From Morocco to Oman, apart from the obvious official language and religion, there is history. In effect, it is the movement of people from the outer edges of the MENA that was always throughout millennia a common carrier upon which carriages would transport migrants away from danger and bad life. So, what is the link if any between the countries of the MENA region?
Recent examples of mass movements of Syrians into Jordan, Turkey, and the European Union would be the most edifying sample. More recently, Yemen despite its status as a poorer country compared to other Gulf ones went nevertheless through conflict with its neighbours and its populations had to flee away to its immediate adjacent countries. Before that, there was the Libyan case where a large desert country with a small population did produce as it were some migrants mostly to Europe for the well offs and the neighbouring Tunisia and Egypt for the masses.
After more than half a century of migratory movements between the two shores of the Mediterranean, the North African migration system was definitively “formatted” as it still stands today: organically linked to France first, and then to Western Europe.
The Levant conflict and civil wars, and finally the crises and successive wars here and there since the 80s, have consequently forced the exodus of millions. North African countries have in turn been affected, directly or indirectly, by these Middle Eastern crises.
But geopolitical issues are also not the only differentiator of these countries and apart from armed conflicts and/or civil unrest, oil and conflict are felt like the main drivers of migration to and from or within the MENA.
Climate change and its subsequent life deregulations are affecting its inhabitants. Would this, despite all the goodwill of all the COPs and SDGs, affect the numbers and the flows?
Would all countries be subject to this culturally well-established custom since the Exodus from Egypt, to run away to search for better climes?
According to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), some of the emerging market economies grew in 2020 as government incentives and support were put into action. The Forum‘s article by Ragui Assaad, Caroline Krafft and Mohamed Ali Marouani confirm that the impact of Covid-19 on labour markets in MENA in 2021 was unprecedented and not really well lived in by most. Would this pace or resilience continue in 2022?
Employment is recovering but income losses persist in MENA countries in the second year of the pandemic. Two recent ERF policy briefs summarised in this column illustrate the mix of recovery and ongoing challenges for households and firms.
With the Covid-19 pandemic on the verge of its third year, Middle East and North African (MENA) economies are recovering from the slump caused by lockdowns and other economic disruptions, but households and firms are still experiencing steep income and revenue losses well into the pandemic’s second year.
In two recently published policy briefs, we examine how workers and firms have fared in the first half of 2021 in Egypt, Jordan, Morocco and Tunisia (Krafft et al, 2021, 2022).
Household and enterprise surveys during the pandemic
The analysis is based on the COVID-19 MENA Monitor Household and Enterprise Surveys conducted by ERF over the second half of 2020 and the first half of 2021 (OAMDI – Open Access Micro Data Initiative, 2021a, 2021b).
The surveys were conducted by telephone on a panel of firms and enterprises. The household surveys are the main source of information on how households, workers and microenterprises experienced the pandemic, whereas the enterprise surveys focused on the experience of small and medium enterprises (those with between six and 199 workers) in February 2020 (pre-pandemic).
Four waves of the household survey were conducted in Morocco and Tunisia centred around November 2020, February 2021, April 2021 and June 2021. Two waves were conducted in Egypt and Jordan centred around February and June 2021.
Two waves of the enterprise surveys were conducted in each of the four countries corresponding to the first and second quarter of 2021. Household and enterprise surveys were conducted in Sudan as part of the same series, but are not discussed here.
Health and economic outcomes in the pandemic
Among the four countries, Jordan and Tunisia experienced much higher rates of Covid-19 cases and deaths in the first half of 2021 than either Egypt or Morocco. But while Egypt gradually loosened its closure measures in 2021, Morocco, like Jordan and Tunisia, maintained more stringent measures than the world average.
Egypt was also the only one among the four countries that managed to maintain a positive economic growth rate of 1.5% in 2020. In contrast, Tunisia experienced a large economic contraction of 8.8% and Morocco likewise contracted 6.3%, while Jordan’s economy contracted by 1.6%. Despite relatively strong recoveries in Morocco and Tunisia in the first half of 2021, their economies, as well as that of Jordan, remained depressed relative to pre-pandemic levels.
The tourist and transport industries were the hardest hit in all four countries, with tourism-related industries the most negatively affected in terms of closures, reduced hours and revenue losses.
Labour market outcomes
The evidence suggests that aggregate labour market indicators, such as labour force participation, employment and unemployment rates, were recovering in the first half of 2021, except in Morocco where the progress made earlier in the year later reversed. With the exception of Morocco, more of those who lost jobs early in the pandemic were regaining employment over the course of 2021.
