In pursuit of sustainable development
Ahmed Kotb, Tuesday 5 Nov 2019
This year’s Arab Sustainable Development Week is highlighting development progress and challenges in the region, reports Ahmed Kotb

To meet the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the world needs $5 trillion to $7 trillion until 2030, of which the Arab countries will need $230 billion annually, said Hala Al-Said, Egypt’s minister of planning, monitoring and administrative reform, during the Arab Sustainable Development Week that started on Sunday in Cairo.

The third edition of the week has attracted over 1,500 officials and decision-makers who are discussing ways to achieve the SDGs in the Arab region. The four-day event is organised by the Arab League, in conjunction with Egypt’s Ministry of Planning, Monitoring and Administrative Reform, the World Bank and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

Delivering a speech on behalf of President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi, Al-Said referred to a report issued in 2018 by the Arab Forum for Environment and Development, an NGO, which states that the financial gap to meet the SDGs in the Arab world is estimated at more than $100 billion.

The SDGs are 17 global goals agreed by world leaders in 2015 to address challenges including poverty, inequality, climate change, peace and justice, access to clean water and sanitation by a deadline of 2030.

“In order to meet our SDGs for the year 2030, we have realised the importance of partnerships between the public and private sectors and increasing cooperation with international partners,” Al-Said said.

According to the speech, such moves have reflected positively on economic progress in Egypt, as the annual growth rate jumped by 5.6 per cent during the 2018/2019 fiscal year, the highest annual rate in ten years, and is expected to reach 5.9 per cent next year. This made Egypt the third-best country worldwide in increased economic growth rates, Al-Said said.

She also noted that the inflation rate had significantly dropped in September 2019 to reach 4.3 per cent as compared to 17.5 per cent in September 2018, and that unemployment rates had gone down to 7.5 per cent during the second quarter of 2019 as opposed to 13.2 per cent in 2014.

Moreover, Egypt’s foreign currency reserves had jumped to $45 billion in September, which covered the country’s needs of strategic imported goods for nine months.

“This is one of the main pillars of economic stability,” Al-Said said, adding that the Arab countries needed to invest in human resources to ensure sustainable development by providing the needed financing. About $23 billion per year is needed for developing human resources, but only some $130 million has been made available, she said.

“Population growth is a challenge, but it becomes an advantage when we invest in people by providing education, healthcare, and training in digital transformation and artificial intelligence,” she said.

Mahmoud Mohieldin, the World Bank Group senior vice president for the 2030 Development Agenda, also said that investing in infrastructure was not only about building bridges and roads, but also about supporting digital transformation.

Egypt had improved its human capital and infrastructure, he added, and was taking steps towards developing its digital transformation and artificial intelligence fields.

Poverty remains a main challenge facing the Arab countries in achieving sustainable development, he added. “Development is impossible with poverty rates continuing to rise,” he said.

According to the Central Agency for Public Mobilisation and Statistics (CAPMAS), the government statistics agency, the percentage of Egyptians living below the poverty line increased during the 2017/2018 fiscal year to 32.5 per cent, compared to 27.8 per cent in 2015/2016, an increase of 4.7 per cent.

However, Mohieldin believes that the Arab countries can successfully help 20 million citizens out of poverty through increased cooperation with the private sector and development partners to invest in enhancing education, healthcare, infrastructure and digital transformation.

Ahmed Abul-Gheit, secretary-general of the Arab League, said that the Arab world was facing many obstacles, such as the mass protests which have erupted in many countries in recent years hindering development efforts.

He stressed that water shortages were dangerous issues in the Arab world today, as the Arab countries only have 10 per cent of the world’s water resources. “Limited water resources and the impact of climate change are main challenges that impede progress towards sustainable development,” he added.

Hassan Abul-Naga, a member of the specialist group the International Water Association, said that the region was home to six per cent of the world’s population and less than two per cent of the world’s renewable water supply, adding that the region’s population lived in the most water-scarce area in the world with water availability six times less than the worldwide average of 7,000 cubic metres per capita.

As populations grow, demand rises and global climate change looms, per capita water availability in the region is predicted to drop by half by mid-century, Abul-Naga said.

To achieve the water SDG in the region, Abul-Naga believes there is a need to change the way water is managed and financed. “We need to shift from a linear system of use to a circular economy model. Water-pricing and engaging the private sector are also strongly recommended,” he said.

“We need to understand that water plays a profound role in the future growth and development of the region and take more concerted action now,” he concluded.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 7 November, 2019 edition ofAl-Ahram Weekly.