The World Bank's role in the Middle East

Samer Shehata

Kai Ryssdal: We had Robert Zoellick on the broadcast earlier this week. He's the president of the World Bank. And we were talking about the bank's spring meetings in Washington this weekend.
Also, about the bank's role in the Middle East. Both the World Bank and the IMF -- the International Monetary Fund -- said not all that long ago that the region's economics were doing pretty well.

But commentator Samer Shehata says the numbers just don't lie.


Samer Shehata: Many Arab economies suffer from high unemployment -- particularly youth unemployment -- poverty, uneven development, deteriorating education and health systems, and generally poor governance.

Over the last decade, however, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund have focused more on macroeconomic indicators than on how real people in these countries are doing. They championed neoliberal economic policies in countries such as Tunisia and Egypt -- policies such as market deregulation, currency devaluation, massive subsidy cuts, and privatization. These reforms, it was claimed, produced high growth rates and record levels of foreign direct investment. Yet these same policies, in the context of Egypt and Tunisia's crony capitalism, simultaneously produced high inflation and declining real wages, and increasing levels of poverty and income inequality, according to the World Bank and IMF's own statistics.

In Tunisia, for example, unemployment reached 14.7 percent in 2009 and 46 percent for university graduates. The North African country was also characterized by tremendously uneven development, with prospering coastal areas and neglected interior regions. But it was dubbed an economic miracle.

Egypt is even more telling. Egypt received the World's Bank's "top reformer" award in 2008 -- but poverty and income inequality were rising. Corruption was increasing and the rule of law was deteriorating. And the country was witnessing the largest strike wave in its history.

It's time for international financial institutions to rethink neoliberal economic policies. It's also time to move beyond GDP growth rates when assessing "human development." Well-being and development need to be measured by how real people are doing -- poverty levels, unemployment, income inequality, and social justice are more important than growth rates or stock market indices. Because at the end of the day, as Egypt's former prime minister once admitted, people don't eat macroeconomic indicators.

Ryssdal: Samer Shehata is an assistant professor of Arab Politics at Georgetown University's Center for Contemporary Arab Studies. Take a second and share your thoughts. Click on the contact link.

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