In their understanding of good governance and its role in sustainable development, Gulf Business addresses this theme only within the business world of the MENA region, specifically within the Gulf area countries. Let us see what it is all about.
Insights: Understanding good governance and its role in sustainable development
By Dr Ashraf Gamal Eldin
Good corporate governance fosters fair competition, enables efficient utilisation of resources, increases employment opportunities, and develops domestic and regional capital markets.
11 November 2022
Dr Ashraf Gamal Eldin
The term ‘governance’ refers to all forms of regulations, including that of institutions, procedures, and practices used to decide on and regulate matters of public concern. In its most basic sense, governance is about providing direction and ensuring that an institution operates efficiently.
Good governance, however, adds a normative or evaluative attribute to this process. In simple terms, good governance refers to the institutional and political outcomes necessary to achieve developmental objectives. The concept has become increasingly important in recent years, emerging as one of the essential components for growth and sustainable development. The key measure of good governance is the extent to which it upholds human rights, including civil, cultural, economic, political, and social indicators. As a result, it is important to understand good governance and its significance in sustainable development.
Good governance reassures stakeholders that an organisation fulfills its obligations to all of its stakeholders, it treats everyone with respect and dignity, by being transparent about its operations, finances, and conduct. In fact, a major indicator of an institution’s quality and excellence is how committed it is to adopt the principles of good governance in all facets of its operations and decision-making. This is even more important, as it significantly supports sustainable development in institutions. It is widely observed that the inability to uphold these principles can have negative effects on welfare, efficiency, and operational excellence, thereby affecting the long-term success of organisations.
The private sector is growing rapidly in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. Despite the fact that every country is unique, forward-thinking companies throughout the region see better corporate governance as a competitive advantage in their quest for growth and profitability. Consequently, countries in the MENA region are at various stages of developing unique corporate governance frameworks. This could be further driven by making strenuous efforts to create a national environment that supports and encourages corporate governance in the region. The UAE ranked first in the Middle East and 24th globally on the Good Governance Index 2022, which was released by the Chandler Institute for Governance, a non-profit organisation that works with governments to strengthen their capabilities.
Sustainable development argues that the current use of resources should minimize the level of harm to the future generations’ share of resources. ‘Good Governance’ is capable of common sense and the versatile planning that is required for sustainable development.
A good corporate governance system fosters fair competition, enables more efficient utilisation of resources, increases employment opportunities, and the development of domestic and regional capital markets. With governance playing a crucial role in driving efforts to meet institutional goals, it has been referred to as the fourth pillar of sustainable development alongside social, environmental, and economic factors. As there is a strong emphasis on minimising future harm from the current use of resources, governance will certainly aid in shaping versatile strategies that ensure sustainable development across organisations.
Good governance is not a luxury, it creates a competitive edge for companies and economies.
Dr Ashraf Gamal Eldin is the CEO of Hawkamah Institute for Corporate Governance
We tend to surf on how and why disputes arise between countries because each has interests to preserve. Notably, the advanced countries have the most to lose, and the developing ones are convinced they have too little to wait for. Despite that, at COP27, the authors found three reasons rich countries can no longer ignore calls to pay the developing world for climate havoc.
The enormous global paradox is that progress and development are the natural causes of planetary embarrassment and which, combined with the misdeeds of nature, pose a problem.
Payments from high-emitting countries to mitigate the harm that climate change has caused in the most vulnerable parts of the world is finally on the agenda for discussion at a global climate change summit, more than 30 years after the idea was first articulated by delegates from small island developing states.
Loss and damage is the term used by the UN to describe these impacts of climate change that cannot be prevented and to which people cannot adapt. These include lives that have been and will be lost, communities displaced by rising seas, extreme weather and famine, livelihoods and cultural heritage destroyed and ecosystems damaged beyond repair because of a failure to arrest greenhouse gas emissions, and so, global temperature rise.
The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reported that approximately 3.3 to 3.6 billion people are highly vulnerable to climate change. Many of them live in west, central and east Africa, south Asia, central and South America, as well as in small island developing states, such as Vanuatu in the Pacific, and in the Arctic.
As countries in these regions divert more of their wealth towards preparing for and recovering from storms, spreading deserts and melting glaciers, they are left with less money to cut their emissions and contribute to meeting the 1.5°C goal agreed at the negotiations in Paris in 2015. Rich countries, who are responsible for most emissions, promised US$100 billion (£87.2 billion) a year in aid in 2015.
But a recent UN report found that international finance to help the most vulnerable countries adapt to climate change (with bigger sea walls, for instance) has amounted to less than one-tenth of what is needed, and the gap between the two is widening. The US, UK, Canada and Australia are among the biggest laggards when their historical responsibility for climate change is taken into account. There has been no separate funding to address the damage already caused by warming.
At COP26 in 2021, developing countries proposed a loss and damage finance facility to help communities recovering from disasters and compensate them for what they have lost already. The EU and US resisted this in the final days of talks.
Instead, the Glasgow Dialogue was established: a series of discussions about how to arrange funding to help countries bearing the brunt of climate change. Delegates from developing country were sorely disappointed. Instead of material support, they got another talking shop.
But many of these same negotiators are heading into COP27 with new resolve. Here are three reasons why loss and damage is becoming harder for rich countries to ignore.
1. The latest science
Attribution science, which clarifies the links between extreme weather events and emissions, has taken great leaps forward in recent years. Across more than 400 studies, scientists have examined wildfires in the US, heatwaves in India and Pakistan, typhoons in Asia and record-breaking rainfall in the UK.
