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Opportunities for Economic and Political Inclusion in the Arab Spring

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In recent months, millions of people came onto the streets of a number of Arab States demanding change.

In Tunisia and Egypt, these uprisings led to the downfall of regimes. In Libya, intense conflict continues. Elsewhere, many lives have also been lost as regimes and their opponents have faced off against each other.

Underlying these events are economic exclusion which has denied decent work and opportunity for many, and political exclusion which has denied a broad right to participate in the decision-making processes which shape nations' futures.

These two exclusions have been felt most acutely by the young in the Arab States. They suffer rates of unemployment which are twice the global average for youth.

Yet, across all age groups, there has been a pent-up desire for dignity, justice, and a say in the decisions which shape people's lives.

Human Development

In 2002, UNDP began publishing Arab Human Development Reports, which focused on the lack of inclusion and opportunity in the region.

These reports identified major human development challenges facing Arab countries on issues from governance to women's empowerment, human rights, access to education and other services, and human security overall.

Their central message was clear: reform is necessary and should not be delayed. Yet as recent events have demonstrated, reform was delayed, and the uprisings which have occurred have been hugely costly to human life.

The factors overall which have driven the uprisings are not unique to the Arab States. To ensure peaceful transitions, advancing both economic and political inclusion is crucial.

Economic Inclusion

So often, impressive rates of economic growth have not led to significant reductions in poverty or the creation of decent work. To achieve inclusive growth, the sectors and regions where poor people live and work will need to be targeted.

In countries rich in natural resources, the growth generated has often been in extractive industries, creating too few jobs and too little tax revenue for the developing country, thereby limiting its capacity to lift its human development status.

Smart strategies are now needed for nations to benefit more broadly from their national endowments -- with spinoffs for jobs, micro businesses and SMEs, technology transfer, infrastructure, and tax revenues. Having strong and capable institutions and having leadership committed to human development helps.

Around the world, youth unemployment rose in the wake of the global recession. The cost of that is borne not only by young people themselves, but also by economies and societies as a whole.

Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunisian street vendor who set himself on fire in December, dramatically and tragically expressed the desperation many young people have felt, unable to get ahead in a system they felt was stacked against them.

UNDP stands ready to assist with the design of quick win policies to address unemployment, particularly for youth. In Tunisia, we are currently designing training for youth in a province whose economy has been badly affected by the Libyan crisis, and are involved in a joint UN program promoting youth entrepreneurship. In Egypt, we have been promoting job creation through the development of small and medium enterprises and promoting micro-credit schemes. We will soon be helping to design a public works program to address short-term economic recovery challenges

Political Inclusion

When the economic scales tip against significant numbers of people, and there are few opportunities to influence the direction one's country is taking, the conditions for upheaval are created. As we have seen in some of the Arab States, people have revolted against repression, exclusion, injustice, and loss of dignity.

Now that broad-based popular movements are forcing political change, opportunities exist to build more inclusive societies, economies, and governance systems.

As Tunisia embarked on its transition, including elections for a Constituent Assembly in July, UNDP has been helping to lay the groundwork for a functioning democratic system. As requested by the new authorities, support is being given to establishing the new Electoral Commission and to the development of political parties. Work is being done on the new civil society law, and on the development of a national strategy against corruption.

In Egypt, UNDP is organizing a forum in Cairo on June 4th and 5th for a broad cross-section of Egyptians to share experiences with people from other regions of the world which have gone through democratic transitions. We are supporting the formal multi-party national dialogue process, and helping identify ways to encourage young people to participate in the processes which shape their futures and nation's future.

We are also mobilizing support for the development of the electoral process, the human rights architecture, anti-corruption mechanisms, and the decentralization and local governance agendas. We can offer expertise on the process of asset recovery and security sector reform.

Conclusion

There are moments when historic, transformational change is possible. This is one of those moments in the Arab States.

Change must be driven by the peoples of Tunisia, Egypt, and other countries embarking on transitions. UNDP stands ready to support them in that process, and in meeting their aspirations for a better life and more inclusive economies, societies, and governance.