Egypt and Tunisia (and, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan)
February 3, 2011
There is no one cause behind the upheavals in Egypt, Tunisia, and Yemen. The causes are political and ideological, and cannot be separated from the religious, ethnic, sectarian, and tribal tensions in given countries. It is clear from the statements of many demonstrators that they are angry at repression, corruption, and a lack of basic justice. It is clear from others, that they see a world without a clear future, without any personal opportunities and status, without rewards for education and willingness to work, and often without clear prospects for marriage -- a far more critical measure of social well being in the Arab world than in the West.
At the same time, there are short-term economic causes. The global recession has hit hard at outside and internal investment, job growth and opportunities to work elsewhere in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). Basic commodity food prices spiked nearly 30% on the world market in the period before unrest exploded and world oil prices have gone through the roof. There is no way to measure the impact of such short-term economic problems, but there is no doubt that they are real.
A Warning from Polls of Egyptian and Tunisian Opinion
That said, it is important to look at the longer-term material causes of unrest. A new report by Gallup shows that the percentage of people in Egypt who thought they were "thriving" has fallen by 18 percentage points since 2005. In Tunisia, where mass protests toppled the country's government last month, the percentage of people Gallup classifies as thriving fell 10 points since 2008.
The Gallup analysis of these results notes:
Gallup classifies respondents worldwide as "thriving," "suffering," or "struggling" based on how they rate their current and future lives on the Cantril Self-Anchoring Striving ladder scale, with steps numbered from 0 to 10. The declining percentage of those in Egypt and Tunisia who rate their lives well enough to be considered thriving reveals that these populations, as a whole, have become increasingly negative about their lives over the past few years.
In Egypt, all income groups have seen wellbeing decline significantly since 2005, with only the richest 20% of the population trending positively since 2009. In Tunisia, wellbeing for all groups has declined since 2008 at similar rates.
As a result of these declines, wellbeing in these countries now ranks among the worst in the Middle East and North Africa region, on par with Libya, Palestinian Territories, Iraq, Yemen, and Morocco. When more people were thriving in Egypt and Tunisia in past years, their wellbeing ranked toward the higher end for the region. Thus, it is important to consider the current state of wellbeing in each country as well as the trend and trajectory.
The data underscore how traditional economic metrics can paint an incomplete picture of life in a given country. Over the same period that wellbeing decreased in Egypt and Tunisia, GDP increased. This is particularly noteworthy because previous Gallup research, by Angus Deaton, Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers, and Gallup researchers, has found wellbeing to be highly correlated with GDP per capita.
Gallup's global wellbeing metrics make clear that leaders cannot assume that the lives of those in their countries would improve in tandem with rising GDP. The traditional GDP gains seen in Tunisia and Egypt alongside declines in wellbeing and subsequent political instability are evidence of this. Together, the data strongly suggest leaders need to follow much more than GDP to effectively track and lead the progress of their nation.
Rethinking How to Measure the Causes of Upheaval and Unrest: The Youth Challenge
These polling results, and the Gary Langer’s analysis, are only one reason to look beyond classic macroeconomic trends and focus on the full range of material causes behind the upheavals in the Middle East and North Africa – as well as the political, ideological, religious, and societal causes.
- Population growth rates are down, but a massive population bulge is already born. The "demographic challenge" posed by the fact that larger numbers of young men and women will want to enter the labor force and have real careers will continue for at least several decades.
- Like all the citizens in given country, the expectations of young men and women go beyond employment and income. They are shaped by whether jobs are real and productive, by how long they face direct and disguised unemployment, and by the lag in getting meaningful jobs.
- Youth face major problems in the quality and relevance of education at a time some states have allowed a near breakdown to take place in some elements of secular education. Moreover, far too many states have made massive increases in class size, priced the poor out of higher or high quality education, let teaching become out of date, grossly underpaid teachers, and let tests and grades become corrupt and for sale in the process.
