early actions and adopted innovative measures to continue education. In Jordan, for example, the private sector and education officials collaborated to develop an education portal and dedicated TV channels for virtual lectures in Arabic, English, math, and science for grades one through 12. And Saudi Arabia’s universities achieved unprecedented results as more than 1.2 million users attended over 7,600 virtual classes, totaling 107,000 learning hours.

The HCI 2020 update uses data gathered as of March 2020—prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. It serves as a baseline for policymakers to track changes in human capital and inform policies to protect and invest in people through the pandemic and beyond. Previous pandemics and crises taught us that their effects are not only felt by those directly impacted, but often ripple across populations and, in many cases, across generations. COVID-19 is no exception. As a result, the region can—and must—build on its human capital progress amid the turmoil in three key ways.

First, the MENA region needs to continue building its human capital even during the pandemic or conflict. Crisis response measures that emerged out of necessity—such as distance learning and telemedicine—present new opportunities for building back better and differently the “new normal.”

Second, many countries in MENA have shown their sharp focus on protecting human capital by ramping up cash transfers and strengthening social safety nets since the onset of the pandemic. However, stronger efforts are still needed to preserve the human capital of internally displaced persons and refugees and to foster social inclusion for economic mobility.

Third, utilizing human capital is important to the immediate recovery and long-term development of MENA—the region with the highest youth unemployment in the world at more than 25 percent. Utilizing human capital requires job-focused policies as concerns about the future of work grow louder.

The HCI 2020 update shows that many MENA countries have made meaningful human capital progress over the past 10 years. As the pandemic threatens these precious gains, investment in human capital is more important than ever. Governments in MENA have launched promising initiatives that will help to build a better future. When today’s children in MENA become adults, hopefully, they will see how their region of the world turned the unprecedented crisis in 2020 into an opportunity to build stronger human capital.

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Balancing freedom of expression with social responsibility

Balancing freedom of expression with social responsibility

 William Becker writing this article titled ‘Balancing freedom of expression with social responsibility’ could be taken as a pertinent illustrator of the sort of times related to dilemmas and traumas.  Democracy at best of times associates with higher human capital accumulation, lower political instability, and higher economic freedom that are quasi-impossible to go for nowadays and before the advent of that smart techno hard and software. In any case, Can democracies survive social media?


Balancing freedom of expression with social responsibility

Abraham Lincoln is credited with one of the most enduring statements in American history: “You can fool all of the people some of the time and some of the people all of the time, but you cannot fool all of the people all of the time.” Unfortunately, nearly all Americans have been fooled by this. The first person to utter the statement was actually the showman P.T. Barnum.

Barnum didn’t know about the Internet or social media, of course. He’d be amazed at computers, and even more amazed that anyone could use it to send virtually any statement anywhere in the world, unfiltered and instantly. This extraordinary power allows us to fool millions of people in real time, but it also allows them to fool us. Unfortunately, there are individuals, organizations, and even nations that use social media for precisely that purpose.

The misuse of social media to spread disinformation, misinformation, propaganda, and outright lies is raising questions in democracies about how free freedom of expression should be. Social media are caught constantly between freedom of speech and social responsibility in democracies around the world. “There is an ongoing debate about where to draw the line between freedom of speech and offensive comments,” the authors of the 2020 World Population Review report. “Especially in the age of social media, concerns have arisen over whether freedom of speech is causing more harm than it is good.”

Every country that guarantees freedom of expression already puts boundaries on it. In 2015, the Pew Research Center ranked the tolerance of free speech in 38 countries, scoring them between zero and eight, with eight being the most tolerant. No country earned a score higher than 5.73. That score was awarded to the United States. Pew reported that “Americans are more tolerant of free speech than other nationalities. They also are the most supportive of freedom of the press and the right to use the Internet without government censorship.”

But the world’s most tolerant nation is struggling with an epidemic of misinformation, outright falsehoods, hate speech, conspiracy theories, and deliberate attempts by foreign and domestic groups to undermine democracy. Social media providers such as Facebook and Twitter are being challenged by Congress to find that balance between freedom of expression on the one hand, and serving as conduits of hate and harm on the other.

