In the Middle East, the World Bank is focused on nipping conflict in the bud

It is absolutely essential to address the root causes of fragility and war, such as inequality, exclusion and corruption
epa08252783 Yemenis walk through a street in Sana'a, Yemen, 27 February 2020. According to reports, aid groups and donors are planning to suspend humanitarian assistance to the Houthi-controlled northern areas of Yemen in the coming months, accusing the Houthis of diverting food assistance from the hungriest Yemenis. Over 24 million people are in desperate need of humanitarian aid due to a five-year armed conflict between the Saudi-backed Yemeni government and the Houthis.  EPA/YAHYA ARHAB

Every day across the Middle East and North Africa, the World Bank is focused on one overarching goal: to end poverty, in all of its forms, wherever it is found.

Poverty is increasingly concentrated in areas suffering from fragility, conflict and violence – known in World Bank jargon as FCV. New research by the bank estimates that by 2030, two-thirds of the world’s extremely poor will live in fragile and conflict-affected situations. Extreme poverty is falling around the world, but it is increasing in areas with fragile governments and social contracts, persistent conflict and high levels of violence.

Conflict and violence have traditionally been seen as humanitarian challenges – the province of UN Blue Helmets and refugee agencies. However, reconstruction has always been the core of the World Bank’s mission.

The bank was founded to help rebuild Europe out of the ashes of the Second World War. But in recent years, we have learned that it is not enough to wait until conflicts end to start picking up the pieces and rebuilding. Fragility saps growth, creating a fertile ground for poverty. Conflict reverberates through surrounding countries, creating shocks such as refugees. And prosperity can never take hold if people fear for their lives and the safety of their families.

We must tackle fragility, conflict and violence head on, and focus on the hard work of development at every stage of this complex challenge. Last week, the World Bank released its first comprehensive FCV strategy, which details how we can drive development in both low- and middle-income countries affected by fragility, conflict and violence.

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This means first addressing the root causes of fragility and conflict, such as inequality, exclusion and corruption. By focusing on issues like transparency, accountability, justice and the rule of law, we can prevent grievances from turning into full-blown crises. Our research shows that a dollar invested in conflict prevention saves $16 down the road.

It also means staying engaged during active conflict. Even in areas with ongoing fighting, we can preserve key institutions and access to services like health care, sanitation and education – especially for the poorest and most vulnerable.

And it means helping countries transition out of conflict by building institutions, preventing cross-border crises and facilitating private-sector investment. Local small and medium-sized businesses, which provide 80 per cent of jobs in fragile areas, are the foundation of economic growth.

Over the past decade, we have led in each of these areas across the Middle East and North Africa. For example, GDP growth in Tunisia slowed to just 1.1 per cent last year. Unemployment has remained stubbornly high, especially among women (23 per cent) and university graduates (28 per cent). Even with relative political stability, this kind of economic situation creates a fertile ground for instability.

A man gestures and carries bread during a protest against the government's refusal to raise wages in Tunis, Tunisia November 22, 2018. REUTERS/Zoubeir Souissi

The total World Bank financial support in Tunisia between fiscal years 2011 and 2019 – the period following the country’s revolution – reached $4.6 billion. This support focused on reinforcing stability across the country by creating economic opportunities (especially in inland and rural areas), promoting opportunities for youth and using technology to improve the delivery of vital services.

Where conflict has struck, the bank is doing everything possible to prevent further loss of life and preserve key institutions.

One example is Yemen. Last year, the UN estimated that more than 24 million Yemenis – 80 per cent of the population – were at risk of hunger and disease. Nearly 18 million people had no access to safe water or sanitation, and nearly 20 million had no health care.

The bank is using financing from the International Development Association – its fund for the poorest countries – to provide emergency grants in Yemen. Working with its international and local partners, the bank has financed $1.7bn in emergency interventions in areas such as crisis response, health and nutrition and electricity access. This ongoing work is important for two reasons – first, to prevent the situation from deteriorating further and second, to give us a deep base of knowledge about the country’s needs and a foundation to assist further as fighting abates.

FILE - In this July 4, 2017, file photo, fleeing Iraqi civilians walk past the heavily damaged al-Nuri mosque as Iraqi forces continue their advance against Islamic State militants in Iraq's Old City of Mosul. The United Nations' cultural agency says reconstruction of Al-Nouri Mosque in Iraq's city of Mosul is scheduled to start at the beginning of 2020.  (AP Photo/Felipe Dana, File)

Another example is Iraq, where the World Bank has been engaged in countering the damage done by ISIS. The bank helped bring life back to Mosul by rehabilitating three vital bridges across the Tigris, linking the city’s east and west as soon as the areas were liberated. As of today, more than 300 kilometres of roads and 23 bridges have been completed in Mosul and other liberated regions of Iraq through an emergency reconstruction project that totalled $750 million. The project helped to create jobs for hundreds of men, women and youth, reinstated access to services, markets, clinics, schools and universities, and supported the return of thousands of displaced families to their hometowns.

Instability and conflict – especially the ongoing war in Syria – have forced millions from their homes and created a refugee crisis that threatens to further destabilise the region. Thankfully, Lebanon and Jordan have provided a global public good by caring for millions of refugees. Lebanon, a country of just over four million people, has sheltered roughly 1.5 million refugees – nearly a quarter of its population. Jordan, a country of a little more than eight million people, has sheltered about 1.3 million refugees. The cost to each country is estimated to be between $2bn and $3bn per year, not to mention possibly irrevocable shifts in the countries’ delicate social balances.

To help support Jordan and Lebanon, the World Bank established the Global Concessional Financing Facility, which has provided more than $500 million in concessional financing. In Lebanon, the World Bank is helping to enroll 200,000 Syrian children in public schools. And in Jordan, the bank is helping to create 100,000 jobs for Jordanian nationals and Syrian refugees.

Ensuring stability and prosperity in fragile and conflict-affected areas is one of the most difficult development challenges. The path is steep, but we have no choice. We must face that challenge directly. Meeting the aspirations of those who have suffered for so long requires lasting peace – one that we must work to build across the region in the years to come.

Ferid Belhaj is World Bank regional vice president for Mena