We have waited long enough

We have waited long enough

Recent events in my country, Jordan, whose people repeatedly have shown their resilience and steadfastness in the eye of the storm and their generosity to those less fortunate, serve only to highlight that now is the time for change

Despite the plethora of complex formulae, economic models and hours of debate, many of our Arab nations still struggle to achieve the levels of development that will meet all our people’s needs. For while development requires economic growth, that alone is no guarantee of the social and economic progress that true development entails.

Indian economist Amartya Sen probably put it best when he said that development is about creating freedom for people and removing obstacles to greater freedom, thereby enabling people to choose their own destiny. Obstacles to freedom, and hence to development, include poverty, lack of economic opportunities, corruption, poor governance, lack of education and lack of health.

It is clear that, taken as a whole, our region has failed dismally in meeting these goals.

In my view, this failure can be attributed in large part to our unwillingness to act consistently as a region — whether individuals or nations — to work together to build on our strengths to achieve the sustainable development that can meet human needs and address the food security-individual dignity-stability nexus, without compromising the integrity of the natural system. This requires cooperation at the regional level, coupled with the adoption of an ethic of social responsibility for the benefit of society at large. 

We need a new, inclusive approach to meeting challenges, one that accounts for both the natural and human environment. Only thus can we attain the desired organic unity between man and nature and the ethics of universal responsibility. This may sound idealistic — and it is — but whether we are talking about water scarcity, food security, poverty, education, or the ability of each one of us to fulfill our potential, we need to place humanity at the heart of the human-dignity equation.

The key lies in changing conventional ways of thinking. We need to abandon creeds of “myself,” “my tribe,” “my nation first, against all others,” and consider how much can be achieved by drawing on the full pool of our talents.

And it is my firm belief that a reconsideration of security — social, economic and cultural — through proactive steps to stimulate the evolution of a culture of participation in genuine civil society, through proactive steps to create a culture of peace via education for rights and responsibilities, it is possible to find culturally sensitive solutions, based on an ethical consensus.

Today we are surrounded by conflict and suffering. Take, as one example, the people of Yemen: After years of conflict, poor governance and the consequent poverty and loss of dignity, many have reached the point where they consider death is better than life because they have lost everything — including hope in a brighter future.

Around 75 percent of Yemen’s inhabitants (22.2 million people) need humanitarian aid. Approximately 8.1 million children suffer from acute malnutrition. More than 3 million have been displaced; twice this number are not getting any education or receive only sporadic schooling. Naturally, the economy too has suffered; millions have lost their jobs and their livelihoods. More than 80 percent of the population lives below the poverty line. What does this mean in terms of fulfilling human potential?

People in Yemen, Syria, Gaza, Iraq and Libya are all now similarly afflicted — and this affliction will pursue them into the future. All of us will pay the price for collective Arab silence and inactivity in the face of such suffering.

We must become more sensitized to the concept of consequences: poverty, illiteracy, oppression, lack of opportunity, despair and anger ... all of which can lead to the contemplation of violence.

These issues affect us all and can only be confronted multilaterally, through the combined action of governments, international and regional organizations and, most important of all, the people immediately affected.

In this context, we must develop a culturally appropriate financing mechanism and invite the world's wealthy nations to help. We need to forge links between a Muslim's zakat money in Java and a Christian charity’s proceeds in Berlin to alleviate suffering in Yemen, Syria or Gaza, to accelerate legislation and to harness technology to this end.

Our region’s extreme divisions — and the conflicts whose military, economic and social effects are tearing apart our collective humanity — deprive us of the opportunity for Arab human development. 

Meanwhile, the emphasis on military solutions and securitization, the weakness of regional institutions, and the absence of a clear regional strategy exacerbate the situation. In brief, current regional instability represents a policy failure to acknowledge that the challenges we face are symptomatic of growing regional divisions, both within and between nations, and to address basic structural issues, including governance and corruption.

I would propose two tracks: The first is to reinforce Arab identity (by which I mean intimate Arab identity) in order to defend pan-Arab security; the second is to enhance the dignity of the Arab human being in order to reinforce the strength of the Arab countries' home fronts.

Such a strategy could transform our region from being the problem to being a constructive global player, and transform our peoples’ lives beyond recognition.

We need to go back to basics, to identify priorities and there can be no doubt of a direct, proportional relationship between sustained economic development and safeguarding human dignity.

To quote Professor Rehman Sobhan, the Bangladeshi economist, “the tired debate over the prioritization of growth as the route to poverty eradication should be put to rest. The relevant issue is to enhance the capacities of the poor to contribute to the process of growth by empowering them to participate, on more equitable terms, in the dynamics of the market economy.”

I believe regional cooperation and coordination is vital to address these challenges. We must begin now, immediately, to adopt well-researched, practical steps to combat the painful situation we are suffering today.

Prince El Hassan Bin Talal of Jordan is chairman of the Arab Thought Forum, an independent organization founded in 1981 to study the Arab world’s problems. A member of the royal family, he was a brother of the late King Hussein and is an uncle of Jordan’s King Abdullah II.