An Address Delivered by Razan Zuayter at the Regional Coordination Mechanism Meeting Held at the UN Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia*, 25, Oct. 2011
We believe that the main reason for the absence of the sustainable development issue from our priority agenda is the lack of a regional and international will to achieve an equitable sustainable development. It is due to the absence of an ethical order and social justice as well as failure to make the human rights, including food and environmental rights, the human international law and human sovereignty over resources a basic rule in the development activities.
A major indicator is the total negligence of the issues of agriculture and food security in Arab countries. Although nearly 43% of the Arab world´s population lives in rural areas – where 70 % of the general poverty is concentrated– and while 28% of the entire Arab population works in agriculture, yet the region has the smallest ratio of self sufficiency. Someone might attribute such conditions to the lack of water and resources, but the main reason is the lack of public policies and political will. Egypt provides an example where the percentage of poverty was 56% in 1955 so the country geared its efforts towards protecting small farmers and supporting agriculture, thus poverty was reduced to 23% in 1965. But when the World Bank held up the slogan advocating ´ trade not protection´ the percentage went up from 21% in 1990 to 44% in 1996, which led to Egypt losing 700,000 job opportunities in the agricultural sector.
It is important to refer to the double standards used by the major world powers about agriculture, for when they insist we should stop subsidizing farmers, liberate our trade and open up our markets by lifting or removing imports´ tariffs, they work at the same time supporting their farmers and protecting their markets. We should not either overlook the exploitation of poverty that takes place to increase profits of giant companies by claiming that genetic engineering or bio–fuel are means to feed the poor and protect the nature against carbon dioxide while they are controlled by the same companies who gain the biggest share of their profits at the expense of the poor. It is important to refer in general to the patents of technology–related inventions, but we should rather focus on the roles of some players in the issue of sustainable development, namely the governments, the civil society and the United Nations agencies. As for the governments, in addition to the fact that they lack interest in the agricultural reform, dealing with speculation, and improving conditions of small farmers, they have been totally absent from international forums as an active and real partner, since their acts are merely a reaction to outside dictates lacking sound planning that reflects the true needs of their peoples.
Governments also do not form real partnerships with civil society, and most importantly do not activate the Arab integration process, neither from an economic, social nor environmental aspect, without which no sustainable development can work. It is important to remember here that borders among Arab countries were delineated by the old colonizing powers and consolidated by the new in recent history, i.e. the economic colonization.
The civil society has also been absent from international professional and scientific forums along with their traditional bodies, as well it has been suppressed as a result of foreign funding terms. Its organizations compete and act individually and have been unable to stand out as efficient groups. This has been the situation until the Arab Spring emerged. We hope that it will sustain its energies and will lead to the institutionalization of the work of these organizations and strengthening their structures professionally and scientifically which is the only way to sustain this ´spring´ and protect its great successes.
It is true that we made achievements in collaboration with the United Nations and its highly qualified staff, especially with the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), where I would like to thank Dr. Sa´ad al–Oteibi for inviting us to attend the regional FAO meeting in Cairo as a partner. However the United Nations has been reluctant to pinpoint the exact cause of the injury, as one might say, and failed to call things by their true names such as the food security issue in war and occupation zones, a major focus of our organization, the Arab Group for the Protection of Nature. Originally, the FAO did not want to admit that wars have a substantial impact on food security and that the entire world suffers from wars, not only our part of the world. When the Organization began to acknowledge the importance of the issue, it began to give names such as ‘ Man-Made Disasters’ or ‘ Complex Emergencies’ and finally ‘Protracted Crises’. We have been delighted to see FAO finally agreeing with us on the importance of the issue until they chose 22 countries suffering from ‘Protracted Crises’ but excluded Palestine from the list. It was only re-included after we intervened as a civil society with the support of the international civil society and our Arab governments which engaged in a long debate until after midnight in Rome. It is regrettable to see the United Nations acting with fear and double standards.
