António Guterres has released a policy brief outlining four sets of priorities to help these countries build back better and achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by the 2030 deadline.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed fault lines, fissures and fragilities in societies and economies around the world – and the Arab region is no exception,” said Mr. Guterres in a video accompanying the launch.
“Together, we can turn a crisis into an opportunity. It will be good for the region — and good for our world.”
Poverty threatening millions
The Impact of COVID-19 on the Arab Region: An Opportunity to Build Back Better is the latest UN policy initiative to help countries deal with the pandemic, providing ideas for governments on how to address the consequences of the crisis.
Arab nations – which have a collective population of more than 430 million – have seen a sharp drop in oil revenues, remittances and tourism.
The regional economy is expected to contract by over five per cent, amounting to an overall loss of $152 billion. As a result, a quarter of the population might end up in poverty.
“In a region already rife with tensions and inequalities, this will have profound consequences on political and social stability”, the UN chief warned.
Concern for women, displaced persons
Years of conflict and social unrest have reversed progress in human development, and some communities will be hit hard by the pandemic. They include women, refugees and internally displaced people (IDPs).
The Arab region already has the world’s largest gender gap, and the UN fears women could lose around 700,000 jobs, particularly in the informal sector where they comprise more than 60 per cent of the workforce.
“Those caught in armed conflict face particular challenges, especially the 26 million refugees and internally displaced persons, who are among the most exposed to the virus”, said the Secretary-General.
The pandemic is also likely to increase wealth inequality, already the highest in the world. Meanwhile, weak public institutions mean many countries are not able to plan for major crises.
Seize COVID-19 ‘moment’
Despite these challenges, the Secretary-General viewed COVID-19 as an opportunity to effect change in the Arab region, saying it “can also be a moment for resolving long-standing conflicts and addressing structural weaknesses”.
He has proposed four sets of priorities to guide responses, with the immediate focus on slowing spread of the disease, ending conflict, and supporting the most vulnerable people.
“That means prioritising life-saving health care to COVID-19 victims, respecting the call for a global ceasefire; ensuring humanitarian assistance to the most vulnerable — including refugees, displaced and host communities; providing emergency support to individuals and households; and taking steps to relieve debt, promote trade and expand relief — for example, through a regional solidarity fund,” said Mr. Guterres.
Invest to end inequalities
Given the inequalities in the region, the UN chief called for greater investment in universal health, education, social protection and technology. He also highlighted the need to invest in women and girls, and to ensure equal rights and participation.
“Education and opportunities are also critical for young people in the region who face unemployment rates five times higher than those for adults. With the right investments, Arab youth — now the largest age group in the region — can also be its largest asset”, he added.
A greener, diversified economy
The Secretary-General also emphasized the need to boost economic recovery through more diversified and “green” economic models. This can be achieved by creating decent sustainable jobs, introducing progressive taxation measures, ending fossil fuel subsidies, and taking greater account of climate risks.
“Now is the moment to prioritize human rights, ensure a vibrant civil society and free media and create more accountable institutions that will increase citizen trust and strengthen the social contract,” said Mr. Guterres, underlining his fourth priority area for the region.
The policy brief also highlights the key role of the international community in supporting any transition in Arab countries, including through providing humanitarian assistance and greater access to financing, as well as measures to manage debt and remove barriers to trade.