The MDGs in the Western Asian Region: Regional Cooperation and Policies Needed to Promote Development

As the world marks the midpoint between the adoption of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) in 2000 and the target date for their achievement in 2015, an assessment of the Arab region's progress on these is both timely and essential. As a whole, the region has made significant progress in some areas, including education and disease control, yet several factors have constrained the achievement of the MDGs.

The relatively poor economic performance in the 1990s and early 2000s, the inadequate financing of social policies and the increased political tensions and conflicts have all hindered progress. Achieving the MDGs in the Arab world, at the regional, subregional and national levels, requires concerted efforts and full commitment by Governments and civil society organizations. Efforts are needed to create well-functioning and transparent institutions and to establish both youth- and gender-friendly policy frameworks, which ensure that young men and women are not only beneficiaries but also active agents of development.

The Arab region has been characterized by sharp disparities between the different subregions,* particularly between the high-income States of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and the Arab least developed countries (LDCs). These disparities are not only great in terms of the level of development, but also in terms of progress made towards the achievement of the MDGs. Indeed, while the GCC countries, as well as several States in the Maghreb and Mashreq subregions, are on-track to achieve most of the MDG targets, the Arab LDCs and conflict-ridden Iraq and Palestine face many critical challenges. For these countries to meet the MDG targets by 2015, national and international development efforts must be stepped up.

Based on data for 12 Arab countries, representing 74 per cent of the region's total population, the proportion of the population living below the national poverty line has remained unchanged, at approximately 23 per cent, between the periods 1995-1999 and 2000-2005. Poverty rates declined from 11 to 9 per cent in the Maghreb and from 46 to 45 per cent in the Arab LDCs, but increased from 18 to 19 per cent in the Mashreq, excluding Iraq, where conflict has resulted in approximately one third of the population living in poverty. Similarly, due to the ongoing conflict in Palestine, poverty rates have soared to 50 per cent. Individual country data indicate wide disparities in the proportion of underweight children under five years of age. It is estimated that 46 per cent of under-five children in Yemen in 2003 were underweight, whereas in Lebanon it was only 3.3 per cent.
Furthermore, labour power is the main and, in most cases, the only income-earning asset for the poor. As such, the very high rates of unemployment, widespread underemployment and a low employment-to-population ratio, which continue to characterize labour markets in most Arab countries, are particularly problematic.

In the field of education, all Arab subregions have achieved substantial progress since 1990, yet the Arab LDCs are still far from ensuring universal primary education. In 2005, one in two children were not enrolled in primary school. In fact, two thirds of the estimated 7.5 million out-of-school children in the region live in the six Arab LDCs. Furthermore, even though, on average, young people have achieved a relatively high level of education, this has not led to improved employment opportunities. Very high rates of youth unemployment persist and have resulted in a severe "brain drain" problem for several Arab labour markets, since highly educated youth are resorting to migration.

The recent efforts by Governments, non-governmental organizations and civil society institutions to tackle all forms of discrimination against women and invest in women's issues have resulted in marked improvements in female educational attainment and literacy rates. The Arab region as a whole has come close to ensuring gender parity in primary and secondary education, and has achieved parity in tertiary education. The ratio of literate women to men has risen from 0.71 in 1990 to 0.87 in 2006. These gains have been heterogeneous, however, with the greatest progress recorded in the GCC subregion. By contrast, in the Arab LDCs, 73 per cent of out-of-school children are girls. Unfortunately, achievements in female education have not been matched by significant progress in political and economic participation for these women. Their share in wage employment in the non-agricultural sector remained at 18 per cent between 1990 and 2004, substantially below the average of 31 per cent for developing countries. Furthermore, women's participation in parliaments in the region stands at 8.7 per cent in 2007, one of the lowest in the world. The Arab region continues to be characterized by strong disparities across its subregions and between individual countries with respect to the three health-related MDGs. Indeed, while the region as a whole is not far off track to meet the target of reducing under-five mortality, there has been only modest progress in the Arab LDCs, where more than one in ten children die before reaching their fifth birthday. Similarly, while Egypt has succeeded in dramatically reducing the rate of maternal mortality, it remains excessively high in most Arab LDCs, as well as in Iraq and Morocco, albeit to a lesser extent. The overall prevalence of HIV/AIDS in the region continues to be relatively low, but risks and vulnerability are increasing in several Arab countries. Tuberculosis remains a significant public health problem and is a leading cause of deaths from communicable diseases in adults in the Arab world. The Arab LDCs are the most affected by tuberculosis, as 134,000 people developed the disease in 2005, accounting for almost 56 per cent of all new cases in the entire region. Moreover, while malaria has almost been eliminated in the majority of the Arab countries, it remains highly endemic in the Arab LDCs, where on average 3,313 cases per 100,000 people were reported in 2005. Djibouti, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen accounted for 98 per cent of notified cases in the region. The achievement of the health-related MDGs is therefore heavily dependent on accelerated progress in the Arab LDCs.