Broadly, this research shows the poorest and most vulnerable are bearing the heaviest burden despite having contributed the least to the problem. This growing evidence base bolsters the case for reparations.
2. Climate impacts are escalating
The deadly floods in Pakistan in August are the latest in a series of disasters to push loss and damage up the global agenda. According to a recent study, as much as 50% of the rainfall would not have happened without climate change.
Pakistan’s leaders have said that wealthy countries must help pay the bill. After all, it is the latter’s actions that precipitated the disaster. Pakistan’s historically low emissions mean its own contribution to climate change is negligible.
From droughts in Somalia to floods in Nigeria, extreme weather during 2022 has also heaped suffering on African countries with little culpability for climate change. Given that COP27 will be held in Egypt and has been dubbed “the African COP”, these arguments will be brought to the fore.
3. Growing momentum outside of the UN process
The increasing number and importance of lawsuits brought against countries and companies failing to reduce their emissions highlights growing frustration with negotiations under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). As long as rich countries continue to evade the loss and damage issue, vulnerable countries and communities – and their lawyers – will search for alternative solutions.
That is not to say they haven’t had some notable recent successes. The UN Human Rights Committee (UNHRC) decided in September that the Australian government is failing to protect the Torres Strait Islanders from the effects of climate change. This sets a precedent in international human rights law which could one day extend to governments and institutions which have affected people further afield.
But, outside the UN, poorer countries are organising to explore ever more sophisticated diplomatic and legal ways of applying pressure on rich countries. At COP26, the prime ministers of Antigua and Barbuda and Tuvalu launched a commission to explore the kinds of compensation small island states might seek under international law. A group of countries led by Vanuatu is heading for the International Court of Justice.
Since high levels of debt hinder their ability to recover from the ravages of climate change, African and small island leaders are demanding debtors (including development banks and rich countries) write off, suspend or reschedule payments so that vulnerable nations can spend more on cutting emissions and adapting to climate change. These proposals have been called “debt for climate swaps”.
The International Monetary Fund recently announced a resilience and sustainability trust to help shield the finances of vulnerable countries from climate disasters, suggesting development policy is slowly shifting. This followed campaigning by Mia Mottley, the prime minister of Barbados.
Some rich countries are now taking action, suggesting a growing acknowledgement that this funding cannot be delayed forever. In September, Denmark was the first UN party to pledge finance – about US$13 million – to address loss and damage. The G7, under the leadership of the German presidency, has launched an initiative to expand access to financial aid in the immediate aftermath of climate disasters through improvements to existing insurance and social security schemes.
Because these initiatives have come outside of the UNFCCC negotiations, donor countries are free to dictate the terms of their support, sidestepping a process that should be about meeting the needs of vulnerable communities. Much of their funding will go into insurance schemes. Many of the insurance firms that would benefit are based in Europe and the US.
Insurance payouts may be a lifeline for drought-scarred small farmers and flooded homeowners. But some risks are uninsurable, especially those with a slow onset, such as those resulting from sea-level rise. Then there are less tangible harms, such as lost livelihoods, illness and biodiversity loss. Insurance against cyclones won’t compensate fishers in Tuvalu who stand to lose their coastal fisheries as coral reefs succumb to warming.
The next front in the loss and damage debate will involve exploring whether providing finance as a form of solidarity (rather than compensation) is more palatable for rich countries. If that money is wrapped up in insurance schemes, designed to enrich consultants, it won’t really help poor countries. Progress at COP27 will be determined by whether these nations feel the UNFCCC is even capable of helping them.
Time and time again, financial approaches have worked to fix economic problems. Raising interest rates has acted to slow the economy and lowering them has acted to speed up the economy. Governments overspending their incomes also acts to push the economy ahead; doing the reverse seems to slow economies down.
What could possibly go wrong? The issue is a physics problem. The economy doesn’t run simply on money and debt. It operates on resources of many kinds, including energy-related resources. As the population grows, the need for energy-related resources grows. The bottleneck that occurs is something that is hard to see in advance; it is an affordability bottleneck.
For a very long time, financial manipulations have been able to adjust affordability in a way that is optimal for most players. At some point, resources, especially energy resources, get stretched too thin, relative to the rising population and all the commitments that have been made, such as pension commitments. As a result, there is no way for the quantity of goods and services produced to grow sufficiently to match the promises that the financial system has made. This is the real bottleneck that the world economy reaches.
I believe that we are closely approaching this bottleneck today. I recently gave a talk to a group of European officials at the 2nd Luxembourg Strategy Conference, discussing the issue from the European point of view. Europeans seem to be especially vulnerable because Europe, with its early entry into the Industrial Revolution, substantially depleted its fossil fuel resources many years ago. The topic I was asked to discuss was, “Energy: The interconnection of energy limits and the economy and what this means for the future.”
In this post, I write about this presentation.
The major issue is that money, by itself, cannot operate the economy, because we cannot eat money. Any model of the economy must include energy and other resources. In a finite world, these resources tend to deplete. Also, human population tends to grow. At some point, not enough goods and services are produced for the growing population.
I believe that the major reason we have not been told about how the economy really works is because it would simply be too disturbing to understand the real situation. If today’s economy is dependent on finite fossil fuel supplies, it becomes clear that, at some point, these will run short. Then the world economy is likely to face a very difficult time.
