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Challenges of Sustainable Development in the Middle East and Africa


Yang Guang

Senior research fellow of IWAAS

yangguang@cass.org.cn

 

 

It has been 30 years since the notion of sustainable development was brought forward and 10 years since it was widely accepted as a development strategy by world nations. However, what has been achieved in the Middle East and Africa to date suggests that the region is generally still far from the right track of sustainable development. It remains a severe challenge for countries in this region to surmount a whole range of problems that are blocking their way to sustainable development, and that will require their concerted efforts as well as cooperation with the world community in many major areas.

 

I.                    Origin of the new concept of development

 

Development is a changing concept that is always enriched and renewed in practice. To the third world countries in the post World War II period between the 1950s and 1960s, development simply meant economic growth and industrialization. Up to the early 1970s when people found that economic growth by itself could not necessarily reduce poverty and disparity as had been expected, a new strategy of “comprehensive social and economic development” to “meet the basic needs” was raised, extending the connotation of development to include ways of distribution as well. In the following decade, population boom and ecological degradation became increasingly conspicuous in their negative impact on social and economic development. These new problems together with the long-standing conundrum of poverty got entangled in one another and composed a vicious circle. In such circumstances, international financial institutions such as the World Bank and the IMF began from the 1980s to introduce “Structure Readjustment” programmes to Africa and the Middle East featuring free market and free trade based on the principles of neo-classical economics. Yet those programmes proved to be no panacea. As is described by the UNEP’s Global  Environment Outlook (GEO – 3), structural readjustment programmes have produced positive effects on the economy, society and the environment, but have at the same time rendered negative impact on social stability and environmental sustainability.[1] That environmental problems are becoming more and more outstanding tells us that development is not only about production and distribution, but also about balance between the wellbeing of mankind and that of the entire eco-system. Hence the concept of sustainable development that reflects the above understanding came into being in the 1970s and 1980s and gradually became a common sense of most nations in the world.

 

As a matter of fact, the Western mode of industrialization was challenged by some Westerners themselves as early as the end of the World War II. But it was not until the early 1970s that sustainable development became a popular concept in the world. In June 1972, the UN Conference on the Human Environment was held in Stockholm, Sweden, which gave birth to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the historical Declaration on the Human Environment. Acknowledging the challenges facing mankind in maintaining the Earth a suitable habitat for not only the present generation but the posterity of the human race, the Declaration stated 26 basic principles for addressing environmental problems, including those on resource conservation, prevention of pollutions, provision of aids, policies on birth control, environmental education, international cooperation and eradication of weapons of mass destruction. In the same year, a book entitled The Limits to Growth was published by the Roman Club, which asserted that technology, population, nutrition, natural resources and the environment would be the 5 main factors affecting the future of the world, and that if the current trend was allowed to continue, the global ego-system would be overloaded and would eventually collapse. These significant documents and writings evoked world consciousness of the environment. In 1987, the World Commission on Environment and Development submitted to the UN as result of their long-term study a research report: Our Common Future (also known as the Bruntland Report), which explicitly called for sustainable development by which social and economic advancement is obtained without causing environmental degradation. The report gave a clear definition to “sustainable development” with detailed specifications, such as rapid economic growth, poverty elimination, protection of environment and resources, satisfaction of people’s basic needs, control of population growth, advancement of technologies, and legal and policy development as well. In 1991, the Global Environment Facility (GEF) was launched jointly by the UNEP, UNDP and the World Bank and began to provide low interest loans for environmental programmes in developing countries. In June 1992, the historical UN Conference on Environment and Development held in Rio de Janeiro adopted such important documents as the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, and the 21st Century Agenda, indicating that sustainable development had evolved from a mere way of thinking to a development strategy or concrete approach to development widely accepted by countries of the world. In August 2002, the second Earth Summit was held in Johannesburg, South Africa. With the adoption of the Johannesburg Declaration and the Plan of Implementation, the summit declared continued commitment to the principle of sustainable development underpinned by economic growth, social progress and conservation of the environment, and also commitment to the all-round implementation of the 21st Century Agenda and to the achievement of the UN Millennium Development Goals.