All Arab countries share, to varying degrees, the challenge of improving environmental governance and integrating environmental resource management into poverty reduction strategies and national development plans. Between 1990 and 2003, total emissions of carbon dioxide in the region soared by 81 per cent due to significantly higher per-capita emissions and a 35-per-cent surge in the region's population. The Arab region as a whole faces a severe water shortage problem, with seven countries ranking among the ten most water-scarce in the world. By 2004, the demand for water had already exceeded the actual water resources available in the region by about 46 per cent. The various subregions have been slowly improving access to sanitation facilities during the last 15 years. However, in 2004, the proportion of the Arab LDC population using improved sanitation facilities was still as low as 36 per cent. If Arab countries maintain their sluggish progress on this front, an estimated 124 million people will be without access to basic sanitation in 2015, 50 per cent of them in the Arab LDCs. Moreover, in 2001, an estimated 57 million people in the region lived in urban slums, with slum dwellers representing around 70 per cent of the urban population in the Arab LDCs.

For the Arab region, further integration into the global economy and enhanced intra-regional trade cooperation is of particular importance. Non-oil exports continue to be low and intra-regional trade accounts for around only 11 per cent of the total Arab trade. However, most Arab countries have taken serious steps towards liberalizing trade and integrating themselves into the world economy. As of June 2007, 12 Arab countries had become members of the World Trade Organization and six were in the process of negotiating WTO membership. Official development assistance to Arab countries decreased by almost 60 per cent during the 1990s. Since then, it has been on a steady upward trend, in part due to large debt forgiveness grants and humanitarian aid for Iraq. However, aid flows to the region have not primarily targeted the Arab LDCs, as geopolitical reasons, economic interests and past colonial ties often prevailed over developmental needs in the aid allocation decisions of major donors.

Given the significant challenges the Arab region faces, particularly in the Arab LDCs and countries in conflict, it is critical to strengthen both regional and South-South cooperation activities to promote development. The transboundary nature of the region's key development constraints, such as water scarcity, severe youth unemployment and migration, as well as conflict and population displacement, calls for policy approaches that go beyond national and subregional levels. The UN Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA) continues to play a vital role in this process, providing a forum for policy dialogue among UN Member States, promoting regional integration and offering technical support for initiatives in all areas of development. Closer coordination of economic and environmental policies, sharing of best practices and success stories in various fields, from education policy to disease control, and the creation of new regional initiatives to foster human development in the poorest countries of the region, are among the most important means by which Arab countries can accelerate progress towards the MDGs.

(This article is based on a recent report, The Millennium Development Goals in the Arab Region 2007: A Youth Lens, which is produced through a collaborative effort of UN agencies in the Arab region and the League of Arab States, and coordinated by ESCWA.)
*The Arab region comprises 22 countries, divided into four subregions: Maghreb (Algeria, Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, Morocco, Tunisia), Mashreq (Egypt, Jordan, Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine, Syrian Arab Republic), Gulf Cooperation Council (Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates) and Arab least developed countries (Comoros, Djibouti, Mauritania, Somalia, Sudan, Yemen).