By Bernhard Schell
Though legally bound by their respective constitutions to honour basic economic and social rights, Arab government usually violate such rights in practice, which partly explains the socio-political eruptions in the region, widely known as the Arab Spring. This is the upshot of the first Arab Watch Report by civil society organizations of ten Middle East and North African countries.
The report focused on the rights to work and to education was launched by the Arab NGO Network for Development (ANND) during a regional workshop in Beirut on October 9 and 10 at a time when development models based on economic liberalization, the commercial opening and the downsizing of the state functions have failed.
ANND acted as a “watchdog” monitoring economic and social rights in the region with a focus on policies that lead to the violation of these rights. The report, which will be issued biannually, is intended to serve as a scientific reference for civil society in their advocacy work and campaigns.
The Social Watch international secretariat’s coordinator Roberto Bissio writes in the prologue to report: “In the international governance architecture, between the national and the global decision-making, regional bodies are playing a role of growing importance. The Social Watch network thus welcomes regional initiatives such as this first Arab report that fills a vacuum in a moment when the Arab region recognizes the need for paying attention to the voices of its citizens and when the Arab civil society has emerged as a powerful voice and an inspiration for the struggles against authoritarianism everywhere.”
He adds: “The ANND, which plays such an important role in articulating civil society voices in the Arab countries, has already translated in the past in various occasions’ key chapters of the global Social Watch report. Now it expands that valuable work by publishing a completely new regional Social Watch report, allowing for more in depth analysis of the challenges and opportunities in rapidly changing countries.”
Ziad Abdel Samad, executive director of the ANND, said at the Beirut workshop: “The added value of the first Arab Watch Report lies in the fact that it shines into the imbalances in the economic and social models at the national and international levels by focusing on policies implemented on the daily lives of citizens and citizens of the Arab world.”
“Since the paradigm on international level to address the challenges of development stems from the background of dominant development thinking global, the Arab Spring and the subsequent protests in the United States and Europe clearly indicate the need for a model based on a different background to respond to the challenges of unemployment, poverty and marginalization, justice and human rights,” Samad remarked.
The Arab Watch Report focuses on the rights to education and to work – considered fundamental challenges all over the region – in ten countries: Jordan, Bahrain, Algeria, Morocco, Iraq, Egypt, Tunisia, Palestine, Lebanon and Sudan.
Indeed, unemployment has been identified in most accounts as the biggest challenge in the past decade, a challenge that undoubtedly will persist.
These are some of the conclusions of the Arab Watch Report 2012 and related demands:
- Security and arms sectors still consume a significant portion of the budgets of some Arab countries, and this reflects a fundamental flaw in the priorities.
- Whenever successive governments have moved into the market economy policies, the social inequalities and violations of economic and social rights have increased, especially regarding the right to education and to work. This confirms experts and civil society organizations’ demand in the different countries on the need to “protect the principle of free public education as in order to ensure equal opportunities for all without distinction and discrimination.”
- Women and persons with disabilities are still among the groups most affected and vulnerable to the violation of their rights, or disparagements. Therefore the necessity of adopting a policy of social integration is an urgent need in the Arab world. Social integration must include the integration of the persons with disabilities in the right to work.
- There is a need for involving civil society organizations, through their role in monitoring violations, and to develop policies for employment and education, and in the context of strengthening the mechanisms of accountability and participation and deepening local democracy.
- The deepening gap between public and private education must be adequately monitored as they can lead into serious consequences as expansion of the social rift and installing mechanisms to discriminate between citizens.
- International aid to support education in the Arab world must continue, but on the other hand it must be noted that there is the absence of a comprehensive vision for the future of the educational system in the Arab world, and a lack of educational maps that identify sites and areas of existing inequalities.
- There is an increasing phenomenon known as the fragility of the work of parallel/informal economies – the dominance of multiple formats of the functions through occasional or temporary contracts or even without contracts – which opened the door wide to the handling companies that trade labour through local companies or through regional and international networks. Therefore, there is an increasing need to provide protection, safety and stability of working conditions, and installation of temporary workers. Accordingly, the reform of social security systems and standardization of funds, and tightening control over expenditures and investments and management practices must be accelerated.
- Although it is the Arab governments that are primarily responsible for providing jobs, monitoring the labour market and creating major strategic projects, the private sector remains the most able to absorb labour in many countries of the region. But the problem lies in the fact that an important part of investors are avoiding investment in strategic sectors such as agriculture, major heavy industry, preferring often to invest in the financial and real estate sectors and services. This in turn deepens the dependence on the global market.
Ahmed Awad, director of the Phenix Center for Economic and Informatics Studies based in Jordan, explained: “During the past decades the governments of Arab countries misused and wasted the opportunity to achieve sustainable development for their citizens due to the absence of the most basic principles of governance in the administration of citizens, and at the insistence of social groups that control the power that lacks democratic methods.
“This in turn led to a decline in the status of the Arab peoples in most of the indicators of human development, which are well presented in each of the national reports included in this comprehensive report. Indeed the report reveals the sad situation of the majority of Arab citizens, but remains hopeful that the process of democratic transformation of the region, which began with the revolution of Tunisia in late 2010, initiates a new phase in the way of the enjoyment of basic human rights,” Awad said.
Mona Ezzat, a leading member at the New Woman Foundation (Egypt), stated: “The unemployment rate among females amounted to three times higher compared to males, and that, over recent years. This was a major factor of the Revolution. Although the participation of women in revolutions was high, the proportion of their presence in leadership positions and decision-making positions is still weak and ineffective. They also suffer from inequality when it comes to professional upgrading opportunities.”
“This requires the development of mechanisms to ensure the protection of women’s right to work and ensure equality with men in terms of rights and duties,” she concluded.