 

Today, writings on sustainable development are far from rare. There are numerous definitions made from different perspectives. But the most oft-quoted is the definition given by the report Our Common Future: “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” This notion has on the one hand retained the conventional wisdom about development, stressing the need of economic growth to “meet the needs”, for without adequate growth rate in developing countries, without satisfaction of the basic needs of the poor, or with the problem of poverty unsolved, it is impossible to achieve any development. On the other hand, this notion of sustainable development is different from convention in the following two points: First, it has introduced the cross-generation concept of development. Conventional theories of development have ignored the detrimental effects of the mode of production and consumption represented by the traditional path of industrialization on resources and the environment, and other negative impacts on the development of future generations. But in the new notion, development is perceived with an extended temporal dimension. It is stressed that development of the present generation must not deprive the chance of development of future generations. Second, external factors are internalized. In the old concept of development, ecological and environmental conservation is set in opposition to economic growth. Non-commercial natural resources and the eco-environment are regarded as free with unlimited supply instead of as a precious wealth. Therefore, the interaction between economic activities and these non-commercial resources are ignored. By the concept of sustainable development, economic activities should be in harmony with the eco-environment, whose supporting capacity for the former must be taken into consideration, and environmental conservation must be taken as an integral part instead of an externality of economic development. It is pointed out in the Rio Declaration that “in order to achieve sustainable development, environmental protection shall constitute an integral part of the development process and cannot be considered in isolation from it.” Environmental protection has become a critical criterion for assessing quality and level of development with sustainability involved.

 

II. Challenges of Sustainable Development in the Middle East and Africa

 

The Middle East and Africa is one of the economically underdeveloped regions of the world. Over the years, the region has registered certain development in both economic and social sectors, e.g. in terms of growth of economic aggregates, rate of school enrollment, enfant mortality rate and illiteracy rate, etc. But when observed from a sustainable development perspective, the region is still riddled with enormous problems. Not only the economic and social development is facing severe challenges with stagnancy in per capita growth rate and poor effect in poverty reduction, but resource restrains and environmental degradation are becoming more and more a prominent concern.

 

In the past 30 years, there have been some economic ups and downs in the Middle East-African region, but generally speaking, per capita GDP of the region has hardly seen any increase. Take the 1972 – 1999 period for example, average annual growth rate of per capita GDP in Arab countries was only 0.3% calculated at 1995 constant price in US dollars, and that of sub-Saharan Africa was even in negative figure -1%.[2] That means a greater distance behind developed countries and East Asian countries in economic development.

 

Poverty is a prevalent phenomenon in sub-Saharan Africa and is getting from bad to worse. Talking about absolute poverty, in the decade between 1987 and 1998, the number of people living on less than 1 US dollars a day in the Middle East and North Africa decreased from 9.3 million to 5.5 million, yet in sub-Saharan Africa, the number increased from 220 million to 290 million. During the same decade, the proportion of people living in poverty to the total population was down from 4.3% to 1.9% in the Middle East and North Africa, but remained almost the same in sub-Saharan Africa, which stood at 46.6% in 1987 and 46.3% in 1998, the highest poverty ratio in the world. With alleviation process showing better effects in other parts of the world, poverty is increasingly concentrated in Africa. Again in the aforementioned period, the proportion of people living in sheer poverty in sub-Saharan Africa to that of the world total rose from 18.4% to 24.3%, only next to South Asia. As regard to relative poverty, the sub-Saharan African region is also among the worst in the world. Statistics show that in 1998 about 10.8% of the population in the Middle East and North Africa had a consumption level lower than 1/3 of their 1993 national average, whereas the figure for sub-Saharan Africa was 50.5%, almost abreast of that of Latin America, the worst region in the world in terms of relative poverty.[3]

 

Resource and environmental problems in the Middle East and Africa are especially evident in soil degradation, water shortage, shrinking forests, endangered species and aggravated pollution. [4]

 