A secondary reason for the confusion about how the economy operates is too much specialization by researchers studying the issue. Physicists (who are concerned about energy) don’t study economics; politicians and economists don’t study physics. As a result, neither group has a very broad understanding of the situation.
I am an actuary. I come from a different perspective: Will physical resources be adequate to meet financial promises being made? I have had the privilege of learning a little from both economic and physics sides of the discussion. I have also learned about the issue from a historical perspective.
World energy consumption has been growing very rapidly at the same time that the world economy has been growing. This makes it hard to tell whether the growing energy supply enabled the economic growth, or whether the higher demand created by the growing economy encouraged the world economy to use more resources, including energy resources.
Physics says that it is energy resources that enable economic growth.
The R-squared of GDP as a function of energy is .98, relative to the equation shown.
Physicists talk about the “dissipation” of energy. In this process, the ability of an energy product to do “useful work” is depleted. For example, food is an energy product. When food is digested, its ability to do useful work (provide energy for our body) is used up. Cooking food, whether using a campfire or electricity or by burning natural gas, is another way of dissipating energy.
Humans are clearly part of the economy. Every type of work that is done depends upon energy dissipation. If energy supplies deplete, the form of the economy must change to match.
There are a huge number of systems that seem to grow by themselves using a process called self-organization. I have listed a few of these on Slide 8. Some of these things are alive; most are not. They are all called “dissipative structures.”
The key input that allows these systems to stay in a “non-dead” state is dissipation of energy of the appropriate type. For example, we know that humans need about 2,000 calories a day to continue to function properly. The mix of food must be approximately correct, too. Humans probably could not live on a diet of lettuce alone, for example.
Economies have their own need for energy supplies of the proper kind, or they don’t function properly. For example, today’s agricultural equipment, as well as today’s long-distance trucks, operate on diesel fuel. Without enough diesel fuel, it becomes impossible to plant and harvest crops and bring them to market. A transition to an all-electric system would take many, many years, if it could be done at all.
I think of an economy as being like a child’s building toy. Gradually, new participants are added, both in the form of new citizens and new businesses. Businesses are formed in response to expected changes in the markets. Governments gradually add new laws and new taxes. Supply and demand seem to set market prices. When the system seems to be operating poorly, regulators step in, typically adjusting interest rates and the availability of debt.
One key to keeping the economy working well is the fact that those who are “consumers” closely overlap those who are “employees.” The consumers (= employees) need to be paid well enough, or they cannot purchase the goods and services made by the economy.
A less obvious key to keeping the economy working well is that the whole system needs to be growing. This is necessary so that there are enough goods and services available for the growing population. A growing economy is also needed so that debt can be repaid with interest, and so that pension obligations can be paid as promised.
World population has been growing year after year, but arable land stays close to constant. To provide enough food for this rising population, more intensive agriculture is required, often including irrigation, fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides.
Furthermore, an increasing amount of fresh water is needed, leading to a need for deeper wells and, in some places, desalination to supplement other water sources. All these additional efforts add energy usage, as well as costs.
In addition, mineral ores and energy supplies of all kinds tend to become depleted because the best resources are accessed first. This leaves the more expensive-to-extract resources for later.
The issues in Slide 11 are a continuation of the issues described on Slide 10. The result is that the cost of energy production eventually rises so much that its higher costs spill over into the cost of all other goods and services. Workers find that their paychecks are not high enough to cover the items they usually purchased in the past. Some poor people cannot even afford food and fresh water.
Increasing debt is helpful as an economy grows. A farmer can borrow money for seed to grow a crop, and he can repay the debt, once the crop has grown. Or an entrepreneur can finance a factory using debt.
On the consumer side, debt at a sufficiently low interest rate can be used to make the purchase of a home or vehicle affordable.
Central banks and others involved in the financial world figured out many years ago that if they manipulate interest rates and the availability of credit, they are generally able to get the economy to grow as fast as they would like.
It is hard for most people to imagine how much interest rates have varied over the last century. Back during the Great Depression of the 1930s and the early 1940s, interest rates were very close to zero. As large amounts of inexpensive energy were added to the economy in the post-World War II period, the world economy raced ahead. It was possible to hold back growth by raising interest rates.
Oil supply was constrained in the 1970s, but demand and prices kept rising. US Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volker is known for raising interest rates to unheard of heights (over 15%) with a peak in 1981 to end inflation brought on by high oil prices. This high inflation rate brought on a huge recession from which the economy eventually recovered, as the higher prices brought more oil supply online (Alaska, North Sea, and Mexico), and as substitution was made for some oil use. For example, home heating was moved away from burning oil; electricity-production was mostly moved from oil to nuclear, coal and natural gas.
Another thing that has helped the economy since 1981 has been the ability to stimulate demand by lowering interest rates, making monthly payments more affordable. In 2008, the US added Quantitative Easing as a way of further holding interest rates down. A huge debt bubble has thus been built up since 1981, as the world economy has increasingly been operated with an increasing amount of debt at ever-lower interest rates. (See 3-month and 10 year interest rates shown on Slide 14.) This cheap debt has allowed rapidly rising asset prices.
The world economy starts hitting major obstacles when energy supply stops growing faster than population because the supply of finished goods and services (such as new automobile, new homes, paved roads, and airplane trips for passengers) produced stops growing as rapidly as population. These obstacles take the form of affordability obstacles. The physics of the situation somehow causes the wages and wealth to be increasingly be concentrated among the top 10% or 1%. Lower-paid individuals are increasingly left out. While goods are still produced, ever-fewer workers can afford more than basic necessities. Such a situation makes for unhappy workers.