Private wage workers, especially those hired informally, faced substantially more challenges related to layoffs/suspensions and wage reductions in Egypt, Jordan and Tunisia than in Morocco. But the prevalence of these challenges decreased in these three countries from February to June 2021, while it increased in Morocco.
The results of the household and enterprise surveys suggest that microenterprises were the most likely to be closed due to Covid-19 in the first quarter of 2021. If open, micro and small firms were more likely to have reduced hours than medium firms.
As Figure 1 shows, a similar proportion of microenterprises across the four countries reported substantially reduced revenues, but higher proportions of small and medium enterprises reported such revenue losses in Jordan and Morocco than in Egypt and Tunisia in the first quarter of 2021.
Figure 1: Revenue change (past 60 days versus 2019), by firm size in February 2020 and country, micro, small and medium enterprises (percentage), quarter one, 2021.
Source: Krafft et al (2021), based on data from the ERF COVID-19 MENA Monitor Household and Enterprise Surveys
Despite some recovery in employment rates, household income levels remain depressed, with just under a half to two-thirds of households in all four countries reporting income losses in June 2021 compared to pre-pandemic levels. In fact, the share reporting income losses increased from February to June 2021.
As Figure 2 shows, household income losses were highest for the households that were poorest pre-pandemic, confirming the adverse effects of the pandemic on poverty and inequality.
Figure 2: Changes in household income from February 2020 to June 2021 (percentage of households), by country and February 2020 income quartile
Source: Krafft et al (2022), based on COVID-19 MENA Monitor Household Survey in June 2021.
Social support reached a relatively limited fraction of the population, except in Jordan, where it reached 53% in February and 44% in June 2021. Assistance was generally well-targeted, reaching a higher proportion of lower-income households than higher-income households. But while targeting efficiency improved in Morocco over time, it deteriorated in Egypt.
Targeting of assistance was generally not based on the workers’ vulnerability with respect to labour market status, again with the possible exception of Jordan, which successfully targeted irregular and informal workers.
It appears that firms in Jordan and Morocco were experiencing more difficulty than firms in Egypt and Tunisia due to the Covid-19-induced crisis in the first quarter of 2021. Although the Tunisian economy had the deepest overall downturn in 2020, it appears to have recovered somewhat by the first quarter of 2021 so that the adverse effects on firms were reduced.
The downturn in Egypt appears to be shallower than in the other countries, sparing Egyptian firms the worst of the negative outcomes. Yet in all countries, there is a clear need for continuing support, especially targeted to the most affected industries and firms, as the economic effects of Covid-19 continue to affect micro, small and medium enterprises.
Support for firms
Although policies were instituted in all four countries to support firms through the crisis, the reach of these policies appears to have been limited. A half to three-quarters of small and medium enterprises reported they had not applied for or received any government assistance.
The most common type of support received (and needed) in all four countries was business loans, but firms in Morocco and Tunisia also report needing (and sometimes receiving) salary subsidies. A substantial proportion of firms in all four countries also expressed the need for reduced or delayed taxes.
The featured top image is for illustration and is credit to Reuters
Here is Gilgamesh Nabeel in MENA Region Digital Transformation Can Create More Jobs as per a recent report that says so.
Over 230 students attend a workshop held by the Elaf Center and the Earthlink Telecommunications at Diyala University, northeast of Baghdad, to be better prepared for the labour market. (Photo Courtesy: Elaf Center for Media Training, 2021).
Lack of digital infrastructure contributes to high rates of youth unemployment in the MENA region, a new report says.
The report, “COVID-19 and Internet Accessibility in the MENA Region”, was published in mid-December by the U.S.-based Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. It assesses the readiness of the MENA region countries to shift employment online, both in terms of Internet availability and digital literacy among the populace.
Its authors, Alexander Farley and Manuel Langendorf, argue that increasing internet accessibility and investing in digital infrastructure development can help governments’ efforts to form a digitally-enabled economic recovery strategy.
While the MENA region is projected to have 160 million potential digital users by 2025, the paper draws a bleak image of its internet infrastructure and accessibility.
Last year, 34 percent of the population in Arab states was not using the Internet, according to ITU data. In 2019, the GSMA, which represent the interests of mobile network operators worldwide, found that almost half the people in countries such as Egypt and Lebanon, which have a mobile broadband network, are not using the Internet. Around 60 million people in the MENA region were not covered by a mobile network.
“Studies have shown that broadband development leads to increased GDP and has a positive impact on employment in the short term – part of the picture are newly created jobs to build new digital infrastructure,”
Manuel Langendorf A researcher focusing on digital transformation in the MENA region and co-author of the report
Furthermore, with the exception of the UAE and Qatar, which cover about 80 percent of households directly with fiber, only nine out of 100 inhabitants in Arab states used fixed broadband subscriptions, the second-lowest rate of all world regions, after Africa.