Arable land in West Asia is scarce, with only 6% of the territory feasible for cultivation. Land is also a vital resource for Africans, 60% of whom make their living from agriculture. However, land in these areas is facing apparent degradation and desertification due to various reasons, such as drought, wind and water erosion, expansion of deserts, backward farming methods, and salinization-alkalization and water-logging caused by poor irrigation. Other causes for land deficiency include over-growth of population, urban expansion, and over-exploitation of eco-vulnerable land by the poor people due to inequity and indistinct land tenure. According to statistics, degradation is happening to 42.1% of the farmland in West Asia, of which, 75.6% is caused by wind erosion, and 12% by water erosion. Among the main agricultural nations in the region, Iraq has 64% of its land salinized and repeatedly water-logged; and 50% of the irrigated land in Syria and Iran is being alkalized and apt to flood. Because of drought and excessive grazing, degradation is also happening to the vast pastures in West Asia, which covers 50% of the total land area. About 46% of Africa’s land territory is affected by desertification, 55% of which badly affected, especially areas near the edge of deserts.

 

Water shortage is another outstanding challenge in the Middle East. The dry climate and meager precipitation makes water a rare resource in the region. With the rapid increase of population, per capita water supply in the region has fallen sharply, from 3430 m3 in 1960 to 1045 m3 in 1998, ranking the last in the world. It is estimated that with the trend going on unchecked, this figure will drop to 667 m3 by 2025. With increasing demand for water resources posed by growing population and social and economic activities and reduced availability of fresh water due to pollution and contamination, water is already in short supply in many countries and the same is likely to happen in others. Water consumption in Libya and countries on the Arab Peninsula has already exceeded supply capacity of renewable water resources. In Algeria, Iran, Morocco and Tunisia, although consumption is still far below supply, there is great possibility that they will too run short of water. In fact, some of them are facing the threat of water famine due to the high cost of inter-regional water transfer.

 

Forest-covered area in Africa accounts for 17% of the world total. However, there has been serious over-logging of those forests, owing to the need of more farmland to feed the growing population, the quest for hard currency, and the want of firewood for the farmers and herdsmen who cannot afford other fuels. From 1990 to 2000, the area of forests in Africa shrank by 0.7% on average ever year, recording the fastest forest decrease in the world. Trees are always sparse in the West Asian region, covering only 1% of the land area. But even this slender coverage is also slowly shrinking by an annual rate of 0.03%.

 

Africa is rich in biological species, but many of the species are endangered. There are 5 UN-identified biodiversity hotspots in Africa, i.e., regions with a significant reservoir of biodiversity that is threatened with extensive species loss. They are namely Madagascar and the Indian Ocean Islands, the Cape Floristic Region, the Succulent Karoo, the Guinean Forests of West Africa, and the Eastern Afromontane Eco-region. In central and eastern Africa, species are endangered mainly by loss of habitats with forests, marshes and wetlands diminishing day by day; the eco-environment being destructed by war, and by industrial and domestic waste and oil spill; farming, water conservancy and urban expansion projects intruding wildlife colonies; and also with poaching going rampant despite of repeated prohibition. Furthermore, governments have failed to give sufficient protection to habitats of species due to financial restraints and lack of resources.

 

Water and air pollution are also a big challenge for the region. Due to contamination by industrial waste and domestic garbage coupled with lack of hygiene facilities for urban and rural water supply, only 62% of the African population, and less than 47% in rural areas, had access to clean water in 2000. Some 3,000,000 Africans die from water-related diseases every year. Pollutant discharges have caused eutrophication of Lake Victoria and other water bodies, degrading their water quality. In West Asia where water is most rare, discharged industrial waste and municipal sewage, the use of agricultural chemicals and misplacing of solid wastes have contaminated rivers and lakes as well as subsurface aquifers, aggravating the already serious shortage of water resources. Sea coasts are also badly polluted as untreated waste water is discharged into the ocean in great quantities, and oil spill incidents happen every now and then. Water-borne diseases, particularly diarrhea have become the second biggest infant killer after respiratory diseases. In the major cities of the region, suspended particles, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and lead from industrial emission and automobile exhaust, and from the burning of coal and wood as conventional fuel, have caused serious pollution of the air, menacing human health and precipitating respiratory diseases and lead poisoning, with the poor people bearing the brunt.

