The ‘Ins’ and the ‘Outs’: Fighting Inequality in MENA Region

Written by | Wednesday, February 8th, 2017

EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW with Professor Vladimir Hlasny (Ewha Women University)

EUBULLETIN: Since the events of the Arab Spring in 2011, there has been a lot of talk about inequality in MENA. Is there a connection between inequality and the forces behind the series of popular uprisings against the region’s autocratic rulers? What are the exact mechanisms behind this connection?

Professor Hlasny: Inequality has many faces, including inequality of economic outcomes such as consumption, wealth or life expectancy, and inequality of opportunities, such as family circumstances or access to health and education in childhood. In MENA, many of these problems are entrenched, but some are more serious than others, and only some are rising over time. In people’s perceptions, however, inequality may appear higher, as people compare themselves to those ahead of them in their community.

High poverty rate and inadequate access to quality education and jobs for everyone are behind some of the real and perceived inequalities, leading to frustration and calls for social change. Looking for the causes of social problems, people put part of the blame on the incompetent, corrupt or nepotistic governments.

Moreover, social problems and inequality are not evenly spread across all of MENA population but are rather concentrated in dense pockets – disenfranchised groups including urban youth, the unskilled or families outside major cities. These social groups can mobilize themselves to call for social change.

EUBULLETIN: Are social and political conflicts a consequence of rising inequality? If so, would you name some examples?

Professor Hlasny: Evidence is still mixed why public uprisings erupted in some countries but not in others, why at specific points in time, and what specific type of inequality guided people’s anger. Protestors in Tunisia, Egypt, Jordan or Yemen and elsewhere mentioned high cost of living, stagnating incomes, lack of good jobs, erosion of public support and other economic problems. On the other hand, national accounts data and data from household surveys don’t always show that these conditions were getting worse in the years leading up to the Arab Spring. For instance, in Egypt, income inequality was low and stagnating during the 2000s.

Similarly, it is unclear how the conditions evolved in the years after the uprisings. Some countries, like Jordan, saw improvements, while others saw deterioration. Protracted social conflict can itself exacerbate economic problems and amplify inequalities – as it happened during civil wars in Libya, Somalia, Sudan or Syria, or in Palestine as a result of the Israeli occupation and military offensives.

EUBULLETIN: What are the most pressing manifestations of social inequality?

Professor Hlasny: The most worrying inequality, I think, is the inequality of opportunities. There are significant disparities in children’s access to opportunities of healthy development, such as doctor visits and vaccination, proper nutrition, and quality cognitive stimulation at home and in schools. These inequalities are high across the majority of the MENA region, and they have lifetime consequences for the disadvantaged children. Wealth is also highly unequal across families, in part due to the high transmission of families’ status – including education, jobs and wealth – across generations.

EUBULLETIN: What is causing these different forms of inequality, and how could regional decision-makers curb the rise of inequality? Are some countries across the MENA region, in your view, more successful than others in reducing inequalities through well-tailored, effective government policies?

Professor Hlasny: High poverty rate and inadequate access to quality education and jobs for everyone are behind some of the observed inequalities. Hence, general national growth can help to lift everyone’s standard of living, and in the process decrease the measure of inequality. Better availability of high quality educational opportunities – from nurseries to universities – and high quality formal jobs can help. Transparency in awarding admission to schools and jobs, leading to more equal access to opportunities, can also help.

There are a number of specific programs that most MENA governments should pursue. One, they should crack down on corruption and nepotism, to improve access to job opportunities to all qualified workers. Two, they should promote flexibility in labour markets to equalize opportunities across workers in various circumstances and across various sectors. Three, they should cut red tape, and promote transparency and information sharing, to give all families, workers and businesses equal access to all resources. Four, they should improve social safety nets and provision of basic resources such as essential medicine, food, clean water and hygiene products, to lift the poorest out of their poverty traps.

Jordan has implemented a successful development program according to a number of economic indicators. Palestine, through well-functioning institutions, has succeeded at offering local children decent education, health and nutrition despite economic restrictions under the occupation. Egypt has had one of the lowest measures of income inequality in the region, in part due to a high level of employment in the public sector.

EUBULLETIN: Have, in your view, the ‘new’ political elites post-Arab Spring been more serious and successful than their predecessors in tackling the root causes of inequalities in their respective countries?

Professor Hlasny: It is too early to tell, since the situation in a number of countries – Libya, Lebanon, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, etc. – is still unravelling. The new regimes in Egypt (or arguably even Turkey) still have to prove that they are working for the people rather than for themselves. I am optimistic that the democratic changes that people have brought about will bear fruits eventually.

EUBULLETIN: What position should the European Commission and other international organizations take with respect to the economic problems in MENA, particularly economic inequality?

Professor Hlasny: One obvious role for the international community is to help provide financial and other assistance with the building up and running of essential facilities, such as community centres, clinics and schools. Lending qualified social workers such as doctor or teacher trainers, counsellors or policy advisers is also crucial, particularly in the most impoverished areas with deadlocked public sectors.

Pushing for liberalizing economic reforms, and campaigning against corruption, non-transparency and red tape are also significant tasks. Since economic problems are partly due to failures in local markets, trade deals and foreign direct investment can make a great difference.

With respect to refugees and migrants from MENA, regional neighbours including Europe and the Gulf countries should implement immigration policies that alleviate pain due to the region’s violent conflicts, support return migration, and help young MENA migrants increase their human capital in order to improve their employment or entrepreneurial prospects back home. This will empower communities across MENA to escape deprivation traps, and to stand up on their own legs.

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