Sima Bahous: Lecture at Kyoto University "Towards Resilience in the Arab World"

21 May 2014

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Sima Bahous

 Assistant Secretary-General
And Director, Regional Bureau for Arab States
United Nations Development Programme

Lecture:
Towards Resilience in the Arab World

Kyoto University
Shishu-Kan Graduate School of Advanced Leadership Studies

21 May, 2014

Mr. President, Mr. Executive Vice President, Faculty and staff, Students, Colleagues and friends,

It is an honor to be here with you today in this center of excellence for the preparation of national and world leaders, the Shishu-Kan Graduate School of Advanced Leadership Studies. I thank Professor Shuichi Kawai, Dean of the Kyoto University Shishu-kan, and Professor Shigeki Sakurai, for their kind invitation and warm welcome to speak with you today.

This University is rightly renowned for its attachment to the Spirit of Freedom. It is a spirit that has been blowing in my region, the Arab World in recent years; and we have met it with resilience.

The spirit of perseverance, of resilience, is a spirit both our peoples have in common. We may stumble seven times, but we recover eight times!

1. The Case for Resilience

 Mr. President, Faculty and Staff, Students, Colleagues and Friends,

The title of my talk today is Towards Resilience in the Arab World.  It is a fitting title because of the important challenges and opportunities that are facing the Arab world right now.

It is fitting that we are having this discussion here in Japan. This is a country that has led the way in recent years in picking up the pieces after natural and man-made disasters. The world has learned lessons from your spirit of perseverance, from how you have stood up, after stumbling, and continued the journey.

And finally it is fitting because I am having this discussion with you — experts, students and future leaders with a passion for “survivability,” a concept, an objective, which has many linkages with resilience.

I am therefore as much looking forward to learning from you as I am to sharing my own perspective on the work of the United Nations Development Programme, or UNDP as we call it.

As you may know, UNDP is the global development agency of the United Nations.

We work in 177 countries around the world providing knowledge, experience and resources to help countries find their own solutions to global, regional and national development challenges.

Our overarching goal is to work with societies around the world to achieve the simultaneous eradication of poverty and the significant reduction of inequalities and exclusion, in a sustainable manner.

This goal is within reach. Much progress has already been achieved.  Taken as a whole, the world’s population today is healthier, wealthier, and better educated than ever before. Progress has been made on key environmental objectives. In most countries, women are more empowered in than ever before.

Yet, beyond these achievements, disconcerting realities stubbornly persist. Many people still live in extreme poverty. Many live in states considered highly vulnerable to a range of shocks. Global economic and financial systems remain volatile. Armed violence poses growing threats to human security in many countries. And our planet is under severe stress, as climate-related disasters increase in frequency, scale, and scope, and as population pressures continue to strain the global ecosystem.

In this context, in a rapidly changing world and amid constantly growing risks, at UNDP we are increasingly resolute in the view that resilience must be at the heart of the broader sustainable development agenda that we pursue around the world.

But what does resilience mean? What does it mean to be resilient?

At UNDP we see resilience as the capacity of national systems, communities, and peoples to mitigate or deal with any kind of shock or dramatic change. This includes natural disasters, man-made crises, external shocks, or any other kind of shock.

But resilience also has a more positive meaning, that is, the ability of national systems to pursue positive change without upsetting national development trajectories, or indeed to pass through periods of change while keeping focused on achieving improved outcomes.

Resilience of course is famously hard to translate. In Japanese, I am told that perhaps the proverb Nanakorobi yaoki expresses it best. The determination to bounce back, to persist, to improve conditions even in the face of adversity or in the context of rapid and complex change.

2. Resilience and the Arab World

Today I am speaking to you as Director of the Regional Bureau for Arab States of UNDP. And let me mention that, in many ways, the history of the Arab region is a tale of resilience.

From the earliest days of recorded history, we know that populations in the Arab world have been resourceful, creative and strong as they have coped with the desert landscape and resource scarcity.

We’ve also faced more than our fair share of man-made tests.

Indeed, from the tragedies arising from the troubled partition of Palestine in 1947, to regional and interstate conflicts of the 1970s and 1980s, to the war in Iraq in 2003 and subsequent fragility of the country, to decades of lawlessness in Somalia, to civil strife on a mass scale in the Sudan — the Arab world has seen the brutal side of its own tenuous state formation, its difficulties in achieving social and political cohesion, and the major involvement and interests of international and regional powers on its soils.

All in all, populations and peoples, states and institutions across the Arab world have shown the ability to cope with untellable adversity, to adapt to extreme difficulties and to persevere through the most arduous of challenges.

And in many ways the Arab region as a whole has managed to make progress over the decades even amidst such difficulties, making tremendous leaps forward in education indicators, in health and in other basic development indicators. This is the definition of resilience. This is a sign of an innate capacity to bounce back, and to stand fast in the face of strong winds.

3. Resilience and recent events

Despite progress, as you know the deep resilience of the Arab region has of late been tested anew.