 

III.               Thoughts of countermeasures

 

The above-mentioned challenges facing the Middle East and Africa in economic advancement, poverty alleviation, and environment protection have been a heavy drag on nations in the region that keeps them behind other parts of the world in the pursuit of sustainable development. That makes it a pressing task for those nations to take immediate efforts to eliminate the obstacles. Failure in doing so will render the region further marginalized from the global tide toward sustainable development.

 

There are a multitude of ideas and proposals to address the intricate problem. But from a broader point of view, this author believes that it is important to take the following approaches in cooperation with the international community:

 

First, to resume economic growth. Growth of economy is the key element and a precondition for sustainable development. Only with a fair growth rate can there be necessary means to support poverty alleviation efforts, social programmes and environment conservation schemes. To this end, resumption of economic growth should be on the top of the agenda in the region’s sustainable development strategy. The reasons for the economic stagnation in the region are complex. On the one hand, it is partly due to impolicy of development strategies. A problem common to many countries is that too much government intervention in the economy and the implementation of import-substitution industrialization strategy led to misallocation and massive waste of resources. One the other hand, economic stagnation is also related to inability to adapt to the profound changes of the global environment for development. Decrease of international assistance and consistent low prices of primary products have brought tragedy to the region, whose economy is highly dependent on foreign aid and on export of single primary products. Underlying causes for such changes include the decline of strategic position of the region as the bi-polar world structure is gone and reduced demand for primary products from the region as a result of the world revolution of science and technology and of the readjustment of the world industrial structure. The accelerating economic globalization has hardly brought any benefit to the Middle East and Africa. Their share in world trade has seen no significant rise; foreign investment shows little favour to the region; countries are suffering continual brain drain; and their economic security is under new threat. Under such circumstances, both national and international efforts are needed to rehabilitate economies of the region. On the national level, it is imperative for countries in the region to continue with their market oriented economic restructuring, double their efforts in capacity building for macro-economic management, build up market-friendly political, economic, legal and corporate structures as well as necessary infrastructures, create favourable conditions to raise domestic saving and to attract foreign direct investment, readjust industrial structures and develop new industries in a way to exert their comparative advantages, and also to promote regional economic cooperation of various forms. On the international level, they should work with the world community for a new international economic order, especially new rules of the world trade system so as to ensure that interests of developing countries are fully reflected, and that farm subsidies and other market barriers imposed by developed countries against exports from developing countries are dismantled. They should urge developed countries to raise both the volume and efficiency of official development aids in order to lighten the debt burden of heavily indebted poor countries, press on with technology transfer, and promote North-South cooperation.

 

Second, to reduce poverty by focusing on priority areas. Economic growth is fundamental to poverty reduction, but does not necessarily bring immediate good to the disprivileged community. An effective poverty reduction strategy should comprise both plans for growth and plans for distribution combined in good balance. Realities of the region determine that poverty reduction is a multi-faceted task that needs to be tackled from different dimensions. But efforts should be focused on the following priority areas:

 

1)      Agricultural development. To accelerate agricultural development is of vital importance to poverty reduction in the region, as the great majority of the impoverished population are farmers. But for a long time, agriculture has been placed in an insignificant position in many countries. Government input is very limited; farm produce prices have remained low; agricultural organizations are formed with poor efficiency. There are great inequalities in land possession or obscurity in land ownership and land use right in some countries. The level of agro-industrialization is still very low. Consequently, agricultural growth has been sluggish in most part of the region. Therefore, it must be taken as first imperatives to increase agricultural input, build necessary farm infrastructures, rationalize pricing of farm products, cut levies on agricultural production, ensure that farmers have clearly defined property right or use right of their land, and also to promote the agro-processing industry in order to raise farmers’ income and alleviate their poverty.

