Middle East and North Africa Face Historic Crossroads


By David Lipton

(Version in عربي)

Almost two years since the Arab Awakening started, the future of the Middle East and North Africa is in a flux, with fledgling democracies struggling to find their way and renewed outbreaks of violence adding to the challenges the region is facing. Some are starting to worry aloud that the revolutionary path may hit a dead end.

To me, a useful way to think about the present situation is that the region could end up taking any one of three alternative paths, as far as its economic future is concerned. We could witness either:

  • Economic deterioration, if squabbling over political power prevents stabilization, let alone reform;
  • Stabilization through a reassertion of vested business interests that would offer a respite from eroding economic conditions, but condemn the region to a return to economic stagnation or at best tepid growth;
  • Or we could see a new economy emerge, as newly elected governments gradually find a way to end economic disruptions and undertake reforms that open the way to greater economic opportunity for their people.

While the first two paths would be undesirable, they could come to pass. Needless to say, the third path of transformation would be best.

No doubt the Arab countries in transition will chart their own paths. But I strongly believe that the international community also has a role in helping them avoid the unfavorable outcomes. Let me share some thoughts on how we can provide support.

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Financial Support for Arab Countries in Transition


By Masood Ahmed

(Version in عربي)

The Arab Spring has injected new optimism into the Middle East and North Africa and, if managed well, the historic transitions that are under way will lead to a more prosperous future for the people of the region.

At the same time, the past year and a half has been difficult for the Arab countries in transition. They are facing economic strains as they manage political change and urgent social demands. It is a period when hard choices must be made, and it does not help that this is happening at a time of great turmoil in the global economy.

Close engagement

Throughout this difficult period, the IMF has remained closely engaged. We are advising countries on how to manage shocks to maintain economic stability, ensure that vulnerable households are protected during the transition, and lay the basis for job-creating growth.

We are also providing technical assistance to help build capacity and stronger institutions. In Egypt, for example, on tax reform to improve tax equity; in Libya to better manage its wealth through improved public financial management; and in Tunisia on measures to strengthen the financial sector.

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Without Better Data, Middle East Policymakers Risk Getting Lost


By Nemat Shafik

(Version in عربي)

Recently I went orienteering with my children as part of a school trip.  Orienteering is a sport whereby you have to find your way to various checkpoints through unknown terrain with only a compass and a topographical map.

Wandering through the woods with six 9-year-olds was a good lesson in the value of good directions and data to find your way when you are in unchartered territory.

Likewise, making policy decisions without adequate and timely data would also result in getting lost, wasting time and money, and making policy mistakes with obvious negative consequences for growth and development.

The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region suffers significant shortcoming in data, which are particularly problematic at a time economic transition (see table below).  There are important data gaps, poor data quality and in many cases, internationally agreed standards of statistical methodologies, compilation periodicity and timeliness, and data dissemination practices are not followed.  I emphasized these issues during my participation at the ArabStat Conference in Morocco this month.

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Making Sure Middle East Growth Is Inclusive


By Nemat Shafik

(Version in عربي)

The uprisings that spread across the Middle East and North Africa in 2011 taught us that even rapid economic growth cannot be maintained unless it is inclusive, creates enough jobs for the growing labor force, and is accompanied by policies that protect the most vulnerable. And the absence of transparent and fair rules of the game will inevitably undermine the development process.

Hopes after the revolutions are high and so are people’s expectations. Hence, there is a need to pay more attention to socioeconomic issues in making policy decisions. In my speech today at the Arab Economic Forum in Beirut, I argued that we need an “Economic Spring” to complement what has become known as the “Arab Spring.”

Gloomy picture needs attention

At over 25 percent, the youth unemployment rate in the region’s oil-importing countries exceeds that of any other region in the world—a rate that reaches up to 30 percent in Tunisia and 32 percent in Morocco. Ironically, education in the region is not a guarantee against unemployment. In fact, unemployment tends to increase with schooling, exceeding 15 percent for those with tertiary education in Egypt, Jordan, and Tunisia.

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Avoiding a Lost Generation


By Nemat Shafik (Version in  عربي)

Young people were innocent bystanders in the global financial crisis, but they may well end up paying the heaviest price for the policy mistakes that have led us to where we are today.

Young people will have to pay the taxes to service the debts accumulated in recent years.

Moreover, the global economy is threatened by continued strains in the euro area, and unemployment is still climbing in several countries, in particular in Europe. Young people (those aged 15 to 24) are the most affected, and youth unemployment has reached record levels in a number of countries.

If the right policies are not put into place, there is a risk not only of a lost decade in terms of growth but also of a lost generation.

Consider this. In Spain and Greece, nearly half of all young people cannot find jobs. In the Middle East, young people account for 40 percent or more of all unemployed people in Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, and Tunisia and nearly 60 percent in Syria and Egypt. And in the United States, which traditionally has had a strong job creation record, more than 18 percent of all young job seekers cannot find employment.

Legacy of loss

Youth unemployment has long-term consequences for economic growth because of the loss or degradation of human capital. But it also has many other consequences, both for the individuals affected and for society as a whole.

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Bringing the Informal Sector into the Fold


By Masood Ahmed

(Version in عربي)

Unemployment rates in the Middle East and North Africa have remained above 10 percent over the past decade, the highest in the world. For the young the rates are even more daunting, at a persistent 25 percent: one in four of the region’s young people are without work. Many people who cannot find jobs in the formal economy are relegated to working in the informal sector, for lower wages and without the protections and opportunities that workers enjoy in the formal economy.

The informal economy is large and pervasive—and, often, ignored; however, the experience of those who work in the informal sector came under the media spotlight when Tunisian street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire that fateful day in December last year, sparking the Arab Spring protests.

Estimates indicate that the informal economy in the oil-importing countries of the Middle East and North Africa is substantially larger than in several Asian and Latin American countries. In Morocco, for example, the informal economy is estimated at 44 percent of officially measured GDP. In most other oil importers, it is estimated at close to one-third.

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Lively Debate on the Dead Sea Shores


By Nemat Shafik

(Version in عربي)

 I’ve been in Jordan this weekend, attending a vibrant meeting of the World Economic Forum on jobs and growth in the Middle East. I participated in a panel on employment with Queen Rania, and I’d like to share some of the ideas generated during that discussion and at the meeting more generally.

The atmosphere was both cautious and optimistic—cautious because of the growing risk of the downturn in advanced economies (particularly Europe) spreading to the region, and optimistic because of the recent political gains in both Libya and Tunisia in particular.

 One of my biggest (and heartening) takeaways was that there were more young people bubbling with ideas and entrepreneurial spirit (ready to take risk) than ever before at this regional forum—which reflects a growing recognition of their current role in the Arab Spring and the role they will have to play in the future as drivers of economic change.

 Creating jobs for the young and growing population in the Middle East and North Africa remains the dominant topic. Here on the Dead Sea, it’s jobs, jobs, jobs that are still on everybody’s mind. And it’s clear that there’s a tension between the high hopes for a better future in the long term and the impatience and frustration with difficulties and challenges in the short term. Continue reading

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