As UNDP documented in our Arab Human Development Reports, as the world moved into the 21st century many parts of the Arab region seemed to not be making enough progress for the modern age.  

National systems were stagnating in many countries, with governments entrenched for decades in some countries and few if any opportunities for formal political participation. Economies were similarly stuck: growth was lethargic, innovation lacking, and inequality growing quickly.   

The Arab region may not have been unique in these difficulties.

However in the case of the Arab countries this accumulation of challenges came at a time when the region was also going through an important demographic shift towards a population with a very high number of young people.

Today some 54 per cent of the population of the Arab world is under the age of twenty-five. To put that in context, this proportion is approximately 23 per cent here in Japan, and is in the low 30s in regions such as Europe or North America.

As we know, it is quite common for societies to experience vast social and political changes when their youth population reaches a peak, just as many highly developed regions and countries did for example in the 1960s.

However in the case of the Arab region, this youth bulge came not many decades ago, but right now, at a time when social forces such as technology – especially communication technology – are growing so quickly that they tend to accelerate or spread the flow of new ideas and moments of social change when and where they occur. 

In this context, over the last ten years or so it has been increasingly clear that change would come to the Arab region. The only question was how it would come about. Would formal institutions in the Arab world be strong enough, resilient enough to lead the change that the region needed? Or would change and resilience have to come from other drivers.

The result is of course now very well-known.

These revolutions came often with tragic notes, we must be clear. There was loss of life in each of the countries that pursued transition. There were anxious moments for many. Insecurities and fears for many as well.

This moment of change also breathed much-needed new life into the progress of the region: No longer could it be assumed that change is not possible in this region; no longer could any government be complacent; no longer would any population be resigned.

Since that time though the trajectory of each country that began to undertake transition has varied. Tunisia has made remarkable progress towards more open and democratic governance, including through passage of the region’s most progressive constitution earlier this year. However, other countries have been off to slower starts or have indeed experienced multiple instances of instability or changes in direction. And economies and social indicators across the board are stagnating or rolling back.

All in all, as I said in my first statement upon taking my current post in 2012, the wave of change that began in 2010 brought with it many precious opportunities—but it brings with it just as many risks that Arab societies are contending with and continue to grapple with to this day and into the future.

And no more so than in the country where the tension among different visions for the future has taken a horrible and violent turn for the worse: Syria.

As many of you know, events in Syria began in similar fashion to those in other parts of the region, but quickly became polarized among entrenched camps. Over more than the last three years the situation has devolved into a desperate crisis that has taken the lives of over 150,000 people; displaced over 6 million; and driven the economy back by decades. Women and children are suffering. Educations are on hold, businesses are shuttered, health centers destroyed. Syria is now the most pressing humanitarian crisis in the world.

The Syria crisis has also taken a massive toll on neighboring countries. Over 2.7 million people have fled Syria to counties such as Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey.

In some cases the strain of refugee inflows has become significant for host countries. There are now over 1 million refugees in Lebanon, for example, a quantity that is equivalent to over 20 per cent of the local population. There are over 600,000 refugees in Jordan – nearly 10 per cent of the local population.

These societies have responded with exemplary generosity and solidarity to the needs of refugees. But efforts are coming at a rapidly increasing cost. As the numbers of refugees crossing borders continues to grow, the fiscal burden on federal and local governments is tremendous. In Lebanon alone the crisis is estimated to have cost US $2.5 billion in economic activity.

The impact of the crisis however is felt even more vividly by the local communities that actually host refugees.

While images of large refugee camps may dominate in the global media, the fact of the matter is that most refugees are not in camps at all but, rather are intermixed among local populations, adding to pressure on scarce resources. Competition is growing for water, food, health and education services, and jobs are increasingly leading in many areas to the fraying of already-fragile social fabrics.

The overall picture is that the Syria crisis is not only threatening the very future of that country, but it is indeed having what a Lebanese Ambassador called an “existential threat” on neighboring lands – and, in some senses, on the Middle East as we know it as a whole.

With the region at risk, the case for increased resilience has never been stronger.

4. UNDP and Resilience in the Arab World

The question then turns to us: What can we do as the United Nations Development Programme to foster resilience in such a complex and crisis prone region? 

Let me begin at the heart of the matter, the Syria crisis.

And let me be clear: What is needed here is peace. Only a peaceful resolution of differences, a return to stability and a transition towards a democratic national consensus can bring an end to the crisis and allow for the beginning of a full recovery.

But even when the achievement of peace remains ahead on an unclear horizon, we must act now. Faced with the death, destruction and impoverishment of a whole nation and its peoples, the only possible response to some may seem to be stunned silence. But at UNDP we believe that we must speak out because in the midst of horror there is hope.

There are twenty million Syrians in the country right now. At least half of them are living in poverty and faced with unemployment, and displacement, and the destruction of their communities and livelihoods. Yet in many cases these communities are coming together, across all confessional lines, and across boundaries. Slowly and painfully they are rebuilding and hoping against all experience that the war will end soon, that what is rebuilt will remain standing, that stability can be achieved, and that tenuous understandings across the fault lines of this war will hold.

