November 2022 sees the Arab world firmly in the spotlight with the COP27 in Egypt and the FIFA World Cup in Qatar. Public trust in MENA governments is weak, thanks to their miserable record in protecting citizens’ rights, which leaves nations ill-equipped to handle complex crises like climate change or COVID-19. By Jan Voelkel
Complex crises count as “systemic risks“: threats to a society’s essential systems that follow largely unpredictable trajectories in a transboundary setting, heading towards a catastrophic tipping point with devastating consequences. COVID-19 was a classic example. Its consequences threatened various vital systems, such as public health, economic activities, education and even personal encounters.
Climate change, meanwhile, is likely to inflict devastating effects on systems ranging from biodiversity to agriculture, from medical care to city planning, among others, posing a risk to societies’ existence and human survival. According to a recent Carnegie Endowment study, the MENA region is among the most prone to climate change.
Countering such risks depends on two variables: a) functional leadership, i. e. the degree of competence and capability in governance performance, and b) socioeconomic potency, i. e. the resources society is able to invest in crisis prevention and crisis management.
The Bertelsmann Stiftung’s Transformation Index (BTI), with its two complementary sub-categories “Status Index” and “Governance Index”, measures these two comprehensive variables in all their different variations. The Governance Index describes what governments have been doing and depicts the functionality of their leadership; the Status Index describes how elaborated a country’s political and economic capacity is – ideally a social market economy embedded in a democratic, inclusive polity
Waning public trust in leaders
In both measures, most Arab countries score poorly. With the notable exception of the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and, albeit less so, Morocco, all remaining sixteen governments of the MENA region show major deficiencies in their “steering capability”, i. e. the BTI’s criterion that measures the governments’ ability to prioritise and implement its policy decisions and potentially learn from prior mistakes or external consulting. Assertive action as a type of “output legitimacy” is a core element for governments to gain trust from their citizens, especially when democratic (“input”) legitimacy is lacking, but even Turkey ranks below the BTI’s global average in the most recent BTI 2022 edition in this crucial criterion.
Such is the picture when it comes to other measures of trustworthy governance. The average of all MENA countries in fundamental BTI criteria such as “resource efficiency” or “international cooperation” is far below the global average.
Under these deplorable conditions, how are ordinary citizens expected to trust their government when exceptional – and often cost-intensive – action is required to counter systemic risks such as climate change or COVID-19?
Poor MENA nations leave citizens at the mercy of crises
The region’s resource-rich exporters of oil and gas can to some extent make up these gaps by investing heavily in public health and heat/drought resistance, but the less affluent or conflictive countries can hardly foot such a steep bill. Their farmers are left alone on arid fields, their patients deprived of vital medication in malfunctioning hospitals, their poor helpless in the face of runaway inflation.
Yet, if governments and societies do not cooperate in major crises, the prospects for surmounting such challenges become grimmer still. COVID-19, climate change or other natural or manmade disasters are challenges that most governments and societies in MENA are insufficiently prepared for – the collapsing Lebanon, once the flamboyant exception to the otherwise rather sombre rule of MENA incrustation, has become just another example of the region’s most blatant deficiencies.
After all, MENA citizens – like all citizens – have the right to at least three basic policy achievements:
a. economic growth must be sustainable and inclusive, with money being ploughed back into the societies’ essential systems and not lining the pockets of already wealthy elites;
b. governmental actions must include the thorough consideration of scientific advice and also seriously involve regime critics; political ideological struggles should be informed by empirical facts and impartial expertise;
c. political decisions must be made transparent so that citizens can better understand and accept them.
These three output legitimacies are unrelated to the democratic one-million-dollar question about free and fair elections. But if they were seriously factored into societies, blatant human rights breaches against work migrants, women, ethnic and religious minorities, oppositionists and activists across MENA would be out of the question. Qatar’s four weeks of gripping games, glorious goals and shining stadiums cannot sugarcoat the systemic risks MENA citizens are confronted with every day.
© Qantara.de 2022
Jan Claudius Voelkel is BTI regional coordinator for the Middle East & North Africa and Academic Dean at IES Abroad Freiburg.