- Literacy and level of education are also far less meaningful if the quality of jobs, the time gap in getting jobs, and the ability to change values so that seeking private employment – and actually working hard to shape a career – do not have the same or higher priority than public employment. The "lost generation" problem that results from a demand for government jobs as a source of stability and status, rather than seeking real jobs in the private sector, is a serious problem in many states.
- "The use of foreign labor and native emigration are also key measures of stability, particularly for young men. Dependence on foreign labor and populations is a key issue in some Gulf countries, as is competitiveness in skills and productivity. In others, the need to emigrate is a major cause of dissatisfaction and reason to distrust the government.
Every Middle Eastern and North African country needs to carefully examine the causes of the alienation and polarization that tie demographics to extremism. Rather than focus only on numbers and jobs, the key megatrend is the ability to safely integrate young men and women into society in a stable, productive way, and one they see as giving them value and purpose.
Rethinking How to Measure the Causes of Upheaval and Unrest: The Ability to Marry and the Role of Women
So far, men have led the demonstrations and upheavals – although significant numbers of women are in the crowds. The fact remains, however, that both men and women in these conservative societies face a common problem. Both are dependent on having the money and status to marry. The problem is not simply one of males getting jobs or gender equality, it is the ability of both men and women to marry, to have a home, and have families.
However, Middle Eastern and North African economies do need to make far more productive use of young women as well as men, particularly given the fact that in some countries, more women are now in secondary schools and universities than men. Equality for women is a sensitive issue on both cultural and religious grounds, but it cannot be ignored – or dealt with in symbolic terms. Arab and Muslim societies need to consider the role of women in terms of productivity gain, not simply women's rights. How do you compete on a global basis if you sharply limit the productivity of half the population?
Rethinking How to Measure the Causes of Upheaval and Unrest: Changing Economic Analysis and Econometrics
As Egypt and Tunisia have demonstrated all too clearly, there is an urgent need to change the way states and economists analyze the trends in economies.
- GDP growth and per capita income growth do not provide adequate measures of stability, since an economy and level of governance that fail a nation's youth and poorer citizens can exhibit steady GDP growth while actually moving toward instability.
- Traditional measures of poverty levels are not the only indicators of the causes of unrest. The issue is not who gets only $1 or $2 a day. It is the level of income that meets social standards, provides the floor or level of protection every citizen needs, what exactly is meant by laboring and middle class and how do their standards relate to the share of the economy of the top 5% of wealthy.
- Disparity in income is a key measure of potential instability, particularly if it grows steadily over time, is seen as the produce of privilege and corruption, and large segments of the population suffer in the process. The emergence of a perceived group of unearned rich at a time the middle class is losing real earning power, and people are losing land, homes, and businesses is a particular trigger. So is a growing queue and time lag for jobs, and loss of status for young men and women with secondary and university educations.
- Access to, and the use of water resources are key issues. The supply of water per se is only part of the problem. It is critical to establish the efficiency of water use relative to supply and cost, whether water is properly priced, reliance on natural vs. renewable water supplies, and problems in sharing international supplies.
- These same issues affect electric power, housing, sewer services, trash disposal, maintenance of urban and rural infrastructure, access to medical care, and access to education. These are key economic measures of social well-being, and critical measures of the quality of governance. They are also areas were a blind reliance on market forces ignore the reality of popular perceptions and the extent to which such forces cannot meet popular expectations at anything like their current rate of growth.
- Food supply and prices present particularly serious problems in the poor segments of the population, and commodity and supply problems are mirrored in food prices. Demographics and rising expectations also sharply affect the popular impact of price rises.
- The trends in petroleum and other energy use and prices need more examination in terms of popular perceptions and impact on stability.
Rethinking How to Measure the Causes of Upheaval and Unrest: The Quality of Governance
Egypt and Tunisia are also warnings that far more needs to be done to measure the quality and effectiveness of governance. So, however, are countries like Syria, Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, and Pakistan, and many.