The paper says the development of digital infrastructure overall continues to lag behind the rest of the world. This holds back the region’s digital transformation and deprives it of the benefits of investment in improving national core networks.
Digital Infrastructure Development Boosts Jobs
Overall, unemployment in the MENA region stood at 11.6 percent with the “the low-skilled, the young, women, and migrant workers were affected the most” by the pandemic, the report says. In 2019, youth unemployment was over 25 percent, with further decline in youth employment by an additional 10 percent in 2020.
Manuel Langendorf, a researcher focusing on digital transformation in the MENA region and co-author of the report, argued that proper investment in digital infrastructure can help government confront unemployment.
“Digital transformation is not a silver bullet to solve the MENA region’s protracted unemployment problem, but it can create new job opportunities, especially for the large young and relatively tech-savvy population,” Langendorf told Al-Fanar Media.
“Studies have shown that broadband development leads to increased GDP and has a positive impact on employment in the short term – part of the picture are newly created jobs to build new digital infrastructure,” he added.
While the longer term effects seem less clear, Langendorf thinks a country-wide improvement to digital infrastructure can bring new economic opportunities, including for disadvantaged populations and rural areas.
“These include the expansion of remote working, as an employee or freelance worker, and also allows workers to search for employment opportunities more widely,” he added. “An improved digital infrastructure also opens up new job opportunities in online education.”
Citing the installation of ten submarine internet cables between Europe and Africa, he said: “We found a significant and large relative increase in the employment rate in connected areas when fast internet becomes available.”
Do We Need More IT Graduates?
In the Internet era, when many traditional jobs might disappear, students see IT-related courses as a route to secure jobs.
However, the report highlighted that some countries, like Jordan, graduate around 5,000 students in IT-related fields each year, yet less than 2,000 are hired. Still, some see an opportunity for ICT graduates from the region to fill the shortage of skilled IT workers in Western countries.
“University curricula in most MENA countries are slow to update, thus creating a situation where many fresh graduates hold a diploma but are not ready to start working in the IT sector as their knowledge is outdated,” he wrote to Al-Fanar Media.
“Nevertheless, many MENA startups have had great success in the past years. In 2021, MENA-based startups raised close to $3 billion, a new record for the region.”
He called on the education and the private sectors to collaborate to improve the university-job pipeline and close the skills gap. “Both sides should make sure that the latest IT knowledge is integrated into curricula and set up internship opportunities for students and graduates,” he said. “Beyond universities, the private sector and educational institutions can hold more workshops to bring people up to speed.”
The report also identified management skills as one of the biggest challenges to expanding potential of IT in the MENA region. “The lack of management skills affects the scalability of projects and businesses that can make use of the surplus of advanced IT skills,” said Farley.
Moreover, the authors said the MENA region lacks truly innovative IT ventures, and is focused instead on adapting ideas created elsewhere.
“In this context, the region is often described as a consumer rather than a creator of technology,” said Farley. “Nevertheless, many MENA startups have had great success in the past years. In 2021, MENA-based startups raised close to $3 billion, a new record for the region.”
Fruitful Digital Transformation Tips
Governments and other stakeholders need to ensure that the expansion of digital infrastructure focuses not just on connectivity (areas covered by Internet), but accessibility, the authors went on.
“Is using the Internet affordable? Do people have access to devices to use the Internet?” wondered Langendorf. “Mobile industry body GSMA estimated those living in areas with a mobile broadband network but not using mobile internet increased from 41 percent to 48 percent between 2014 and 2020.”
To enable investments in digital infrastructure to tackle unemployment, Langendorf calls on governments to support entrepreneurship. “They need to facilitate starting a business and obtaining loans, and decriminalizing bankruptcy,” he said.
“Besides, they should enable cross-border trade and the movement of skilled people between countries.”
Leading scholar says region must place more importance on liberal arts, not just science and engineering, to build better societies by Anna McKie could be an unprecedented way of covering the recurring issue of underdevelopment not through traditional knowledge but by using the art and humanities knowledge. Let us see what is proposed as per the very words of a Professor: ‘certification’ mania hobbles Middle East development.
Professor: ‘certification’ mania hobbles Middle East development
April 8, 2021
Students in the Middle East and North Africa are too often more interested in “acquiring” a degree than developing the understanding that should come with it, a leading scholar has warned.
