The earliest civilizations in human history were established in a region that is now known as the Middle East. The fertile lands of the region did not only provide conditions for incredible agricultural growth but also the evolution of human possibility, and with it, the birth of sciences and cultures, stories of spiritual hope and laws of human dignity, the first burgeoning cities, houses of wisdom, emerging trade that flowed through the seas and rivers, and professions that were established and have served over thousands of years.

Challenges of the cradle

Once, we may have cradled civilization. Today, our challenges as a region confront our potential to prosper over thousands of years. We spend billions of dollars on arms, yet have the biggest security deficit. We live in one of the most water-stressed regions, with the highest CO2 emissions per capita – threatening both our biodiversity and food security. We are the most food import dependent region in the world.

We are extremely vulnerable to natural disasters, food price volatility, natural disasters and climate fluctuations. Long-term trends in rainfall need to be considered in understanding the radicalization of youth in the region. Rising obesity and diabetes rates are juxtaposed with hunger and malnutrition. Our region is one of the unhappiest on Earth. Our education systems teach children what to think rather than how to learn. We have the highest youth unemployment rates in the world. Our innovation output is negligible. Climate change will affect most of the 370 million people in the Arab region and, in our current state, the scale of the impacts are likely to be “beyond the coping range of many communities and countries”. But perhaps the greatest challenge we face is a crisis of values.

To address some of the core issues related to solving these sustainable development challenges, I’m offering three ideas towards a new regional framework:

Systems not silos                                 

In a world of complexity, cross-cutting issues such as education, peace, sustainable cities and health cannot be solved in silo. Without shifting the way in which we approach social problems, individual interventions will not achieve inclusive sustainable development.

Consider for example, the interconnections between climate change, diabetes, transport, education, disabilities, the economy and human rights.

Diabetes and climate change are two urgent challenges in the 21st century. Changing food habits due to behavioural, climate and economic factors have meant that MENA is one of the world regions where the double burden of malnutrition – where both obesity/NCDs and under-nutrition coexist – is the most pronounced. According to the International Diabetes Federation, four Middle Eastern countries make up the top 10 in global diabetes prevalence per capita (Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Bahrain), and, according to the World Bank, these countries also make the top 10 in regards to CO2 emissions per capita. The socio-economic impact of diabetes alone in such countries threatens to undermine wider development and the benefits of achieving the Millennium Development Goals.

The International Diabetes Federation also forecasts that spending on diabetes care in MENA is set to rise from $16.8 billion in 2014 to $24.7 billion in 2035. Increasing obesity prevalence in a population increases GHG emissions from food production and car travel. People with underlying medical conditions such as diabetes are more vulnerable to the adverse health impacts of climate change. At the same time, diabetic retinopathy is a leading cause of blindness and visual disability in the Middle East, and diabetic neuropathy a leading cause of amputations.

Women with disabilities continue to face discrimination daily all over the world, and in the MENA region poor rule of law and governance, traditional and cultural practices and prejudice, and poverty are all factors impeding the successful fulfilment of the human rights of this most vulnerable section of society. There is also an opportunity loss from not including this important segment of the population in the labour market. As Education for Sustainable Development is yet to be integrated in many national curriculums across the region, citizens grow up unaware of these issues.

In the current Middle East framework, typically a Ministry of Health, a Ministry of Transport, a Ministry of Commerce, a Ministry of Labour, a Ministry of Social Development, a Ministry of Education and a Ministry of the Environment could all be trying to solve these connected issues largely in silo, or at most bilaterally, and without significant involvement of the private sector and civil society across the board. These issues require instead an interconnected and intergenerational vision and strategy that is sustainable and regenerative. This means looking beyond the typical 2020 and 2030 national strategies and striving for system solutions that can serve and be relevant for citizens in hundreds and thousands of years; not only one or two generations.

From non-violent resistance to non-violent resilience

During periods of social upheaval a lot of energy is invested in violent and non-violent forms of activism. Comparatively less energy and thought is given to the necessary development that must take place thereafter – and preferably in tandem. Across civil society, public and private sectors, there appears to be a lack of clarity and cohesive strategy to address social and development issues. All the while interconnected issues such as education, climate, peace and health are not being addressed systematically. These issues are likely to be exacerbated by a constant state of flux, and so is the economic climate, which leads to further joblessness, frustration and social fragmentation.

The feelings of frustration and marginalization begin to define the identity of so many young people leaving them with no accessible and viable alternative to channel their energies into creating constructive – rather than destructive – change.

Socially and politically marginalized youth across the region have demonstrated tremendous energy, commitment, tenacity, organizational skills, communication, innovative thinking and superior boot-strapping skills: making the most of the limited resources available. All of these skills and competencies are valuable in any entrepreneurial venture, but especially towards social entrepreneurship frameworks. There is an unsurpassable opportunity to harness those skills into a new kind of activism that focuses on hope, optimism and renewal.

The nature of “resistance” is to oppose, to refuse, to stop, to confront and to impede, which may have a place in certain contexts. However, the sustainable development challenges we face as a region demands non-violent resilience, rather than non-violent resistance. In the natural world, resiliency requires diversity and inclusion of all parts of a system to not only make it through a storm or disturbance but also to use it as a base to build and create new solutions.

Resilience requires the cultivation of decentralized cooperative relationships and the integration of strategies that promote development and growth simultaneously, rather than one or the other. To survive and thrive in a changed context requires reorganization, and resiliency requires us to respond quickly and create new localized frameworks to solve the sustainable development challenges we face, rather than operating on frameworks that were created for a different time and place.

PPP: public-planet partnership

Where what we value as a society also needs to be what is of true value to the Earth. We must reconcile with nature and from there with ourselves. Our institutions, cities and frameworks need to be designed in a way that creates ecosystem services that contribute to Earth’s well-being.

The region’s policies are based on various intergovernmental political and economic unions, but these divisions create barriers particularly when it comes to sustainable development issues. This requires an (un)foreign policy where we also cooperate based on similar and connecting bio-regions.

It is also not enough to just look at conserving biodiversity; we must also look at nature as a true partner, just as we would a public-private sector partnership. The natural world is a potential partner that has been dealing with complex system challenges and finding solutions for billions of years. One such example is that agricultural biotechnologies used in the Middle East can’t adapt and work fast enough to meet the pressures of feeding 520 million people by 2030 and the impacts of climate change. Instead, we must also consider fungi and microbial communities that have found ways to be resilient in changing conditions over millions of years and learn from them in our food solutions.

In our new regional frameworks, we must ask how we can form mutualistic and symbiotic relationships with the natural world, which has proven to have more far more skilled environmental engineers, architects, green chemists and system designers than humans.

In this way, it is returning to the essence of that cradle of civilization, where our frameworks, progress and development as a human society were intrinsically tied to the thriving nature around us and within us.

The World Economic Forum on the Middle East and North Africa 2015 takes place at the Dead Sea, Jordan, from 21-23 May. 

Author: Tariq Olaimy, Co-founder, 3BL Associates

Image: A worker adjusts the valve of an oil pipe at Samawa refinery in Samawa, 230 km (140 miles) south of Baghdad, December 13, 2009. REUTERS/Ahmed Ameen