The U.S. Constitution says, “Congress shall make no law…abridging freedom of speech.” Yet, federal statutes prohibit speech that incites harm to others or distributes obscene materials, for example. The constraints other countries have put on free expression include libel, slander, perjury, obscenity, sedition, incitement, the disclosure of classified information, the unauthorized use of copyrighted information, trade secrets, and speech that violates privacy, dignity, and public security. People in the European Union and Argentina are guaranteed the “right to be forgotten.”

In 1948, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states that “everyone shall have the right to hold opinions without interference” and “the right to freedom of expression.” But it also sets boundaries against speech that damages the rights and reputations of others, jeopardizes national security, or threatens public order, health, or morals.

The Internet’s value

Another of America’s historic leaders, Thomas Jefferson, has been quoted, “If we are to guard against ignorance and remain free, every American is responsible to be informed.” Ensuring that citizens are well informed is one of the Internet’s most important potentials. How close is it to fulfilling its potential?

The Pew Center for Research asked that question last July in the United States. It studied where Americans get their information and how their sources enhance their knowledge. Pew found that about one in five adults relies on social media for news and information, but 57% of them scored low when asked nine “knowledge questions.” Other researchers found a similar result for television news, probably because some of the most prominent news sources are biased in the United States.

Here is how it happened. Before cable television arrived, there were three dominant TV networks in the U.S. — ABC, CBS, and NBC. Because they used public airways to broadcast content, the federal government felt they had an obligation to public service. Each network had to obtain a broadcast license. In 1949, the federal agency in charge of licensing instituted the “Fairness Doctrine.” It required the networks to present both sides of controversial issues of public importance. Broadcasts had to be “honest, equitable, and balanced.”

Things changed when cable television came along. Cable stations didn’t use public airways. As their numbers grew, viewers could find both sides of controversial issues by channel surfing, if they took the trouble. The Fairness Doctrine fell into disuse and eventually was discontinued. Cable stations are subject to federal rules and local requirements, but their rules pertain mostly to the quality of cable services, rate structures, franchise fees, and so on. The few regulations about programming are much less strict than the standards applied to the major broadcast networks.

As a result, several cable networks began specializing in news slanted to support a political or ideological agenda. One network, Fox News, presents information in ways that appeal to and reinforce the beliefs of conservative viewers. It has proved to be a very successful formula. Fox is now the most widely watched news station in the U.S.

The Pew Research Center found that 60% of Republicans and Republican-leaning voters rely heavily on Fox News, while 53% of Democrats and Democrat-leaning voters tune into CNN, a network that tilts slightly left. In 2012, researchers determined that people who relied on Fox for news knew less about current events than people who watched no news at all. Last July, a new study showed that the same is true for people who frequent the Fox News website.

News outlets like Fox (and conservatives would say CNN) contribute to the ideological rigidity and highly emotional polarization that plagues politics in the United States today. Outlets like these do less for “the responsibility of every American to be informed” than they do for each group’s conviction than it knows better than the other. The fortification of pre-existing biases and beliefs also happens on social media, which uses algorithms to diagnose a user’s beliefs and feeds back like-minded content. We come to the question again whether social coherence and goodwill require that the relationship between free speech and social responsibility should tilt toward responsibility.

It is a delicate and even dangerous question that begs more questions. How do we make sure that whoever sets and enforces the standards of free expression is not cultivating authoritarianism?

Foreign subterfuge

Even more worrisome, perhaps, is how we keep a democracy’s information channels open but safe from nefarious state and non-state interference? Cyber espionage, warfare, and crime are pressing issues worldwide beyond the scope of this article. More relevant are the activities by some nations to interfere with and manipulate the democratic processes of others.

Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea are regarded as the nations that conduct most information warfare over the Internet. U.S. intelligence agencies confirm Russia’s manipulation of public opinion during the 2016 presidential and congressional elections. The same agencies report that Russia, China, and Iran are attempting to “hack” the 2020 election, too, in ways that favor either Trump or his opponent, Joe Biden. Experts say that other, smaller nations are working to acquire the same capabilities.

Russian leaders use social media to undermine the American people’s confidence in democracy overall. This isn’t new. “Cyber is facilitating more advanced and more effective psychological warfare, information operations, coercion and intimidation attacks,” NATO’s security expert Jamie Shea warned in 2017. “We used to worry about [hackers targeting] banks or credit cards or inconvenience to customers, now we worry about the future of democracy, the stability and health of our institutions.”

