I had the chance of participating in a couple of regional MENA/Arab consultation meetings on environment and sustainable development, and reviewed many reports issued on the subject. The latest report on the Arab High-level forum on sustainable development discussed the regional progress toward achieving the MDGs and highlighted the regional priorities toward the post 2015 agenda among other regional considerations.
There is seldom a report that did not highlight peace and security, water scarcity, demographics and poverty as contextual key themes for a regional sustainable development agenda. Likewise, there is an overall affirmative tone that describes the progress achieves on the different fronts of the MDGs. In my post below, I am more interested in having a closer look at what constitutes key enablers that are fundamental for the Arab governments to address in embarking into the post 2015 development era.
Prevailing economic mindset that leads development
Evidently sustainability has not been institutionalized or mainstreamed into the development agenda in the region. Despite some key sustainability initiatives, the governments’ policies and overall agenda are still driven by economy, mostly “rentier” in nature. Institutionalizing sustainability into an inclusive economy will prompt a diversified, productive, job generating and distributive economic model, with minimal ecological footprints.
- Ambiguity of the baseline
The data capability of the various countries in the region is not consistent. In the moved advanced ones, the question pf data comprehensiveness and quality is often raised. This is evident in most of the sustainable development related reports, as well in the efforts facilitated by UNESCWA to strengthen data capabilities and statistical arms in order to improve quality, consistency and strengthen data generation, analysis, use and dissemination. Ambiguity and lack of confidence around the reported national and regional MDG progress prevails! In fact, governments have recently expressed the need to conduct genuine and critical analysis of the progress achieved toward achieving the MDGs to allow them an opportunity to learn from failure and capture the knowledge to build on it.
- Obsession with the numbers!
There is generally a common obsession among politicians and leaders toward short-term, immediate and easily measurable results. In the region, this mindset has been further reinforced by the MDG process given its intrinsic emphasis on quantitative measures. Obviously, this comes at the expenses of the quality, relevance and impacts of the outcomes. The SDG process, along with the gaps highlighted in the regional progress reports, suggests an immediate call to improving data capabilities and emphasizes strengthening M&E tools to improve knowledge management and lessons learned, enhance greater accountability and inform decisions.
Institutional framework and processes
Good governance is perceived to be a fundamental cornerstone for sustainable development. It has become its fourth dimension lately. Arab governments have recognized, in most of the MDG progress reports, that good governance, transparency and respect for people’s rights to participate are indispensable for an inclusive development agenda. This is evident both at the national and regional levels.
Though established, national sustainable development councils have not been influential in shaping the government agenda. Civil society voice is often unheard due to the absence of the engagement processes; and if in place, the processes are not transparent.
Regionally, the environmental and social dimensions are often overlooked! Sustainable development agenda is occasionally on the Arab leaders Summit agenda. It is seldom discussed in economic forums; rather it is managed at the level of the ministers of environment. Its relevance is then questionable! Besides, its stakeholders’ engagement processes are ambiguous and mostly exclusive. Nevertheless, with persistence and networking, a couple of civil society organizations have found their way, infiltrated the “black box” and still navigating through the system.
There is a frequent popular call to enhance the regional cooperation with the aspiration to establish the long awaited “Arab Common Markets”. It is believed that the intra-regional cooperation is a strategic choice for the Arab governments to be able to face the challenges of the global economy and international trading system.
Besides, the region is not homogeneous in terms of wealth and development. There is huge opportunity for countries witnessing double digit growth to invest (in terms of ODI and development assistance) in less developed countries within the region, while benefiting from the knowledge, research and capability transfer in the different sectors.
A new regional partnership needs to establish innovative means and forms of multi and bi-lateral cooperation while engaging new stakeholders. Civil society, academia and private sectors have a lot to contribute for a successful regional partnership. Sectorally, intra-regional partnership can be extended on many fronts considered critical by the less developed and more developed countries, namely agriculture and food security, water and its scarcity, ICT and communication, industry and services, among others.
Though the region is witnessing an unprecedented turmoil, it is believed that it is time to revisit the national and regional development agenda enablers while leveraging on the SDG process that will drive the global development agenda for the next decade. It is timely for countries in transition to institutionalize these enablers while rebuilding their governance systems. It is an opportunity for other countries to redesign their decision making processes to make more inclusive, adaptable, transparent and evidence based. Yet, will it be a lost one?