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Governance in the MENA region: What can we learn from responses to COVID-19?

The Brookings Doha Center (BDC) and the College of Public Policy (CPP) at Hamad Bin Khalifa University (HBKU) jointly held an online workshop on June 16, 2020 to discuss institutional and governance challenges in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) that have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Over the course of three sessions, participants assessed the nature of these challenges, as well as viable pathways that MENA countries can take to overcome them. The workshop was attended by a group of distinguished scholars and experts. Welcome remarks were given by Leslie Pal, Founding Dean of CPP, and Tarik Yousef, Director of the BDC, as well as the workshop co-chairs, Nader Kabbani and Anis Ben Brik.

Session One: Middle-income states

The session began with an observation that most middle-income countries have implemented similar COVID-19 measures, such as closing borders, encouraging social distancing, and shutting down unnecessary economic activities. However, pandemic outcomes have varied considerably across countries and not in ways that would have been predicted by pre-pandemic governance indices. Workshop participants discussed various factors that might explain these differences in outcomes, including experience in dealing with crises, strong institutions, trust in government, public health capacity, and housing density. Future research needs to involve a greater degree of “data triangularity” to figure out what differentiates country responses and their outcomes. Such information can expose deficiencies and catalyze improved governance in the region.

A presentation was given on poverty and inequality projections made by the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA), which indicated that the pandemic could result in more than $400 billion in wealth losses and six million full-time job losses in Arab countries by 2020, pushing 16 million more people into poverty by 2021. The participants discussed the merits of various public policies to mitigate the pandemic’s social-economic impact, including the feasibility of introducing a wealth tax in the region. Such a policy would require major governance reforms, including more data transparency on income and wealth, as well as a new social contract.

Session Two: Fragile states

The session started by considering the low COVID-19 infection and fatality figures in conflict-affected MENA states, which are likely due to the lack of data collection and reporting. However, COVID-19 will continue to spread in those states because health care systems have collapsed, and testing capacities are very limited. In addition, fatality rates are likely to be much higher because their populations are already in poor health due to malnutrition and diseases such as cholera. Participants also discussed the shortage of overseas development assistance and decrease in remittances as a result of depressed global economic conditions, noting that unblocking remittance channels could affect entire political processes, especially for conflict-affected countries that are going through some type of transition, such as Somalia and Sudan.

A second discussion looked at state-related factors and societal determinants affecting country responses to the pandemic. The discussion highlighted the importance of response coordination across territories, which becomes challenging in the presence of contested zones of authority. In addition, political and social trust are essential to guarantee compliance with restrictions, but these forms of trust are low across intergroup lines in conflict-affected states. The participants classified the determining factors of a successful response as state leadership, state capacity, and people’s trust, arguing that trust plays a major role. They also discussed how technological solutions can be used to compensate for a lack of state capacity, but they can also be used by authoritarian governments for monitoring and surveillance.

Session Three: Resource-rich states

The session began by noting that collapsing oil prices have significantly affected the Gulf Cooperation Council’s (GCC) revenue base and raised questions around revenue mobilization. GCC countries have invested heavily in tourism, retail, production, and international events (ranging from the hajj pilgrimage to Dubai’s Expo 2020), all of which have been hard-hit by the pandemic. Workshop participants argued that a public-private partnership approach is the only way to push ahead on new projects and overcome global fiscal challenges, but that encouraging the private sector to invest in a lower productivity world will be challenging.

The participants then discussed GCC demographics, underscoring the fact that migrant workers are particularly vulnerable due to poor health and crowded living situations, but that there has not been good reporting on what is happening to them. However, the GCC’s relatively young population and intergeneration households may reduce risk compared to the West. In terms of public health care capacity, Gulf countries are generally better off than the rest of the MENA region; however, most pandemic-related initiatives in the GCC have been enabled by investments, rather than innovation.

The workshop participants concluded by noting that the pandemic may intensify the region’s employment challenges, worsen authoritarianism, and threaten freedom of speech. However, they also outlined three potential areas for improvement in the MENA region that have been enabled by the pandemic: (1) intergovernmental coordination; (2) economic privatization, particularly in the GCC; and (3) mobile and e-governance. Participants agreed to delve deeper into these issues and to continue the discussion in the months to come.

 

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