The United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) has also declined to provide us with consultation when we asked for it in the issue relating to the uprooting of trees from the occupied Palestinian lands as part of a systematic campaign launched by Israel under which nearly one million and a half trees were removed in the past seven years. We sent a letter to UNEP protesting its lack of help in this matter.
Before voicing some political messages which we deem necessary, it is important to note that although most of the developmental funding is directed in our region to financing non–productive sectors such as construction, speculation and militarization, it also contributes to the support of breaches of international law and human rights as in the case of Israel which tops the fund-earners list, with such amounts used to build its internationally–prohibited settlements/colonies. In addition, we must refer to the support extended to dictatorial governments such as the outgoing one that ruled in Egypt and was one of the major recipients of developmental funding, yet 50% of its population remains around or under the poverty line.
It is also important to touch on the ´fake development´ or what I like to call as the ´pseudo development´ targeting investment and ‘five star´ tourism which only benefit a small sector of the population, and are built at the expense of their environment and forests as the case is in Jordan where unfortunately forest trees are uprooted to build such hotels although forests in the country do not exceed 1% of the total area. Such projects do not contribute to real development of the communities that live around them.
In most cases, these funds usually return to the funding countries and institutions without achieving the desired benefit from most of them.
With such conditions surrounding and having their impact on sustainable development issues, we feel the need to underline the following messages and necessary requirements:
- Activating the political will towards achieving Arab integration without which no sustainable development can succeed.
- Approving a framework for human rights including food and environmental rights, international law, social justice as a fundamental rule for realizing sustainable development.
- Endorsing the principle of sovereignty over natural resources starting with food sovereignty to provide our peoples with the freedom of access to and the use of their resources, lands and water as well the free choice of what they grow, eat and market. We suggest setting up an Arab committee charged with establishing the principle of the food sovereignty where the Arab civil society can be a primary partner in setting up the priorities, the implementation process and the accountability.
- Listing the issues of wars and occupations as a top priority of our region on the international agenda which continues to ignore their crucial impact.
- Adopting the concept of a ‘Greening Economy’ not a new ‘Green Economy’ leading to a ‘Green Greed’ as described by some civil society activists.
- We feel that the revolutions led by the Arab youth
are not aimed at finding jobs but to attain freedom, dignity
and sovereignty. Jobs can only be obtained when such demands are fulfilled.
Opening up real cooperation channels with the southern part of the world such as Latin and Asian countries and with some western civil society groups which share the same priorities with us.
- Showing determination to be partners and leaders not soldiers in international forums which outline policies for the future of the world.
- Supporting demands that commitments made by rich countries to the poor countries should be fulfilled. Yet, we believe that sustainable development in our Arab homeland should be supported by Arab funds and dictated by Arab priorities because self-reliance is the key to protect our security- especially in regard to food- the right to self-determination, sovereignty over resources and ability to achieve equitable sustainable development.
We should trust our abilities, invoke the courage of Bou-Azizi & live a moment of pride for we have become a source of inspiration to the entire world.
Razan Zuayter is the founding President of the Arab Group for the Protection of Nature, Amman, Jordan
*United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (UN-ESCWA), headquartered in Beirut, Lebanon, is one of the five regional commissions under the administrative direction of the United Nations Economic and Social Council. UN-ESCWA promotes economic and social development of Western Asia through regional and sub-regional cooperation and integration. It devises, promotes, and executes development assistance activities and projects in tune with the needs and priorities of the region of Western Asia. UN-ESCWA coordinates its activities with those of the major departments/offices of the United Nations at Headquarters and of specialized agencies and intergovernmental organizations, such as the League of Arab States, the Gulf Cooperation Council and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, with a view to avoid duplication and ensure complementary, synergy and exchange of information. ESCWA has 14 member States (the latest is Sudan that joined in 2008 ), and reports to the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC).http://www.escwa.un.org/