 

2)      Quality improvement of the impoverished population. Labour power is the main asset of the poor. To improve the quality of their labour asset is at least as important as providing them with other agents of production such as land and capital. Many of the poverty-stricken people have no access to education and decent medical care. They are unable to get employed for they have no skills. Many are disabled being afflicted with different infections. It has been a common phenomenon that low quality of labour featuring defects in knowledge and physical fitness are posing bad restraints to the deprived labour force. In this regard, a key part of the poverty reduction strategy should be dedicated to increasing education and training opportunities for the poor, improving their medical conditions, and waging effective struggles against HIV/AIDS and other diseases that are posing serious threat to people’s health in local communities, so as to uplift people from poverty by raising their physical and intellectual abilities.

 

3)      Employment expansion. A great many of the poor are urban or rural dwellers who are jobless or only partially employed. To increase job opportunities for the poor is an important way of poverty alleviation. Over a fairly long period of time, countries in the region have adopted an internal-oriented strategy of import-substitution industrialization, giving more priority to promoting large-scale SOEs. Their fiscal and taxation policies such as low or negative-interest, over-valued national currency, and tariff reduction or exemption for capital goods import have objectively encouraged introduction of capital intensive technologies whereas growth of labour-intensive enterprises, especially SMEs, have been depressed. It is necessary to create a better financial and tax environment to encourage and promote labour-intensive industries including rural industries, especially those with comparative advantages. This will help create more jobs. Another advisable thing to do is to develop infrastructure and resource exploitation projects in poverty-stricken areas with government support, which is an effective way to improve development conditions and alleviate unemployment in those areas. As for the masses of the urban poor who make their living mainly from the informal sector, governments should try and provide necessary facilities and services as well as guidance, which will help a lot to improve employment conditions and bring more job opportunities for the city paupers.

 

4)      Social security improvement. In order to prevent poverty, there must be a well-established social safety net, so as to ensure that people can get necessary support when they lose their means of living as they get old, injured, sick, unemployed, victimized by disasters or bereaved of the bread earner of the family. Such a social safety net is of particular significance for countries of this region, who are undergoing economic transformation and who are subject to frequent natural hazards. Although much progress has been made in the building of social security systems in these countries, there remains a lot to be done. Public insurance is still the main form of social security and can only cover those employed by the formal sector. Medical insurance system is still absent in many countries, even rarer are unemployment insurance and social relief system designed for the poor. It is evidently important for poverty prevention and containment to build up a sound and complete social security system, particularly a social relief system and unemployment insurance in accompany with SOE reforms.

 

Third, to control population growth. The Middle East - African region has the highest record of population growth in the world. Between 1975 and 1999, average annual growth rate of population stood as high as 2.7% for Arab countries and 2.8% for sub-Saharan Africa.[5] Over-increase of population is apparently impeditive to sustainable development, plunging the economy into a demographic trap, dragging the GDP from growing in per capita terms. Excessive population growth poses greater social service burden to the state in the provision of education, medical service and employment, thus adding more difficulty to poverty alleviation endeavours. It also aggravates pressure on resources and the environment, making conservation a more challenging task. It is therefore important to keep population growth in check.

 

The significance of population control to sustainable development was driven home by the UN International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) held in Cairo, 1994, on which it was suggested that demographic problems should be addressed under the precondition of sustained economic growth, all-round social progress and sound environment. There is no doubt that the rapid increase of population in the Middle East and African nations is somewhat linked to the relatively low level of their economic and social development, and is an inevitable phenomenon for the current “demographic transitional period”. However, one cannot just sit back and wait for the soaring arrow to turn down by itself only after the economic and social development has reached a certain point, for that will definitely push back the objectives of sustainable development. It has been proved by experience of other developing countries that population growth can be effectively curbed with deliberate intervention or birth control services. There will be less desire for reproduction if such positive measures are taken by governments as providing more education and employment opportunities for women, improving medical and health conditions, establishing appropriate social security system, encouraging birth control and preventing wars and regional conflicts to maintain social stability. There is much room for countries in the region to turn things for the better by following these successful experiences.