At UNDP we join this effort to hold on, to persevere, in what we call a resilience-based approach. Our belief is that the earlier we start working with affected communities inside Syria, the stronger the ground will be for peace, once it arrives, to be sustained, and for development, once it resumes, to be robust.

Wherever we can in Syria, we are witnessing the victims of conflict come together and rebuild their country, and we are there to support them, helping affected communities avoid further destitution, marginalization and aid-dependence by providing emergency income to people repairing basic community infrastructure and services.

Our support for resilience in neighboring countries takes a complementary form. While partner institutions such as the World Bank are providing most of the technical support for federal governments in their efforts to shore up fiscal balances, at UNDP we are working with Ministries, local governments and other local stakeholders to respond to the needs of host communities, for example by creating jobs building new schools and health centers where they are needed, training teachers and health workers, supporting the creation of new markets, and promoting peacebuilding and social cohesion.

We do this because it is the right thing to do. The world cannot simply stand back and wait for peace. People need help now. In the long run, it will also be less expensive, as laying the basis for stability now can reduce the probability of backsliding into crisis later.

Beyond the Syria conflict and its impact on neighbouring societies, there is much we do in the Arab world to assist transitional governance milestones, such as elections, constitution-drafting, and national consultations; to the development of new national legislation that enshrines new rights, such as a civil society law in Tunisia; and to social and economic programmes needed to respond to the increased challenges of the day. 

5. UNDP and Japan: Partners in Resilience in the Arab World

Mr. President, Faculty and Staff, Students, Friends and Colleagues:
UNDP is particularly grateful for the very strong partnership we have had with Japan in the Arab States region. Japan has been one of our most stable partners for years, and a strong supporter of our work.

Over the past few decades Japan’s support for our work in the Arab region has been very important, anchored in the belief that without peace, security and stability in the Arab region, the advancement of human well-being and human security cannot be achieved. Together, we have done our best ensure a balanced approach to better the livelihoods of men, women and youth in the Arab states.

Among the partners of UNDP in the Arab States region, Japan stands out as lending a hand when it is most needed, especially in times of crisis. When Iraq was most in need of recovery in 2004, for example, Japan boosted its support for our work impressively. And Japan has remained steadfast with us over the years in consistent support for Palestine.

Perhaps this is due to the Japanese society’s innate appreciation of the need for resilience. After all this is a society that has bounced back from tremendously difficult moments, from the ravages of internal conflict in 1877, to the ashes of nuclear attacks less than 70 years ago, to a series of powerful earthquakes, and most recently to a strong Tsunami, Japan has endured hardships and come back every time stronger. This is a society with a strong commitment to resilience.

It is also a society that is noble in its willingness to share the lessons that it has learned.

This commitment, this willingness has been especially evident in recent years in the Arab region. When the Arab region began to contend with difficult winds in 2011, Japan was among the strongest partners in rising to the challenge.
Today Japan is a key partner  in UNDP’s efforts to support countries through their difficult transitions and this difficult moment, working with us on transitional governance, development and youth employment for example in fourteen Arab countries.

Change takes time but already we are seeing important results. Working together we have helped countries in the Arab region set up new institutions, recover from conflict and crisis, build new infrastructure, and create jobs when and where they are needed most.

And in response to the Syria crisis, Japan has generously supported an impact study that we are undertaking along with partners and which we hope will form the basis of a broader strategic project in response and towards resilience.
In this context, as I visit Japan I am carrying with me a message of gratitude. As I speak to you today I can tell you that we appreciate this support very much, and this dialogue. Our partners and beneficiaries in the region appreciate it as well.

And as I talk with government representatives, the media, the private sector and you about additional opportunities to provide support, for example by scaling up our resilience-based response to the Syria crisis or by partnering on longer-term work such as a new initiative on women’s empowerment across the region.

In fact I believe that our response together in the Arab states region right now and in the next few years can do much to help shape the international community’s embrace of the resilience agenda over the next years.  I am hopeful that this work will help solidify the global understanding that societies must be equipped to deal productively with change, and that responses to breakdowns must address not only the symptoms but also the deep drivers of difficulty.

As I have laid out in this lecture, the priorities we share remain vast and the agenda deep. Achieving resilience in the Arab world will benefit us all, and I am grateful this audience will appreciate this message.

And I am hopeful that in our discussion today we can agree that, looking to the future, investing in resilience is one of the best ways to prevent and to recover from crisis, and that there is ample scope for us all to work together towards that end:  UNDP, Japan, and indeed many of you as you continue your studies and embark upon your careers.

I look forward to an open and engaging discussion.  Domo arigato gozaimasu!

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Sima Sami Bahous is Assistant Administrator of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and Director of UNDP’s Regional Bureau for Arab States.

Director's Corner