Leaving no place behind within the MENA is critical for economic growth, social inclusion, World Bank
Where someone is born in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) should not determine their ability to succeed in life, according to a new World Bank report.
Convergence: Five Critical Steps Toward Integrating Lagging and Leading Areas in the Middle East and North Africa, says that enhancing opportunities and social services in governorates, towns, and villages that are economically distant from large metropolitan areas is key for faster economic growth and social inclusion in MENA. However, leaving no place behind does not mean doing the same policies and investments across the region – actions need to be tailored to local constraints and institutional systems.
“In the Middle East and North Africa, place matters for prosperity. Governments in the region have tried many ways to respond to the needs of people in lagging areas – much money has been spent on investment in these places,” said Sameh Wahba, World Bank Global Director for Urban, Disaster Risk Management, Resilience, and Land. “To add jobs in poorer areas, policymakers have tried to insert new production facilities into these areas. To meet the need for decent homes and amenities in poor urban neighborhoods, money has been poured into massive housing projects.”
“However,” stressed Wahba, “spatial disparities continue to grow, or are closing more slowly than would be expected given the volume of investment directed to these locations. The main reason: the causes of spatial exclusion are not locational and physical but are economic and institutional.”
Why is MENA so economically fragmented? The report identifies the following reasons:
(a) Challenging business environments – most lagging areas in MENA have not been able to fully leverage their assets and abilities because the business environment and infrastructure in their cities and towns makes it hard for new firms to start and grow. One reason is that outside the capital city in MENA countries, smaller cities invariably lack the authority to raise their own revenues and to manage local service provision.
(b) Lack of mobility – most residents in lagging areas are “stuck in place,” unable to take full advantage of jobs that more vibrant urban economies offer. Credentialist education systems may be most to blame for making people immobile.
(c) Barriers to trade – MENA’s governments have created formidable obstacles to trade and migration. The main barriers are limits on news and information and practical constraints on travel and trade. For example, visa difficulties, weak infrastructure, and logistics hurdles.
“The Middle East and North Africa is suffering from spatially divergent development. The uprisings of the Arab Spring in part reflected grievances of citizens who were – or were perceived to have been – left behind, particularly by accidents of where they were born,” says Somik Lall, World Bank Global Lead on Territorial Development Solutions, Lead Economist for Sustainable Development in Middle East and North Africa, and co-author of the report. “Although the trajectory of every nation in the region varies, one stated objective is clear for them all: improve outcomes for people in areas that have been left behind.”
Convergence addresses the economic and institutional causes of these spatial disparities and focuses on five actions that can put countries in the MENA region on a path to territorial convergence:
1. Strengthen coordination and complementarities across initiatives. Development strategies are more likely to succeed if they are multidimensional, including access to energy, transport, land, and markets—in the same place, whether sequentially or concurrently. A good place to start is by anchoring investments in and around cites.
2. Redistribute roles and responsibilities across tiers of government. Citizens in different parts of the country have varying needs, and local conditions require flexible service delivery models. Redistributing responsibilities for local revenue generation and local service provision to local governments can make them better equipped and more accountable.
3. Enable mobility of people between lagging and leading areas. On average, people in MENA are half as mobile domestically as people in other parts of the world. Our research shows that living standards of people moving internally to major cities can increase by an average of 37 percent in the region. Education systems across the region need to be reoriented toward marketable skills.
4. Build dense and connected cities. Well-functioning cities offer a wide variety of jobs – for women and men. Making land markets in cities more efficient is critical for agglomeration and specialization – two dynamics that enhance job creation and economic prosperity. Whether in larger or in smaller (secondary) cities, agglomeration and specialization require the benefits from high economic density, which concentrates economic activity geographically. For this, the fabric of cities needs to be spatially connected, dense with people, and transit-oriented—not sprawling that perpetuates the dispersion of people and jobs. Planners and regulators can attract firms to invest in cities by reducing frictions such as zoning regulations, impediments to property acquisition and new construction (costs, height limits, density limits), challenges to local business registration and licensing, limits on news and information, and obstacles to developing local business networks.
5. Enhance market access nationally and regionally. Historically, MENA’s cities were part of economically important global trade networks. Many of these cities persisted into modern times as large urban areas. But governments in the region have managed to shrink the networks from global to local. These networks have, at a minimum, to be expanded to national and regional dimensions. A good place to start would be to improve the links across national borders—reducing tariffs, improving logistics, and facilitating trade, and instituting migration protocols. Such efforts will grow the economies, providing much-needed resources to redistribute in areas left behind.
In fact, the publication encourages regional integration across the MENA region, contending that integration will break down the walls between countries, connect firms to larger markets, and foster ever-larger scale and agglomeration economies specializing in tradable goods and services.
Lall highlighted that, “All levels of government have roles to play – the national, the provincial, and the local. By requiring that interventions across the board be responsive to the basic needs of all, we can bring more people in forgotten places into jobs than ever before.”