 

Fourthly, to exert necessary government intervention. Many of the problems directly affecting sustainable development cannot possibly be solved by relying on the market itself. Governments should have a big role to play in economic rehabilitation, poverty reduction and resource and environment conservation. Although there have been bitter lessons in the past of too much government intervention that led to strategic mistakes, it doesn’t necessarily mean that government should stay completely hands free. On the contrary, appropriate government intervention is still needed in an extensive array of fields. As a matter of fact, the role of the government is irreplaceable in such areas as implementing state laws and regulations, creating relevant institutions, maintaining macro-economic stability, formulating and implementing relevant policies, exercising control on excessive population growth, providing facilities of education, health service, infrastructure and other public goods, introducing momentous adjustment of industrial structures, creating a pleasant environment for domestic and foreign investment, and fostering foreign relations favourable for sustainable development. For those countries where market is not yet fully developed, it is also an important job of the government to foster market growth and flesh out market mechanisms. Even in well-developed market economies, it too requires the government to create necessary conditions in order for the market to be utilized for sustainable development. For instance, public resources like air and water that are regarded as non-commercial goods with no exchange values are usually free of charge or subsidized by the government. Producers and consumers never have to care about or have far underestimated the environmental cost of these resources, so much so that they have become overexploited and gradually degraded. Only when the exchange values of these resources are manifested through government-imposed tariffs and subsidy abolishment can people give full consideration to what they cost, so that the role of the market can be brought into play in the protection and rational distribution of the resources. It is admitted in a World Bank report that “environmental protection is an area where governments must play a central role. Private market cannot or can hardly provide any incentive to prevent pollution.” [6]In order to have effective government intervention, it is necessary to carry out political reforms to ensure cleanness and efficiency of the government itself. The New Partnership for African Development (NEPAD) has made it a common obligation of African governments to build good governance based on the principles of “democracy, transparency, accountability, unity, respect of human right and promotion of the rule of law”. Nevertheless, as nations in the region are all different from one another, it is up to every nation itself to determine what kind of political reform is most suitable to their own national conditions.

 

Fifth, to maintain regional stability. The Middle East and African region is the one most troubled by civil wars and conflicts in the world. Massive regional wars such as those waged in the Gulf, in Afghanistan and Iraq have repeatedly afflicted the region. Throughout the years after the end of the Cold War, frequent wars and conflicts in the region have not only claimed numerous lives and caused great property loss, throwing national development plans into naught, but also brought about a series of detrimental consequences: arms race gets escalated, people are displaced and become refugees, humanitarian and environmental crisis occur here and there, lasting economic sanctions put countries into dreadful plight, national capital flees the country, foreign investors hang back from putting their money into the region, and regional economic cooperation sees little hope for progress. As a result, social and economic development in the region as well as environment protection efforts are badly undermined. There are complex causes of wars and conflicts. Most of the nations in the region are undergoing an economic, political and social transition and are riddled with intricate ethnic and religious problems and a wide gap between the rich and the poor. With historical border and territorial disputes still to be settled, new rows for resources are erupting one after another and extremist forces are quite in motion. Furthermore, the region is also hotly contested by world powers. All these render the region more subjected to wars and conflicts than other parts of the world. The root causes of conflicts and wars in the region can never be eradicated over night, but need lasting and strenuous efforts for a long time to come. In the short run, the most pressing task for the moment is to restore and maintain stability of the region. To this end, countries in the region should treat each other in accordance with norms of the international law, allow the UN to play its due and authoritative part in safeguarding peace in the region, and keep control on weapons of mass destruction. Besides, more efforts should be made to resume the Middle East peace process and to establish a regional peace keeping mechanism for Africa. These efforts will not only keep the region in stability, but will help create a peaceful environment for sustainable development there.

 



[1] 联合国环境计划署:《全球环境展望之三》,中过环境科学出版社2002年版,第3页。

[2] 联合国开发计划署: 2001年人类发展报告》,中国财政经济出版社2001年版,第179页。

[3] 世界银行:《2000-2001年世界发展报告》,中国财政经济出版社2002年版,第22-23页。

[4] 联合国环境计划署:《全球环境展望之三》有关章节,中国环境科学出版社2002年版。

[5] 参见联合国开发计划署:《2001年人类发展报告》的相关统计表,中国财政经济出版社2001年版。

[6] 世界银行:《1992年世界发展报告》,中国财政经济出版社1992年版,第1页。


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