It may be natural to focus on political change and leadership at a time of upheaval, but these too are only means to an end. Elections and democracy are ultimately only a means to an end: effective security, government services, justice, preservation of key human rights, and an honest justice system.
The previous measures of demographics and social change, and economic trends, need to be matched by measures of how well, honestly, and equitably governments actually govern.
- As has been mentioned earlier, the provision of electric power, housing, sewer services, trash disposal, maintenance of urban and rural infrastructure, access to medical care, and access to education. are critical measures of both an economy and the quality of governance.
- Corruption is a key issue, and particularly in terms of whether the cost of corruption is perceived to be acceptable and simply another part of the black or gray economy, or is too high to tolerate. The same is true of the net impact on the status and wealth of officials, and the role of various power brokers. Countries were status is tied to the ability to above positions in government create more causes of instability.
- Corruption and lack of capacity can be particularly critical in cases where the people need emergency relief to deal with a natural disaster, or become caught up in dealing with refugees, conflict, or sudden swings in the global or external economy.
- The transparency and accountability of government budgets and spending is a key measure of both corruption and the ability to actually manage fund effectively. It is also an area where most MENA governments fail to have credibility, in part because they lack basic competence. The lack of credible data on requirements and measures of effectiveness is a further indicator of potential problems, but these are also area where no government in developed countries has achieved more than the most minimal success.
- For some countries the lack of transparency, accountability, validated requirements, and effectiveness measures in using foreign aid is a further measure of the causes of instability. This is the rule among major recipients of aid, but donor countries and organizations almost universally fail to provide meaningful data as well.
- Equity in promotion and hiring is also a key test. Access to government jobs remains critical in most MENA countries. While traditional societies do not demand merit-based choices, excessive favoritism, corruption, and nepotism can be critical.
- Repression, abuse of police and courts, and misuse of detention, all act to affect stability – often creating more seeds of instability than security for the regime. Perceptions of the quality and integrity of the courts, security services, and the army have historically had a major impact on stability. These risks are particularly high in confessions-based legal systems where anyone who enters the system as a suspect can suffer from long detention, lack of legal aid, and automatic conviction.
- The populations of MENA states may not always have the same demands for human rights and the rule of law that the West sees as “universal.” They all do, however, have their own clear definitions of justice, and governance that fails to meet them does so at its risk.
- Similarly, the quality of government services is a key factor. Some MENA governments are a nightmare of delay, duplication, failure to take action, demands for bribes, extortion, theft of property, etc. Egypt is a classic case in point. Anger at these failures, coupled to the inequity, corruption, and privileged access that generally goes with them, is another important indicator. It is particularly dangerous when police, customs, and other instruments of law enforcement are both incompetent and corrupt and do nothing to halt rising crime rates and provide real security in home areas or in moving across the country.
- All of these sources of tension are tied in many states to how a given government offers and executes subsides. Subsidies are often a critical tool in dealing with issues like rising food and fuel prices, a lack of housing, and access to power and water. They also, however, can seriously distort given economies, and they often involve corruption, favoritism, and failure to provide subsidized goods and service to the entire eligible population or in the needed amounts.
- There are a wide-range of measures that affect a broad spectrum of the population above the poverty line that affect both economies and governance. Inflation and poorly controlled savings and banking institutions can cost large portions of the population their savings, the ability to marry, buy a home, and create a business – as well as make pensions almost meaningless. The same is true of legal and court systems that make commerce, property owning, and investment major risks. Poorly controlled stock markets and requirements for creating companies – leading to bubbles and Ponzi schemes are additional measures. The key sources of instability in these areas are country-specific, although the causes generally fall into the previous categories.
- It is easy to confuse government “reform” with actual progress. In general, stability depends on the ability of governments to steadily improve the conditions of life in all of the above categories. Reform that fails to do can be as much a failure as repression, and measuring the pace and reality of key reforms is another important indicator of stability and instability.
These are all areas where far better practical indices are needed. Stability does not depend upon political theory; it depends upon the actual practice of government.