The world's economic recovery is bound to be uneven but let's make it minimally so

In the Middle East, people are already missing out on the post-pandemic rebound

In recent weeks, there have been forecasts of better economic growth. Signs of trade and commerce picking up are visible around the world. Don’t be distracted by the volatility of stock markets – they have offered a distorted picture of reality for some time. Rising prices and creaking supply chains are more reliable indicators of the demand for raw materials and retail goods.

Last week, the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (Unctad) said the global economy is set to expand by 5.3 per cent this year, to grow at its fastest rate in nearly half a century. The forecasts due from the IMF next month should bear this out too.

It is likely that we are on the cusp of a period of prosperity that will banish much of the doom and gloom of the past few years, even from before the Covid-19 pandemic.

Travel will be back, albeit in an evolved form. Jobs are coming too, although not all the same ones as the roles that have been lost. Education is being overhauled. Quality of life is paramount in the minds of world leaders and decision makers. There will be continued investment in health, although the priorities have changed somewhat. Climate action is spurring innovation and greater efficiency. But what will matter most is universal access to all of this.

The UN also warned that the recovery will be uneven across geographies, sectors, income levels and developing countries face the threat of a "lost decade". Almost as if decades of progress spurred by deglobalisation is being unwound to recreate the kind of global north-south divide, like we had in the 1980s.

“These widening gaps, both domestic and international, are a reminder that underlying conditions, if left in place, will make resilience and growth luxuries enjoyed by fewer and fewer privileged people,” said Rebeca Grynspan, the secretary-general of Unctad. “Without bolder policies that reflect reinvigorated multilateralism, the post-pandemic recovery will lack equity, and fail to meet the challenges of our time.”

What will those who benefit most from the economic recovery do with this warning? Can we afford to simply enjoy our good fortune and not think of the inequality of riches? Should we doom ourselves to live out another cycle of boom and bust?

The overarching lesson of the pandemic and the rolling crises of the past decade must surely be that we are all connected, no matter how inconvenient that may be. Contagion is very real.

In the Middle East, people are already missing out on the rebound. Forget prospering; in Gaza, Yemen, parts of Syria and Iraq and Lebanon, people are struggling for dignity.

Covid-19 vaccine rates are frighteningly low in parts of the region – below 1 per cent in Syria and Yemen, according to Ourworldindata.org. After a visit to Lebanon this past weekend, World Health Organisation director general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus warned: “Since the Beirut port blast last year, the country and its people have slipped even further into despair. The current economic crisis has increased poverty across the country, and all sectors including health, are at risk of collapse.”

Yemeni youths commute on donkeys carrying plastic jerrycans in the southern city of Aden, on September 16, 2020. Yemenis are resorting to using donkeys to transport water and haul goods, as the long years of conflict that have ravaged the economy make gas-guzzling vehicles unaffordable for many. / AFP / Saleh Al-OBEIDI
A Syrian refugee girl stands near luggage of Syrian refugees returning to Syria, in Beirut, Lebanon, December 6, 2018. Picture taken December 6, 2018. REUTERS/Jamal Saidi

Israeli air strikes on Gaza have resulted in "the widespread destruction of civilian infrastructure", according to the UN. About 186 schools were damaged during the 11-day conflict in May. Israel’s Foreign Minister, Yair Lapid, this month proposed a plan to improve living conditions for Palestinians.

There is a collective responsibility to ensure this proposal becomes a reality. There is also more than altruism at work. Self-interest is at the heart of why inequality and imbalance must be addressed. It is to our benefit for us to tackle together our similar problems.

In the next two decades, for example, about 127 million young people will enter the workforce in the region, facing an unemployment rate of 23 per cent, says consulting firm McKinsey. At the same time, nearly 29 million jobs are at risk of being displaced by 2030 because of automation.

Solutions to this will need to involve lowering barriers and thinking beyond borders. An emerging talent pool of this scale is also a rare opportunity. The danger is that extremists will also view a disaffected and disenfranchised generation as fertile recruiting ground.

There is no time to waste. Governments across the Middle East and North Africa must be required at the minimum to provide jobs, housing, health care and basic services, as well as a sense of safety and security. The time for ideology to be a priority has passed.

Fortunately, a new spirit of detente has emerged in the region. This offers hope that there could be enough momentum to level up across the Middle East. Growing co-operation on climate action also shows the way forward for tackling common problems. This is a moment to seize.

If our coming period of success is to be sustained then we must do our best to leave no one behind. Conflict and poverty will never disappear; however, they can be mitigated. One way to do this is by ensuring that as many people as possible are taken along in the march towards progress and not left pressed up against the proverbial window, watching others benefit from opportunities they are denied simply because of geography.

Published: September 21st 2021, 2:00 PM
Mustafa Alrawi

Mustafa Alrawi

Mustafa is an assistant editor in chief at The National, and an accomplished journalist and broadcaster, with over 18-years' experience working in the UK, the UAE and the wider Middle East.