Russia’s use of fake organizations and inflammatory ads on social media is challenging Twitter and Facebook to make concessions to social responsibility. Both were criticized for failing to police Russia’s use of their networks in 2016. This year, Facebook says it will block all new political advertising a week before the November 3 election to prevent misinformation.

Facebook’s chief executive officer, Mark Zuckerberg, says that his company disabled 1.7 billion fake accounts between January and March. Twitter has begun labeling tweets that violate its policies against fake accounts and identities. Two years ago, it created a public archive of 200 million tweets to study them for attempted manipulation. Congress has called on Facebook, Twitter, and Google to explain what they are doing to prevent foreign interference in the 2020 election.

America’s lawmakers are also concerned about foreign and domestic sources misusing Instagram, YouTube, and other social media to spread disinformation about the coronavirus pandemic, possibly inciting the demonstrations, fights, and even violence the country has experienced because of government mandates to wear masks, observe social distancing, and close businesses where crowds congregate.

The Internal threats

Facebook and Twitter are taking steps to identify and/or eliminate “false facts” from inside the United States, too. The most frequent and blatant source is Donald Trump, the “Tweeter-in-Chief.” He pecks out messages on Twitter night and day to dominate the news, insult opponents, praise his own performance, and take advantage of unfiltered contact with the American people.

He set a personal record of 142 tweets during his impeachment trial in January and February, then broke it in June with 200 tweets and retweets on a single day. When Twitter began labeling Trump’s provably inaccurate tweets, the president retaliated with an executive order to regulate social media companies.

The problem is not only Trump and not only social media. “Whether it’s newspapers, television, Facebook, YouTube, or Google searches, someone is pulling strings (and) lobbying their own agendas because there are no consequences,” social media consultant Lon Safko points out. “You can say anything you want, and there are no consequences.”

Social media also is an important propaganda tool for dictators and unscrupulous leaders around the world. In 2019, researchers at the University of Oxford found evidence of organized social media manipulation campaigns in 70 countries. Twenty-six countries were using social media to “suppress fundamental human rights, discredit political opponents, and drown out dissenting opinions.” Government or political party “cyber troops” are using political bots to amplify hate speech, illegally harvest data, and mobilize “trolls” to harass political dissidents and journalists, the University reported.

“Despite the majority of adults surveyed in each country reporting that they used social networks to keep up to date with news and current affairs, a 2018 study showed that social media is the least trusted news source in the world,” says researcher Amy Watson of Statista, a statistics service. “Less than 35% of adults in Europe considered social networks to be trustworthy in this respect, yet more than 50% of adults in Portugal, Poland, Romania, Hungary, Bulgaria, Slovakia, and Croatia said that they got their news on social media.”

“Concerns about fake news and propaganda on social media have not stopped billions of users accessing their favorite networks on a daily basis,” she says.

So, can freedom of speech survive social media? Can Democracies? Can we find ways to balance freedom of expression with social responsibility? If the proper formula requires restrictions on speech, what should they be? If the government’s job is to protect democracy from cyber-subterfuge, how will it keep up technologies that emerge much faster than governments act?

I think about this a lot. My answers are the same as those we often hear from the world’s top experts and policymakers:

Only time will tell.

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William Becker is an author and blogger in the United States. He writes about climate change and many other issues that strike his fancy.

Earliest Evidence for Homo sapiens on Arabian Peninsula

Earliest Evidence for Homo sapiens on Arabian Peninsula

Prehistoric desert footprints are earliest evidence for Homo sapiens on Arabian Peninsula and are elaborated on by Richard Clark-Wilson, Royal Holloway.

Humanity originated on the African continent at least 300,000 years ago. We know from fossil evidence in southern Greece and the Levant (modern-day Israel) that some early members of our species expanded beyond Africa around 200,000 years ago, and again between 120,000 to 90,000 years ago. They likely travelled through the Sinai peninsula, which formed the only land bridge connecting the continent of Africa to the rest of the world, before moving north into a landscape with a Mediterranean climate.

But it was not known at what point humans turned south after crossing the Sinai peninsula, reaching modern day Saudi Arabia. It is also often assumed that they may have taken a coastal route, avoiding the currently harsh desert interior. Previous fossil finds show this was not the case, with humans moving into the heart of Arabia at least 85,000 years ago. Now, new research pushes this date back even further.

