By Fraus Masri
28 Feb 2016
2016 ushered in the revamped United
Nation's Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which built on the Millennium
Development Goals (MDGs) adopted in 2000. Poverty eradication is the number one
developmental goal of both the MDGs and SDGs.
Over the past two decades, global efforts
have been successful as the number of people living in poverty declined by more
than half, from more than 1.9 billion in 1990 to 836 million in 2015. Despite
such progress, the Arab world continues to lag in its efforts to combat
In fact, according to the UN Development
Programme (UNDP), between 2010 and 2012, the percentage of the population in
the region making less than $1.25 a day increased from 4.1 percent to 7.4
percent (PDF). Previously, countries in the region had made progress in
reducing poverty, but high levels of political unrest had reversed many of
Poverty and Conflict: A Direct
The persistence of conflict in Syria, Iraq,
and Yemen remains one of the main drivers of poverty regionally. In Syria,
after five years of civil war, it is estimated that 80 percent of the
population lives in poverty, and life expectancy has been cut by 20 years.
Almost a decade after the US-led invasion
in 2003, poverty rates are on the rise in Iraq, with statistics from the World
Bank showing that 28 percent of Iraqi families live under the poverty line.
The mass displacement from the Islamic
State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) controlled areas; the decline in global oil
prices and higher unemployment rates has meant that despite its oil wealth, the
Iraqi government has failed miserably in addressing the poverty rate in the
Arab governments should understand that
poverty also has a security and stability dimension. The 2011 uprisings have
shown that Arab societies have the ability to challenge incompetent governance
Yemen's poverty rate has increased from 42
percent of the population in 2009 to an even more alarming 54.5 percent in
Despite an initial wave of optimism after
the 2011 Arab uprisings, countries in North Africa continue to face economic
challenges that have seen poverty rates increase in many areas.
In Egypt, the Arab world's most populous
country, five years of political upheaval have taken a toll on the economy.
Increased unemployment, lower tourist arrivals, dwindling foreign currency
reserves and a weaker Egyptian pound has meant that 26 percent of Egypt's 90
million people live under the poverty line.
Despite a relatively successful and ongoing
political transition in Tunisia, one in every six Tunisians lives below the
poverty line, as well. Tunisia is one of the highest contributors of ISIL
fighters per capita, and Tunisian leaders continue to make a direct correlation
between poverty and terrorism.
In the Palestinian territories, a lack of
employment opportunities due to restrictions imposed by the Israeli occupation
continues to drive rising levels of poverty (PDF). Nearly two years after the
war in Gaza, reconstruction efforts have slowed to a crawl. Such efforts
promised employment for thousands of Palestinians; however, the slow trickle of
foreign donations and a deficiency of construction materials indicate that the
situation will not improve any time soon.
Although the outlook for the West Bank
appears less grim than in Gaza, high levels of poverty persist as many
Palestinians hold jobs that pay a meagre wage. This shortage of suitable
employment forces many Palestinians to seek employment from companies operating
in settlements on occupied Palestinian territory.
Even with some Palestinians performing these
jobs out of necessity, per-capita income in the West Bank continues to decline.
In Gaza, the situation is even worse with per-capita income 31 percent lower
than in 1994.
One Step Forward, Two Steps Back
The SDGs provide an ambitious blueprint for
global development that includes a focus on education, the environment, women's
rights, sustainable water, and many other critical areas. While all of these
issues are of importance to the region, it will become increasingly problematic
to progress these goals without a renewed emphasis on poverty eradication.
Countries currently in conflict pose the
greatest challenge to poverty eradication efforts, as participants in these
conflicts have pushed aside humanitarian concerns in the quest for victory. The
international community should make preparations for post-war reconstruction in
Syria and Yemen, while also remaining wary of incomplete political settlements
that raise the prospect for the resumption of hostilities in the future.
Even though in Palestine it is unlikely
that the Israeli occupation will end anytime soon, Fatah and Hamas should work
towards a reconciliation to improve the system of governance in the
territories. This will provide Palestinians with a united front to tackle the
challenges posed by the occupation and ease the suffering felt in both Gaza and
the West Bank.
Arab countries must recognise that absolute
poverty is only one dimension of the problem and that redistributive policies
can only go so far to address the issue. The uprisings have shown that Arab
youth not only protested against economic inequality, but also against
marginalisation and political disenfranchisement. Any renewed push for more
economic opportunities must also provide Arab youth with a chance to shape
Lower oil prices will likely affect the
level of aid wealthier Gulf Cooperation Council countries give to poorer
countries in the region. Nonetheless, such aid should not simply dry up. The
Saudi-led coalition has destroyed a large portion of the Yemeni infrastructure,
so the Kingdom and members of its coalition should bear a large part of the
Food security remains a huge challenge for
a region that imports much of its key food staples. Should poverty and food
security issues not be addressed, any future wave of protests may constitute a
"revolution of the hungry", that is likely to be more violent than
the wave of 2011.
Fraus Masri is a research assistant at the Brookings Doha Center.