World energy consumption per capitahit a peak in 2018 and began to slide in 2019, with an even bigger drop in 2020. With less energy consumption, world automobile sales began to slide in 2019 and fell even lower in 2020. Protests, often indirectly related to inadequate wages or benefits, became an increasing problem in 2019. The year 2020 is known for Covid-19 related shutdowns and flight cancellations, but the indirect effect was to reduce energy consumption by less travel and by broken supply lines leading to unavailable goods. Prices of fossil fuels dropped far too low for producers.
Governments tried to get their own economies growing by various techniques, including spending more than the tax revenue they took in, leading to a need for more government debt, and by Quantitative Easing, acting to hold down interest rates. The result was a big increase in the money supply in many countries. This increased money supply was often distributed to individual citizens as subsidies of various kinds.
The higher demand caused by this additional money tended to cause inflation. It tended to raise fossil fuel prices because the inexpensive-to-extract fuels have mostly been extracted. In the days of Paul Volker, more energy supply at a little higher price was available within a few years. This seems extremely unlikely today because of diminishing returns. The problem is that there is little new oil supply available unless prices can stay above at least $120 per barrel on a consistent basis, and prices this high, or higher, do not seem to be available.
Oil prices are not rising this high, even with all of the stimulus funds because of the physics-based wage disparity problem mentioned previously. Also, those with political power try to keep fuel prices down so that the standards of living of citizens will not fall. Because of these low oil prices, OPEC+ continues to make cuts in production. The existence of chronically low prices for fossil fuels is likely the reason why Russia behaves in as belligerent a manner as it does today.
Today, with rising interest rates and Quantitative Tightening instead of Quantitative Easing, a major concern is that the debt bubble that has grown since in 1981 will start to collapse. With falling debt levels, prices of assets, such as homes, farms, and shares of stock, can be expected to fall. Many borrowers will be unable to repay their loans.
If this combination of events occurs, deflation is a likely outcome because banks and pension funds are likely to fail. If, somehow, local governments are able to bail out banks and pension funds, then there is a substantial likelihood of local hyperinflation. In such a case, people will have huge quantities of money, but practically nothing available to buy. In either case, the world economy will shrink because of inadequate energy supply.
Most people have a “normalcy bias.” They assume that if economic growth has continued for a long time in the past, it necessarily will occur in the future. Yet, we all know that all dissipative structures somehow come to an end. Humans can come to an end in many ways: They can get hit by a car; they can catch an illness and succumb to it; they can die of old age; they can starve to death.
History tells us that economies nearly always collapse, usually over a period of years. Sometimes, population rises so high that the food production margin becomes tight; it becomes difficult to set aside enough food if the cycle of weather should turn for the worse. Thus, population drops when crops fail.
In the years leading up to collapse, it is common that the wages of ordinary citizens fall too low for them to be able to afford an adequate diet. In such a situation, epidemics can spread easily and kill many citizens. With so much poverty, it becomes impossible for governments to collect enough taxes to maintain services they have promised. Sometimes, nations lose at war because they cannot afford a suitable army. Very often, governmental debt becomes non-repayable.
The world economy today seems to be approaching some of the same bottlenecks that more local economies hit in the past.
The basic problem is that with inadequate energy supplies, the total quantity of goods and services provided by the economy must shrink. Thus, on average, people must become poorer. Most individual citizens, as well as most governments, will not be happy about this situation.
The situation becomes very much like the game of musical chairs. In this game, one chair at a time is removed. The players walk around the chairs while music plays. When the music stops, all participants grab for a chair. Someone gets left out. In the case of energy supplies, the stronger countries will try to push aside the weaker competitors.
Countries that understand the importance of adequate energy supplies recognize that Europe is relatively weak because of its dependence on imported fuel. However, Europe seems to be oblivious to its poor position, attempting to dictate to others how important it is to prevent climate change by eliminating fossil fuels. With this view, it can easily keep its high opinion of itself.
If we think about the musical chairs’ situation and not enough energy supplies to go around, everyone in the world (except Europe) would be better off if Europe were to be forced out of its high imports of fossil fuels. Russia could perhaps obtain higher energy export prices in Asia and the Far East. The whole situation becomes very strange. Europe tells itself it is cutting off imports to punish Russia. But, if Europe’s imports can remain very low, everyone else, from the US, to Russia, to China, to Japan would benefit.
The benefits of wind and solar energy are glorified in Europe, with people being led to believe that it would be easy to transition from fossil fuels, and perhaps leave nuclear, as well. The problem is that wind, solar, and even hydroelectric energy supply are very undependable. They cannot ever be ramped up to provide year-round heat. They are poorly adapted for agricultural use (except for sunshine helping crops grow).
Few people realize that the benefits that wind and solar provide are tiny. They cannot be depended on, so companies providing electricity need to maintain duplicate generating capacity. Wind and solar require far more transmission than fossil-fuel-generated electricity because the best sources are often far from population centers. When all costs are included (without subsidy), wind and solar electricity tend to be more expensive than fossil-fuel generated electricity. They are especially difficult to rely on in winter. Therefore, many people in Europe are concerned about possibly “freezing in the dark,” as soon as this winter.
There is no possibility of ever transitioning to a system that operates only on intermittent electricity with the population that Europe has today, or that the world has today. Wind turbines and solar panels are built and maintained using fossil fuel energy. Transmission lines cannot be maintained using intermittent electricity alone.
