Shared Prosperity Needs More Face to Face Engagement, Not Just Online

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"It takes civil society to engage on solutions," shared Lotfi Maktouf, who founded Al Madanya, which is a Tunisian-based nonprofit that helps address the number one challenge in Tunisia, youth unemployment. Through Al Madanya's simple intervention, subsidizing driver's license training, youth obtain the means to earn a driver's license which can lead to a job -- or at least provide the identity card they need for other types of employment. I could not help but think that this year's World Bank theme for "Shared Prosperity" had to be somewhat inspired from the analysis and reports coming from the Middle East and North Africa division that focused on inclusiveness for development. Current World Bank President, Dr. Jim Yong Kim, repeatedly cushioned each recommendation to support "Shared Prosperity" as the end-goal. Shared prosperity also served as a way to include civil society across all regions regarding extreme poverty, education, and climate change.

#ItTakes Civil Society Organizations

Combined with the 2013 meeting's "hashtag", which is the term for a social media meme, #ItTakes, it was easy to enlist civil society organizations among the online audience to comment. For social media followers, there was certainly much online discussion the Annual World Bank-International Monetary Fund (IMF) Spring Meetings that primarily focused on the Tunisian and Egyptian IMF loan decisions, rather than the other widely used hashtag "#educationfirst" throughout the week-long online/offline discussions.

During the meetings, 551 representatives from Civil Society Organizations arrived in Washington, D.C. to participate in about sixty CSO sessions that engage on better program management to partnering with the United Nations for Millennium Development Goal projects, like sanitation and education. Traveling to Washington, D.C., let alone, the U.S. is expensive. So it is understandable that over 20 percent of the CSO representatives come from the U.S. However, even if one were to subtract 100 of those American CSO reps from the total, only 23 of 451 representatives came from the Middle East & North Africa region itself.

Among MENA countries, those represented, came from some countries going through economic and political transition, like Tunisia, Yemen, and Egypt. Civil society institutions who were unable to attend, observed and questioned from Tunisia, like Twitter user, Saida Manoubia who asked over Twitter as @khaffousa: "if there could be growth without development, and how did #tunisia achieve the growth he is talking about?"

Yet, no civil society organizations arrived from Libya or Syria -- with the exception of some press from those countries. (But how can press from Bahrain, Libya, and Syria report on what is not shared by CSOs visiting from their countries when they may not report on what they hear from them events transpiring within their own countries?) Unfortunately, country-specific examples, like Syria and Yemen were described in relevant CSO panels, like the "Rule of Law & Security" Thursday session, but with no one chiming in at the panel from those countries... or from Libyans (and Syrians) in real time on Twitter.

For that matter, even countries that were used as MENA specific examples in World Bank panel discussions, that had not undergone a revolution in the last two years did not include the voices from civil society organizations. I am not saying that they do not exist, but one may wonder why the UAE, Palestine, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Algeria, and Jordan did not have civil society organization representatives participating. For example, most MENA countries provide some sort of subsidy, and could relate to Friday's session, "Inclusion and Resilience: The Way Forward for Social Safety Nets in the Middle East & North Africa." Specifically, the talk shared ways in which government and civil society could partner to undertake food and fuel subsidies reform and engage on larger social safety net support mechanisms. Both Morocco and Palestine were cited as examples of reducing certain subsidies by the Director of MENA's Human Development division at the World Bank, Steen Jorgensen. At least the Egypt-based, Egyptian Center for Economic Studies, represented a MENA-based perspective that described the support Egypt-based CSOs give to supplement the social safety net challenge.

Two Hopes for MENA CSOs in 2014

What was most disappointing was not seeing any civil society organizations from the MENA region sitting in on the two panels that look at the social dimensions of the "Shared Prosperity" theme. The first was the "Rule of Law & Security" panel -- which I can understand because maybe "political" terms and "fragile economies" require country representatives to admit that political judgements will be cast in the discussion. As one of the panelists stated, "If we create a lot of laws, and then people don't enforce them, then we [governments] lose credibility."

The second panel lacking any MENA civil society organization voice was the "From Vision to Action: Youth Engagement" discussion. Fine, they were not among the speakers. As a blogger, I accept that with a taxing schedule of 60 sessions, the few MENA CSOs may have had prior speaking commitments and could not speak on the panel. But my disappointment stems from more than just a blogging point or tweet. My disappointment bears repeating because the panel recognized the social and economic imperative of engaging across generations. Inter-generation engagement is what makes up "boosting the shared Prosperity" agenda, according to Kim, who emphasized including the younger generation in the "inclusivity" reforms. I would have liked to know what actual MENA-based CSOs thought about "what it takes to become a respected and impactful leader and how to leverage social media for social impact from the local to the global levels" (the goal of the panel), which would would have triggered a two-way dialogue had MENA CSO representatives at least sat in the audience. This would have strengthened the exchange and resonated stronger in my mind, like Mr. Maktouf's testimonial, rather than read third-party responses to the tweets about it.