Colleagues and I discovered human and other animal footprints embedded on an ancient lake surface in the Nefud Desert in Saudi Arabia that are around 120,000 years old. These findings represent the earliest evidence for Homo sapiens on the Arabian Peninsula, and demonstrates the importance of Arabia for understanding human prehistory.

Map of modern day Saudi Arabia.
Key locations for early Homo sapiens outside-of-Africa (red stars). The Nefud Desert is highlighted inside the black rectangle. Google Maps

The Nefud Desert in modern-day Saudi Arabia lies around 500km to the southeast of the Sinai Peninsula. Today, the Arabian deserts are some of the most inhospitable environments in the world. They would form an impassable barrier for prehistoric humans or large mammals. Imagine standing at the foot of a hyper-arid desert equipped with stone tools and not much else. Could you get across? Probably not.

Scientific analysis shows that for most of their recent history, they were climatically similar to today: hyper-arid and impassable. But there is also evidence to show that at certain times in the past, the deserts transformed into savannah-like grasslands littered with freshwater resources. These “green” phases were likely short, probably lasting no more than a few millennia. Nonetheless, they provided windows of opportunity for humans and other animals to move into a new green landscape.

We know from fossil lake sediments that the Nefud Desert was one of those that periodically transformed into a more attractive landscape in the past, and the new footprints prove that early humans took advantage of one such window.

Faint footprint in yellow rock.
First human footprint discovered at the Alathar ancient lake. © Klint Janulis, Author provided

Fossilised footprints

We were able to date the footprints by using a technique called luminescence dating to a period of time 102-132,000 years ago. Based on wider regional evidence for increased rainfall, we suggest they date to a period roughly 120,000 years ago, called the last interglacial.

We know that around this time that vast river systems spread across the Sahara Desert, with Middle Palaeolithic archaeology scattered along them. Other evidence for increased rainfall at this time comes from fossil stalagmites found in caves in desert regions in Arabia and ~500 km north of the Nefud in the Negev Desert. These features only grow in conditions where rainfall is greater than 300mm per year; substantially more than the amount (<90mm per year) they receive today.

While it is difficult to know for sure which species of human left these prints, we think they were most likely left by our own, Homo sapiens. This is based on the fact that Homo sapiens were present in the Levant, 700km to the north of the Nefud Desert, at a similar time. Neanderthals were absent from the Levant in this period and did not move back into the region until thousands of years later, when cooler conditions prevailed. Estimates of the humans mass and statue based on the footprints are also more consistent with our species than Neanderthals.

A man walks across a desert landscape.
Earliest Evidence for Homo sapiens on Arabian Peninsula
Researcher surveying the Alathar ancient lake deposit for footprints. © Palaeodeserts Project, Author provided

High-res history

In addition to human footprints, elephant, horse and camel prints were also found. These footprints, studied in detail by Mathew Stewart at the Max Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology, provide a wealth of new information regarding prehistoric interactions between humans, animals and the environment.

Footprints are a unique form of fossil evidence as they provide precise snapshots in time that typically represent a few hours or days. This is a resolution we do not get from other records. They also allow us to understand the behaviour of their makers, which is something we cannot get from fossils.

This allows us to understand the relationship between humans and other large mammals at a geologically precise moment in time.

Environmental analysis on the lake sediments show that the lake contained fresh “drinkable” water, while the variety of footprints shows that humans, elephants, camels and horses were using this resource at a similar time. Human and large-mammal movements would have been closely tied to fresh water and the pattern of footprints show both foraged on the lake bed when it was temporarily exposed. Humans may have been drawn to the area as they tracked large mammals, who would potentially serve as prey.

Animal prints in stone.
Earliest Evidence for Homo sapiens on Arabian Peninsula
Animal fossils eroding out of the surface of the Alathar ancient lake deposit. © Badr Zahrani, Author provided

Surveys and analysis of fossils recovered from the site also shows that there are no stone tools or butchery of fossils. This indicates that the footprint-makers only very briefly visited the lake, foraging for resources before continuing on their journey.

It is not clear what happened to the people who left the footprints, but evidence suggests that they, along with the other early Homo sapiens explorers, either died out or retreated to more favourable environments as aridity returned to the desert.

Richard Clark-Wilson, PhD Candidate in Geography, Royal Holloway

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The Conversation