Basically, Europe must use very much less fossil fuel energy, for the long term. Citizens cannot assume that the war with Ukraine will soon be over, and everything will be back to the way it was several years ago. It is much more likely that the freeze-in-the-dark problem will be present every winter, from now on. In fact, European citizens might actually be happier if the climate would warm up a bit.
With this as background, there is a need to figure out how to use less energy without hurting lifestyles too badly. To some extent, changes from the Covid-19 shutdowns can be used, since these indirectly were ways of saving energy. Furthermore, if families can move in together, fewer buildings in total will need to be heated. Cooking can perhaps be done for larger groups at a time, saving on fuel.
If families can home-school their children, this saves both the energy for transportation to school and the energy for heating the school. If families can keep younger children at home, instead of sending them to daycare, this saves energy, as well.
A major issue that I do not point out directly in this presentation is the high energy cost of supporting the elderly in the lifestyles to which they have become accustomed. One issue is the huge amount and cost of healthcare. Another is the cost of separate residences. These costs can be reduced if the elderly can persuaded to move in with family members, as was done in the past. Pension programs worldwide are running into financial difficulty now, with interest rates rising. Countries with large elderly populations are likely to be especially affected.
Besides conserving energy, the other thing people in Europe can do is attempt to understand the dynamics of our current situation. We are in a different world now, with not enough energy of the right kinds to go around.
The dynamics in a world of energy shortages are like those of the musical chairs’ game. We can expect more fighting. We cannot expect that countries that have been on our side in the past will necessarily be on our side in the future. It is more like being in an undeclared war with many participants.
Under ideal circumstances, Europe would be on good terms with energy exporters, even Russia. I suppose at this late date, nothing can be done.
A major issue is that if Europe attempts to hold down fossil fuel prices, the indirect result will be to reduce supply. Oil, natural gas and coal producers will all reduce supply before they will accept a price that they consider too low. Given the dependence of the world economy on energy supplies, especially fossil fuel energy supplies, this will make the situation worse, rather than better.
Wind and solar are not replacements for fossil fuels. They are made with fossil fuels. We don’t have the ability to store up solar energy from summer to winter. Wind is also too undependable, and battery capacity too low, to compensate for need for storage from season to season. Thus, without a growing supply of fossil fuels, it is impossible for today’s economy to continue in its current form.
The people of Masafer Yatta are determined to hold on to their cave-dwelling lifestyle. “I was born in this cave and gave birth to all 12 of my children here,” says Hajja Halima Abu Younis, an 82-year-old woman from Jinba, one of 33 villages in this semi-desert region at the southern tip of the occupied West Bank.
Masafer Yatta is the only Palestinian territory where many caves are used as homes – some 200 of the 800 caves in this area are still inhabited. Abu Younis says she would never accept another home even if the Israeli government offered her a house with two floors. She can trace her family’s history in this cave back almost two centuries:
Mahmoud Ahmad, the grandfather of my husband, was born in this cave back in 1840. My husband’s father was born here in 1906, then my husband and now my sons. We were two families sleeping here: my husband and me on this side, my brother-in-law on the other. All our children were sleeping in the middle.
In 1980, Israel ruled that a large section of Masafer Yatta including 12 villages was, in fact, uninhabited. It designated the land Firing Zone 918 – an area for its military to practise with live ammunition. The residents of these villages remained until 1999, when the military attempted to evict more than 700 Palestinians on the grounds that they were “illegally living in a firing zone”. These families have been fighting a legal battle for their communities’ right to remain ever since, which was finally rejected by Israel’s Supreme Court in May 2022.
Since that ruling, the Israeli military has carried out regular live ammunition practices in and around eight villages within the zone. It has also escalated the forced evictions of local residents including those living in caves. Virtually all structures within Firing Zone 918 are now without legal protection against demolition.
Abu Younis says the most significant threat to the locals comes on the three days each week, Monday to Wednesday, when military training takes place:
In these days we are jailed in our caves, we cannot move. We are afraid the Israeli army will kill someone while they are conducting military training. The army trains tanks around our village. The sound of the bombs and shots scare the children and the flocks of animals. My son Issa cannot graze his 150 sheep during the military training. How can a shepherd be a shepherd if he cannot graze his sheep?
‘We feared nothing but the wolves’
The different styles of cave in Masafer Yatta reflect changing lifestyles from one generation to the next. Some possess water wells and tunnels so that residents could keep, feed and wash their farm animals inside the caves. Others have moats around them for external feeding.
Mohammed Abu Sabha, an 84-year-old farmer and shepherd originally from Al Quarytein village, is taking a younger generation of Palestinians aged 19 to 29 to see the cave in which he was born. Down narrow, crumbling stone steps, the group enters a large underground area with a low, domed ceiling. Abu Sabha is overcome with the emotion of his childhood memories as he steps into the cave:
Oh my god, it has changed. Why is it destroyed like this? I need to come back and renovate it. This cave means everything to me – I was born in it and I want to die in it too.
Abu Sabha’s family was evicted from the cave in 1951 when he was 13 years old. He has not been back in many years (he now lives in Yatta city, the urban centre north of Masafer Yatta). When he was a child, it was home to four families who all slept in the same room. Cows and camels lived inside the cave too to keep them safe; the cows were used to plough the surrounding land that provided the families with their main source of income. As one of the young visitors puts it: “Camels and sheep back then were like the Mercedes cars of today.”
