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Inequality threatens MENA development despite decline in poverty

The inequalities persist and threaten development strides in the Middle East and North Africa despite sharp declines in poverty from 1981 to 2001, according to a United Nations Report on the World Social Situation 2005.

The share of people in the region living on less than $1 a day declined from 5 percent in 1981 to 2 per cent in 2001, and the share of people living on less than $2 a day fell from 29 per cent to 23 percent.

At the same time, however, per capita income levels in the Middle East and North Africa have been steadily declining relative to the average per capita income in the wealthier Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries.

Between 1980 and 2001, income levels in the Middle East and North Africa decreased from 9.7 to 6.7 percent of the average per capita income of the OECD. The decline in the ratios indicates not that per capita income in developing regions has decreased in absolute terms, but that per capita income has grown faster in the richer regions than in the poorer ones, widening the inequality gap.

Inequality also characterizes the global employment situation, the Report says. In developed countries as a group, the unemployment rate fell from around 8 percent in 1993 to 6.8 percent in 2003, but much of the developing world experienced stagnating or rising unemployment. The region with the highest levels of unemployment, which remained relatively stable during the 1993-2003 decade, was the Middle East and North Africa (12.2 percent).

In 2000, more than 100 countries were experiencing "youth bulges," where young people between the ages of 15 and 24 comprise at least 40 percent of the national population. Youth bulges, which are associated with high levels of unemployment (25-percent youth unemployment in the Middle East in 2003), poverty and inequality, increase the likelihood of conflict within countries.

The Middle East, as a region, also has one of the highest shares of its population below the age of 15 years, and the number of youth entering the labor market over the next 15-year period is expected to increase.

The lack of work opportunities may cause increased frustration, especially if expectations have been raised through expansions in education.

The incapacity of a country to integrate young people into the economic landscape has a profound impact on the country as a whole, with effects ranging from the rapid growth of the informal economy to increased instability.

The number of people living with HIV has been rising in every region; in North Africa and the Middle East, adults and children living with HIV numbered 540,000 in 2004 (many of the new infections have been attributed to injecting drug use and low rates of condom use among sex workers).

Because the percentage of adult HIV prevalence is relatively low at 0.3 percent and because the epidemic is still in its early stages, there is a good chance that effective prevention efforts can halt the spread of the virus.

Inequalities are often accompanied by social malaise, the report says. In many countries, there is a widespread feeling that socio-economic needs are not being addressed.

Few believe that state institutions act in their best interests, and many are dissatisfied with their economic situation.

Negative perceptions of future prospects can leave many discouraged, making it difficult to ensure their participation in the progress of their societies. In a survey conducted in 2004 by the World Economic Forum, the Middle East was one of the most pessimistic regions about future security.

Increased efforts are required to integrate all segments of society in political life, the Report says. It is imperative that all individuals have equal access and opportunities to participate in the political process, not only for the sake of justice, but also to ensure that full advantage is taken of a country's human resources and to promote peace and stability. Involving people in making decisions that affect their daily lives and well-being will significantly reduce the risk of conflict.

Beirut,09 05 2005
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