Safwan Masri, Columbia University’s executive vice-president for global centres and global development, said too many young people were steered into courses focused on science and engineering when critical thinking and intercultural understanding were desperately needed across the region.
Speaking at Times Higher Education’s MENA Universities Summit, Professor Masri said future leaders being trained in institutions across the region were “not fully prepared to lead”, the product of “technocratic societies led by a global technocratic class”.
“Students – and the parents who bankroll them – are often more interested in acquiring professional certification than truly understanding the world and the role of an educated citizen within it,” said Professor Masri.
“Here in MENA, young people fortunate enough to attend university are almost unilaterally steered into STEM training.
“But STEM competency is only half of the equation. We need people who also know how to organise societies, articulate and secure alignment on political ideals, and build robust civil societies that expand rights and freedoms to historically marginalised groups.”
Professor Masri, an expert on the contemporary Arab world and the head of Columbia’s study centre in Amman, Jordan, said the solution had to be a greater embrace of liberal arts education across the region.
He acknowledged that this “won’t be easy” because generations of Arabs “have been indoctrinated with hyper-nationalist propaganda, exclusionary rhetoric and dogmatic religious discourse at the expense of critical thinking and questioning skills”.
“Progress cannot be achieved without deprogramming and reprogramming this mindset, to learn to coexist with different points of view and ways of life,” Professor Masri said.
“Unless liberal arts training is more highly valued in this region, the region’s ambitions will be thwarted. We must achieve balance. We must help students – and the parents who fund many of them – understand the crucial interplay between content [of academic training] and context [understanding of society].”
At the summit, held online in partnership with NYU Abu Dhabi, Professor Masri also argued that at a time of geopolitical turmoil and “historic levels of misunderstanding” between countries and the people within them, knowledge diplomacy led by universities “may be our last and best tool if we are to rebuild a broken world”. He highlighted Columbia’s decision to maintain its global centre in Istanbul even in the face of increasing persecution of academics.
“The solution wasn’t to give in, we contended, but to dig in – to support academics and students, to continue to share knowledge,” Professor Masri said.
But Professor Masri expressed concern about the “weaponisation” of knowledge, highlighting that while Gulf states’ attempts to exercise soft power by funding Middle East studies centres in Western universities ostensibly had “no strings attached”, there were “uncomfortable stories” of researchers at these centres coming under pressure after writing about issues such as human rights and democracy.
A better model of knowledge diplomacy, he argued, was that of the Covid vaccines, which were the result of thousands of researchers crossing the globe over decades, generating the knowledge that informed the vaccines’ designs.
“The Covid vaccine represents decades’ worth, perhaps even centuries’ worth, of university-generated knowledge – distilled down to little more than an ounce of liquid, all concentrated in a single shot,” Professor Masri said.
“This medical and scientific breakthrough will reconnect the people of the world.”
The world – or at least a large and dominant part of it! – is increasingly being run by so-called “experts”, sometimes dubbed honestly as “technocrats”. Their fields of “expertise” are many, and that list is growing steadily longer. The fact is, universities and research institutions must be seen to be “torch bearers” of progress, values, knowledge, scientific inquiry, freedom, justice … or whatever other words sound good in a speech or on a website. In vicious competition for student fees, research funds, private donations and government grants, every institution must proclaim “excellence” – somehow, anyhow.
As in any other field of human endeavour, opportunities for gaming the system are many. The standard, time-tested techniques of cronyism, mutual back-scratching, feudalism, deception, hyperbole, playing to the gallery … et cetera … run rampant. These techniques are at work incessantly and brazenly, around the world, to further the careers of aggressive and ambitious old-timers, mid-lifers and new entrants.
For so-called “experts”, however, one other very special trick is also available. The ability to define ever newer areas of “expertise” and “challenges” offers an easy option not available in other areas of human endeavour. As more and more people acquire Ph.D.s and fight for success and prominence, they build ever smaller boxes around their work. Each such group dubs its small box “the next big thing”, writes a few silly papers, and makes a big show of “fake it till you make it”. If one such “bold academic initiative” does not work out too well, another appears soon with a different flavour, another catchy label, and yet another round of hype. Thus the spectacle goes on from “progress” to “more progress”.
If a manufacturer claims to have developed a better quality of soap, potential customers have right to test the product, verify the claims and decide whether to spend their hard-earned money on the new soap. Validation by prospective customers is a crucial and essential step when a new product is sought to be introduced to society.
With new and unproven academic claims, however, ordinary citizens of the society have no right to opine. This is a tragic, anomalous and therefore also unstable situation, because the public policy burdens of new theories fall almost wholly on ordinary citizens. Any intelligent citizen can study a subject and formulate a cogent opinion, but a kind of intimidating “caste system” dubs large sections of population as being incapable of questioning theories and policies which impact their lives; and thus honest public debate is avoided.