Since 2017, researchers at Coventry University have been working with a younger generation of Palestinians from Masafer Yatta to gather stories from their elders. The On Our Land project was established to build oral histories of what everyday life was, and remains, like for the semi-nomadic people who call this part of the occupied West Bank home. We have been given access to historical documents, testimonials, historical maps and photographs to support these oral histories.
Abu Ashraf Hamamda, a 60-year-old farmer who still lives in a cave in Al Mufaqara, one of the villages inside Firing Zone 918, explains how people used to move around Masafer Yatta following annual cycles of harvest, livestock grazing and rest:
We used to live from October to July in the lower parts of Masafer Yatta. In summer, we would move to the hills to harvest our rain-fed produce of grapes and figs … The whole family participated in harvesting, everyone who could carry a sickle – old and young, men and women. We took food with us, grapes and milk from the sheep. We worked all day, morning to evening … We stayed in the fields for two weeks without coming back to the village.
At this point, he starts singing the song they would all sing while cutting the wheat: “Oh my sickle with the sharp teeth. Oh my sickle that is made in Gaza.”
According to Ali Na’ameen, a 73-year-old shepherd from Al Majaz village, the sheep’s milk they produce is unique because of the area’s particular geography:
In Masafer Yatta, we do not have as much rain as in the north [of the West Bank]. But the grass here is the best because it is salty; it strengthens the sheep’s immune systems. This gives their milk a creamier texture and makes it more nutritious.
Na’ameen is usually a happy soul, but as he talks he grows nostalgic for a more carefree time:
My favourite moments in summer were when shepherds gathered in the middle of the day around the water well. From late morning until early afternoon, the sheep had naps because of the hot weather. We took this time as an opportunity to chat. Sometimes, we played games such as the “seven stones and fence” game, which is a bit like chess. We were happy and had peace of mind. We feared nothing but the wolves coming for our sheep.
‘A piece of paradise’
Masafer Yatta sits at the southern tip of the West Bank’s South Hebron Hills. Its craggy mountains and hills resemble walnut shells in summer, connected by more fertile pastures in the valleys below. About 3,000 people live here, mostly working as shepherds and farmers growing wheat, barley, beans and olives.
The locals tell us different stories about the name of the area. Some say Masafer comes from the Arabic word for “zero”, referring to the belief that life could not thrive in this hot and harsh landscape. However Nidal Younis, the current mayor of Masafer Yatta, tells us it refers to the last period of the Ottoman Empire, when locals were freed from paying taxes for agricultural products in order to win their loyalty to the weak Ottoman rulers.
Yet another version suggests Masafer means “travelling”, referring to the journeys people have long been making through this area – including traders and pilgrims travelling between Africa, Asia and Europe. Abu Younis describes how the villagers used to give these travellers food and fresh water from a pond, filled by an ancient clay pipe running down from a spring in the hills.
People have lived on this land for many generations, grazing sheep and goats and selling dairy and livestock products. According to the mayor, however, many feel they cannot sustain themselves and their families solely through subsistence farming and shepherding any more. “In the past,” Younis says, “we were cultivating huge areas so you did not need to think of alternative [sources of income], despite the hardship of this life.”
In recent decades, many younger Palestinians have gravitated away from the rural lifestyle to Yatta city and beyond. Ibrahim Nawaja, who is from the village of Susya and splits his time between Susya and Yatta city, says rural Masafer Yatta is “like a piece of paradise for me, with its fresh air, calm atmosphere and rich nature – green in spring, yellow in summer. I come here to get away from the traffic and noise of the city.”
But the land designation changes applied by Israel since 1980 have disrupted the traditional lives of farmers and shepherds here. Nawaja suggests that while this semi-nomadic lifestyle was never easy, the additional barriers imposed have made it much harder – and residents’ testimonies have repeatedly alleged that Israeli settlers have exacerbated tensions by interfering with water supplies and through other attacks.
People’s lives have become difficult and complicated because of the occupation’s restrictions. There are many injustices, including when our water wells and pastures have been contaminated.
A ‘misunderstanding’ that changed everything
Many residents tell us the declaration of Firing Zone 918 rests on a misunderstanding. They say the Israeli government did not recognise that the people of Masafer Yatta live a semi-nomadic lifestyle when it first deemed the area uninhabited in 1980. More than four decades later, this position was endorsed by Israel’s Supreme Court in its May 2022 final ruling, which found that Masafer Yatta residents had no right to the land because they were not permanent residents at the time of its declaration as a firing zone.
In August, the Supreme Court rejected a further appeal from residents against the demolition of two schools and other Palestinian buildings within the firing zone. Yesterday (October 2), the court rejected a request for a further hearing on its May 4 verdict, and Israel’s government confirmed it would not grant any more court hearings.
When the Oslo Accords were signed in the early 1990s as a step towards fulfilling the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination, Masafer Yatta was categorised as “Area C”, meaning it still fell under full Israeli administrative and military control. Prior to 2022, the biggest displacement of residents took place in 1999. Abu Ashraf Hamamda recalls how he reacted to that eviction:
After they collected our belongings and threw them to the other side of the road, I snuck through the mountains back to my village. I contacted Israeli activists and lawyers. I went to the Israeli parliament, and gave a speech about the right of my people to stay in our villages and that we had been living there for a long time. After four months, we had a court decision that allowed us to return and to stay temporarily. And we repaired our communities.
