What the Middle East region needs
By Ibrahim Saif
ACCORDING TO World Bank estimates, measured poverty rates in the Middle East region are lower than in other regions. However, 29 per cent of the region's population lives on less than $2 a day, while unemployment rate exceeds 14 per cent of the labour force.
What we need, according to Jeffrey Sachs, renowned international developmental economist at Colombia University, is a “weapon of mass salvation” that eradicates diseases, provides life-saving vaccines, improves medicine and health conditions for the poor, supports emergency food and farming technologies and improves education.
In a recent article published in the London-based Economist magazine, Sachs asked when was the last time US Vice President Dick Cheney was heard talking about development or the developing world or even “feign a word of concern for the world's poor”.
Under the circumstances, it is impossible to believe that the looming war against Iraq will make the Middle East a safer and more hospitable place.
Although the Middle East differs from other parts of the world in terms of what it needs to address its current ills, one thing is for sure: the last thing the region needs is another war that might destabilise the whole region.
The Americans do not have a proven history of finishing missions they initiate. A half-completed mission in Afghanistan, unfinished business in Somalia, leaving the country in utter chaos, and, foremost, a forestalled Middle East peace process. This is not to blame the US for all the mess. But undoubtedly a lack of vision has misguided the superpower's actions in several countries and regions. Iraq's future is no exception in this sense. Few could claim to know what the Americans envisage if the current Iraqi regime is ousted.
While there are many good causes to mobilise resources and funds to benefit poor countries, the current US administration is prepared to spend $100 billion on an offensive against Iraq. It has, however, been unwilling to spend 0.2 per cent of that sum ($200 million) this year on the global fund to fight AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria, as Sachs remarked.
In the US, foreign aid has not been devoted to boosting worldwide networks of trade, finance and technology. Many poor countries remain in turmoil, caught within a vicious circle of poverty and political instability. Financial help could restore some of this illusive stability.
The issue of poverty should not be viewed only from a humanitarian perspective. Poverty contributes to instability in poor countries that could lose control and often become outposts of disorder for the rest of the world. Afghanistan and Somalia are clear examples.
According to the Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), US aid as a percentage of the gross domestic product (GDP) comes last compared to that of other developed countries. It totalled less than 0.2 per cent of its GDP last year, compared to nearly 0.4 per cent in France and nearly 1 per cent in Denmark. More importantly, most US assistance is allocated not to the least developed countries but chiefly to countries that are not classified as poor, such as Israel.
Sachs noticed that following America's lead, most of the large economies have allowed their foreign assistance programmes to shrink since the end of the cold war. This has made it more difficult for poor countries to cope with the new economic and political realities that have emerged after the cold war.
There is an unquestionable strong, direct association between poverty and the spread of extremism. The alleviation of poverty, the improvement of the quality of life and education and increased political participation help dissipate fundamentalist trends. The question, then, is what can America do about it? Indeed, addressing some of the most pressing issues and trying to defuse them would be effective in two ways. The first approach would improve the image of the US in the eyes of the world poor, making the US less likely to be viewed as a neo-colonial power. This, however, depends on whether the current administration is bothered about its image. Second, and most importantly, it should ease some of the human misery and give help to stabilise some of the more progressive regimes which are striving to achieve tangible results for their citizens.
Ironically, what the US is planning for the Middle East region is just the opposite. A potential war against Iraq will thwart many of the modest political and economic reform efforts currently under way and will hold back internal debate in these countries. Instead of focusing on how to proceed, countries in the region will be busy contemplating how to survive and weather the storm.
What we need is a new version of the Marshall plan that embraces human dignity and eradicates poverty. Thus, financial resources could be redirected and utilised more efficiently in the war against “terror”, as it has been branded.
If the war gets unleashed, billions of dollars would be spent and more will be needed to rebuild. No wonder that very few individuals and countries are seriously believing the American story that it wants to liberalise the Arab world, beginning with Iraq. We, the inhabitants of this region, know there are more efficient and cheaper life-saving mechanisms to achieve the same goal. So why not pursue these instead; unless, of course, there are other reasons behind this campaign for war.
Thursday, December 5, 2002