This powerful new technique of deception is based on building ever narrower boxes of specialization. Instead of thinking out of a box, these “experts” build smaller and smaller boxes around whatever they are capable of thinking after twenty plus years of “formal” education; they are masters only of intellectual fencing and pointless one-upmanship.
Ordinary people do not question these “experts” because they have naive faith in the “hallowed halls of scholarship”, being unaware of the base emotions rampant inside.
One root cause of the problem seems to be that “well-being of fellow citizens” is not even a valid subject in academia! While each “expert” is fierce in defending his or her turf, what should be the central, common denominator – the well-being of society – receives at best a passing mention in support of some fashionable theory.
Examples can easily be cited of “specialist experts” bringing confusion to public debate, and often also immense misery to public life. This happens either because they disagree among themselves, or because they have in mind “private” goals, not public good.
Just a few prominent examples are given here, in what should never be mistaken for an exhaustive list.
The handling of the Covid 19 pandemic is a recent and glaring example. Experts in virology, public health, epidemiology, pharmaceuticals, practicing doctors, computer modellers – in short, just about every Tom, Dick and Harry – wanted to show how brilliant they were. Naturally, politicians joined in too, following the principle of “not letting any crisis go waste”. Who suffered?
Institutions such as IMF are staffed by allegedly “top notch” celebrity economists – ever so articulate, ever so politically savvy. Today they recommend unrestricted money printing for one group of countries, and unrelenting austerity for another. Plenty of “fuzz factor” is hidden in all economic theories, however, to spin either approach as being right.
The sad political reality, however, cannot be found in any textbook. The first group of countries are powerful, highly developed CREDITOR countries, while the second group has impoverished DEBTOR countries. Excess money with the creditors can always be made to earn juicy returns from economies struggling under debt burdens. All this makes very good business sense for the former – the CREDITOR countries – but should economists take sides in such cruel games of global usury?
Within any economy, there is a huge divide between ground reality and the official statistics. Statistics allow politicians and “expert” economists to congratulate themselves and play the endless game of blame-passing. People’s well-being goes by default.
Heartless decisions on bringing “democracy”, “freedom”, “progress” et cetera to other countries are routinely made by “experts” or “technocrats”. In reality, these people are no more than greedy, self-serving hatchet-men for ruthless power-grabbers.
Financial skulduggery in the name of capitalism engages the brightest minds of a society and the most powerful computers. Tactics such as high frequency front-running and algorithmic betting bring no benefit to agriculture, or manufacturing, or education, or health care or public well-being. Indeed, a few months ago, this author had the distinct impression that Donald Trump was testing and possibly teasing stock market investors by alternately making on-again, off-again comments about the possible trade deal with China.
As specialists, lawyers are a breed apart, tireless masters of evasion, innuendo and hair-splitting; truth, well-being or justice be damned. Climbing one level further up the food chain of corruption, many lobby ceaselessly for laws which subvert the public good.
Much is being made of the ongoing revolution in artificial intelligence (AI). A lot of it is hype, and much of it is ineffective and harmless. For example, if an AI bot sends me mostly uninteresting pieces of a news-feed, I will not bother to complain. Serious difficulties with AI will show up when it is applied in critical sectors such as health care or policing.
Wherever we turn, we see examples of a strong centrifugal tendency at work in human affairs, driven essentially by discontentment which compounds itself. True, holistic well-being of society is on nobody’s agenda, while the greedy behave like hyenas, tugging with bloody fangs at the remaining healthy parts of society until little remains.
Comprehending the well-being of others requires compassion – without which no amount of materialistic development, hyped-up “progress” or “research”, politics, fashion, academic claims, brilliance, spin or propaganda can serve a legitimate, durable purpose. This is the simple, central truth that all “experts” evade like the plague. The don’t “do” compassion.
This frenetic, ceaseless evasion in all directions creates a strong divisive, centrifugal tendency. The priceless core of well-being is abandoned as “experts” run ragged in every conceivable direction except towards the core of well-being and contentment.
Fortunately, for the discriminating individual, that core is ever-present, deep within – waiting patiently to be discovered and its treasure unlocked.
Dr Naresh Jotwani is a semi-retired academic living in India and a member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace Development Environment. Apart from part-time engagements in engineering education and consulting, he engages in an in-depth, personal exploration of how Gautam Buddha’s profound discoveries and teachings can be applied to the acute problems of modern life. Tags: Elites, Humanity
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