More than two decades on from the eviction, they are still living there – and, says his wife Um Ashraf Hamamda, their determination to remain is stronger than ever:
We are eight big families in this village. Our grandparents and our parents lived here … The occupation expelled us to Al-Tuwani village. They threw away our belongings, they dispersed us [but] we persevered. We sued them and kept striving until we reached the Supreme Court … Then when we returned to our village, the occupation continued oppressing us because they failed to expel us the first time. They poisoned our cattle so we would lose hope and leave the village. But we stayed – we did not leave! We were born here and we have to stay here.
Most of the 700-odd residents evicted in 1999 returned to their caves and other buildings after the court’s decision in March 2000. The ruling allowed the residents to return temporarily – and they have been fighting a legal battle with Israel ever since.
In recent months, however, the Israeli military has stepped up the demolition of buildings within the firing zone on the grounds that Palestinians have no permits for them. Such permits are extremely hard to obtain from Israel’s government.
Residents say they are prevented from having electricity with any solar panels they erect soon being destroyed. They have also described the authorities cutting water pipes, demolishing wells and confiscating water tanks in order to deprive them and their animals of water.
The threat of settler attacks
The threat to the livelihoods – and existence – of Palestinians in Masafer Yatta also comes from the building of Israeli settlements on land at the edge of Firing Zone 918. This land was previously used by Palestinian farmers and shepherds, who now find themselves “boxed in” between military training and the new settlements.
The settlers are all Israeli citizens of Jewish descent who have moved into gated communities in this occupied Palestinian territory. Housing in such settlements is often subsidised by Israel’s government, and different laws apply to these settlers than their Palestinian neighbours.
Since Israel started building the settlements, we now live less than one mile from them. Settlers chop our trees, burn our crops and poison our water wells … In the past when we were herding our sheep, we moved freely in our land and slept wherever we wanted. But today we do everything very quickly because we want to avoid settler attacks.
Experiences of settler-instigated violence come up regularly in the oral histories we have recorded. Hajja Nuzha Al-Najjar describes how, in 2005, she was in a field with her daughters-in-law when she was shot in the back of her leg by some Israeli settlers. Her leg is stretched out in front of her as she recalls that “my son was on the other side of the valley. When he tried to join me, he also became a target so had to crouch down and hide.”
Al-Najjar limped back to her cave and only then realised the blood was streaming down her leg. An ambulance was called but the settlers would not let it pass, she recalls, so she had to be bundled into a car and driven some way before she could be transferred to the ambulance.
The level of livestock in Masafer Yatta is now just a third of what it was in 1980 when the firing zone was first declared. Abu Ashraf Hamamda explains the reasons for this decline:
On the one hand, we cannot reach the places we used to herd in. On the other, since Oslo [the signing of the Oslo Accords], the price of animal food has increased. In less than six months, barley and wheat prices increased by 80% – I could not afford that for my sheep … We were forced to sell part of our livestock because we were unable to feed them.
While our interviewees acknowledge the support they receive from many international and national humanitarian aid organisations – including being supplied with animal food – they say this is not a desirable solution. As Ali Na’meen explains:
Today we are receiving barley from the Food and Agriculture Organisation, a UN agency, instead of producing our own crops as in the past. We graze our sheep in groups, accompanied by international volunteers to protect us … This is not the kind of life we used to have when we moved freely and produced our own food. Despite that hard life, we were still in a much better situation than we are now.
‘I need to see my future’
The traditional semi-nomadic lifestyle of this area is also threatened by societal and cultural changes from one generation to the next. Most of the elders here say that young Palestinians want to live in houses, have smartphones and secure jobs rather than following the tough path of farming and shepherding. As a result, many have moved to Yatta city in the north-west of Masafer Yatta. Others have moved to cities such as Hebron, Bethlehem and Ramallah to study or work. Somia Al-Omour, one of the project’s young researchers, explains:
I need to see my future and live a normal life. I decided to continue my education in Ramallah as a nurse and to work there. I would not have the same opportunity if I stayed in Masafer Yatta.
In contrast, the elders of Masafer Yatta are more determined than ever to remain living in their caves and maintain their lifestyles as farmers and shepherds. But Abu Ashraf Hamamda accepts it is difficult to convince young people to carry on with this lifestyle:
Some of them are fed up living in the caves. They want to sleep in bedrooms, and they want a shower. They dream of having a closet for their clothes, not just a bag to put them in.
The unique traditions associated with life in the caves of Masafer Yatta may have lost some of their significance for the younger generation. Yet through our oral histories, we have seen bonds strengthen between the different generations. Khalil Makhamrah from Jinba village describes the profound impact of interviewing his grandmother:
That interview changed my perspective about the elderly people here, about the importance of their stories and lives. Ploughing the land was difficult for them but [I learnt] how much they enjoyed it. This is really important. When we can bring a tangible item from our past forward, it proves we own this land and it brings us closer to it. We need to protect this land that has been inherited to us, because this is the life of our parents and grandparents.
Such discussions may demonstrate to the next generation of Palestinians the value of “sumud” – steadfastness – in an area that is increasingly at risk. Ironically, the current threat of military practice within Firing Zone 918 is making young people return to the caves with their parents in greater numbers, as Taha Al-Omour, another of our young researchers, explains:
I am coming every day to stay with my father here in Al Majaz village, especially after the army started practising military training here. I cannot leave my parents in such conditions and stay in my home in Yatta city, even though I am looking for a more comfortable life that is unlike my parents’ hard life.
More than 200 young people now live permanently in the 12 Masafer Yatta villages within Firing Zone 918 – a significant increase from the recent past. Spaces have been created in each village to gather and sleep each night, in order to protect villagers from the threat of forced evictions and other harassment.
