Street scene from Alexandria
© Amy Shaarawy
Street scene from Alexandria
Last updated: August 7, 2014
How to create a sustainable development agenda for the Middle East and North Africa

"Syria and Iraq are perfect examples of how geopolitics can totally transform the lives of people almost overnight"

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The world’s understanding of development is rapidly changing.  In the initial days of the formulation of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), technocrats at the United Nations truly believed they understood what was needed to bring “development” to a multitude of human beings around the globe. They thought their own narrow view of what constitutes development would be the vehicle through which all of humanity was to be relieved of its suffering. 

Now, although those UN technocrats produced the MDGs with little consultation or discussion with the outside world, or even Member States for that matter, the effects of the MDGs have been significant. For more than a decade, funding, government action, and civil society advocacy centered on the priorities of the eight MDGs. 

Countless people in the Global South were lifted from poverty and given the tools necessary to put an end to the cycle of poverty that plagued them. Data collected from countries shows that things have certainly gotten better for many. According to last year’s MDG report, approximately 700 million fewer people suffered from extreme poverty in the year 2010 than in the year 1990. Moreover, this development agenda has led to many other successes in terms of human access to potable water, a decline in malaria infections globally, a decline in hunger in developing regions, and much more.

"Countless people in the Global South were lifted from poverty"

Today, the conversations around development at the UN have shifted gears. New attempts at openness are being tested and debates about policy are more inclusive than ever.  At the moment, the world is focusing on sustainable development, a term that was once dismissed as tree hugging hokum. Actors at the UN are working on a development framework that departs from the worldview that led to the creation of the MDGs. 

This new framework is not meant to be imposed on the Global South as a “gift” from the North.  It is something much more, something universally applicable to both developed and developing states, and something that is supposed to be transformative, an agenda that would bring us out of a global development model that has devastated the environment. 

Nevertheless, even as I write this from the very room where the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are being discussed, the substance of the conversations happening here, when viewed against the backdrop of a very unstable world, makes me wonder: Why is the geopolitical reality that creates conflict and stunts development not mentioned in the slightest in these development conversations?

Geopolitics is the name of the global game that pits international powers and their proxies against one another. The result of this game is very often a shockingly frightening level of unpredictability when it comes to a state’s security, stability, and development. Geopolitical wrangling, specifically in the Middle East and North Africa, has turned states with relatively high human development into uncontrollable war zones. 

Syria and Iraq are perfect examples of how geopolitics can totally transform the lives of people almost overnight. We have seen these countries become blood soaked playgrounds of powerful states seeking to push their political agendas. We have seen cities like Aleppo become almost unlivable, where access to water is now near impossible. We have seen whole swathes of the region transformed into a regressive theocracy under the control of a foreign funded extremist movement.

Yet, development discussions at the UN are seemingly uninterested in this terrible reality.  Some may argue that such things are better left to other bodies, like the Security Council.  But certainly, a negotiation about a new global development framework, one that prescribes a way forward for every country on earth, cannot possibly be complete unless it tackles geopolitics, until it takes on the destructive reality that serves to reverse the gains human beings have made in development.

"Geopolitics is the name of the global game"

Development is the obligation of governments. The implementation of policies that are meant to help improve lives is a responsibility that states must shoulder.  Nevertheless, taking care not to destroy development gains already secured should also be a duty of all governments. When powerful actors seek to achieve certain ends at the expense of weaker, less secure states, then progress made by development policies are reversed and many governments are left powerless in stemming the geopolitical onslaught against them. 

The human development ratings of the Middle East and North Africa are plummeting because of geopolitics, because of foreign funded and imposed war and conflict that is ravaging whole populations in those parts of the world. It is time to truly usher in a new era of development and ensure that sustainable development includes a change in how states interact. 

Syria, Iraq, and the Middle East as a whole are not unique as a large portion of the globe is being torn apart by geopolitical competition. There is hope that we can learn from the lessons of the past and present and make sure that the tragedies of Syria and Iraq are not reproduced elsewhere. It is critical that states stop the status quo and allow the Post-2015 Development Agenda to truly be a universal and transformative framework that puts sustainable development at its core. 

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