For generations, caves were the only homes for the people of Masafer Yatta, which is why there is such a strong connection to them. But these days, the caves play a further role as “safe spaces” – places to pass the traditions of the past to a new generation and to challenge the Israeli policy of expulsion. More than 200 caves in Masafer Yatta are still inhabited today, including by Abu Younis and her family:
Through the years, caves have enabled us to maintain life in Masafer Yatta’s villages and protected us from the occupation. Now, again, as our buildings and communities are being demolished, it is the last safe space for us. Not only do they protect us from the hot and cold weather, they protect us from harassment – so we will keep preserving them.
This story is part of Conversation Insights
The Insights team generates long-form journalism and is working with academics from different backgrounds who have been engaged in projects to tackle societal and scientific challenges.
All MENA countries, derived from the XIX and early XX centuries, acquired this capability when policing their citizens, identifying any person protesting their government without due process. The same applies to interstate relations where transboundary resources and interests of any kind envenom and more often inflame situations. So, at this conjecture, is it not the opportune time to at least try unlocking a Peace Ministry in the Middle East?
Unlocking Peace Ministry in the Middle East: Announcing the Middle East Consultation 2022
Everything is affected whenever peace is missing. Absolutely everything! Conflict has a way of harming all areas of the human experience. We all know too well the pain and confusion undermining peace throughout our nations, our communities, and our own souls in regrettable ways. It disorients and forces us to grapple with the seemingly overwhelming gravity of sin and the depth of its consequences. For this reason, God really, really cares about peace.
Seeking peace is essential to God’s story for humanity. Scripture demonstrates the extent to which conflict infects a fallen world while also declaring the length God goes for the sake of peace. This didn’t happen without sacrifice; Jesus Christ endured the extreme weight of conflict as he hung on the cross. And it was on this journey to the cross that he shared eternal words with his disciples: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid” (John 14:27). This is a perplexing type of comfort. Jesus is perfectly aware that our hearts will face trouble and fear in an uncertain world, but he assures us that the only kind of peace that can suffice is an otherworldly peace. Because of this, we have hope amid the storms of strife.
It can feel like the Middle East invents ever creative ways to undermine peace as people across the region deal with struggling societies, mounting insecurities, dirty politics, violent factionalism, destructive ideologies, and wave after wave of crisis. The problems fill headlines and reports throughout ceaseless cycles of bad news. Residents struggle through chronic frustration and disillusion, and growing numbers are joining a migration outflow seeking better fortunes in new locations.
Christ followers across the Middle East face their own flavors of conflict. Egypt encounters layers of challenges as churches and Christian groups serve amid rapidly changing times. In Algeria churches struggle to forge faith communities against the grain of a suppressive government. Christians of Iraq continue to navigate decades-long strife while trying to nurture one another and serve their neighbors. In Palestine, occupation and oppression hinder the most basic areas of human life and fuel hardships of many kinds. Sudan’s believers are dealing with rapidly changing political situations after years of regime change and upheaval. And in Lebanon, new layers of crisis pile upon old, unresolved conflicts to destabilize a state and its people. Unfortunately, these are only brief samples of the range of conflict raging across the region. It can all seem so overwhelming, and in the darkest moments cries go out, “Why, Lord, do you stand far off? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?” (Psalms 10:1).
Though it doesn’t come easily, we must insist on recognizing the profound ways God’s people can and do faithfully minister peace amid challenging situations. Churches, organizations, and individuals of faith are ready vessels for extending Christ’s peace; they possess the potential by the Spirit to alter situations and write new stories for people and places. Is this not what it means to take hold of the peace that Christ leaves? This among the many questions the Middle East Consultation 2022 aims to ask on September 21-23 during Peace I Leave with You: Theories and Practices for Peace Ministry in the Middle East.
Practicing effective peace ministry requires us to imagine peace in ways that conform our thoughts and attitudes to the person of Christ in service of others. Biblically, peace ministry can be understood as the work of unlocking human potential by moving people, communities, and nations into healthier dynamics of shared life. Such outreach proceeds from deep convictions that the gospel is a holistic response to any situation where sin inflicts strife, oppression, hatred, and mistrust- everything antithetical to the restorative work of God.
Paradigms for peace ministry can help us recognize how peace involves multidimensional expressions (peacekeeping, peacemaking, and peacebuilding) working across levels of the human experience, including the personal, group, and national. The following grid, which MEC 2022 will adopt as a basic working framework, helps conceptualize this dynamic:
Such a framework is helpful, but it certainly cannot convey the complexity of engaging conflict. There are no simple explanations or quick solutions to the problems plaguing the Middle East. Each unique context in the region carries assorted variables that require us to ask a proper set of questions. Worldly logic may say peace is an elusive dream or unattainable ideal, but authentic faith in Christ compels us to take hold of the gospel’s promises of peace as we seek to discover how God is active and alive in the world. Our eschatological hope for the future moves us to action as we relish the words of Isaiah 9:7: There will be no end to the increase of His government or of peace on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and righteousness from then on and forevermore.
God is working through conflict for redemptive purposes, and everyone has a role to play in this. This means embracing the invitation to partner with God in living out Christ-honoring works of peace and continually exploring new ways to think about the theories and practices of peace ministry.
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Earth has been used as a building material for at least the last 12,000 years. Ethnographic research into earth being used as an element of Aboriginal architecture in Australia suggests its use probably goes back much further.
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