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Middle East and North Africa

Many countries in the Middle East and North Africa are afflicted by ongoing conflicts or post-conflict conditions. Sida’s work in the region is focused on increasing the prospects for peace and stability, strengthening democracy and increasing respect for human rights.

Sida’s regional cooperation in the Middle East and North Africa

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Progress has been made

Mobilization has resulted in new laws

The mobilisation of and demonstrations by the people have resulted in positive development in terms of free and fair elections and legislation that better reflects respect for human rights. While some countries in the region have adopted new laws and reforms to strengthen gender equality, ongoing regional conflicts have resulted in retrograde development.

More women in parliaments

During 2017, the percentage of women in parliament in the region rose to 27% from 22% in 2016. That said, in 7 of the 22 Arab states, the percentage of female members of parliament remains under 10%.

Sexual harassment was criminalized

Egypt has implemented a nationwide strategy to combat violence against women. Sexual harassment of women was criminalised in 2014.

Challenges remain

Several armed conflicts

Relatively recent ongoing conflicts in Syria, Iraq and Yemen have resulted in a return to political systems characterised by authoritarian, patriarchal and totalitarian methods, with little and generally dwindling political freedom and limited political participation, particularly on the part of women. The scope of civil society is decreasing, making it more difficult for people to exert influence over their country’s development. The region is also struggling with a long-term refugee crisis and large streams of migrants, leaving people vulnerable to human rights violations.

Rising temperatures and drought

The Middle East and North Africa is among the most vulnerable regions on the planet to rising temperatures and increased drought. Climate change is having a negative impact on the supply of food, water and energy, leading to increased regional tensions and conflicts.

Very high unemployment

The region has one of the highest rates of unemployment in the world. This contributes to conflicts and presents a major obstacle to development. Women and young people in particular are subjected to discrimination and are the groups most likely to be employed in workplaces with poor working conditions.

Regional Cooperation in the Middle East and North Africa

The Middle East is currently undergoing the most profound changes in modern history. In part, this is due to a regional and global struggle for political power in the region. Many Middle Eastern countries have suffered greatly due to crises and conflicts. While poverty is on the increase throughout the region, the situation differs from one country to the next. According to the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), one in five of the region’s population (65 million people) live in extreme poverty. The Arab Multidimensional Poverty Report shows that 40 percent of the population (116 million people) live in extreme poverty. Poverty has increased significantly in the region during 2020 as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Flawed democracy, low levels of political participation among young people and women and the lack of women in elected office reduce the opportunities of people to exert political influence.

Democracy, human rights and gender equality

Voices of opposition and civil society are being repressed in many of these countries. Respect for human rights is limited in many places, something that disproportionally affects already vulnerable groups. Corruption is endemic and bribes are commonly demanded to access public services such as healthcare.

The Middle East and North Africa is one of the most inequitable regions of the world as a result of sexist attitudes, social norms, laws and policies. Women and girls have less access to a livelihood, land, healthcare, legal aid and political influence and many have little or no opportunity to influence their own life situation.

Strengthening women’s political influence

The region has one of the world’s lowest representations of women in elected office. Sida supports the charity Kvinna till Kvinna [Woman to Woman] in its work to increase the capacity of some 20 women’s organisations to strengthen their regional political influence.

Preventing gender-based violence

Of the women in the region who are or have lived in a relationship, 35% have been subjected to gender-based violence. Through UN Women, Sida supports civil society organisations and institutions that engage men and boys in the struggle for gender equality in Lebanon, Egypt, Morocco, Palestine, Jordan and Tunisia. In Yemen, Sida supports the work of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and Save the Children to prevent gender-based violence against women, girls and boys. The Tamasi performing arts collective has directed its efforts to help young people, girls and boys who have been subjected to gender-based violence.

Advocacy increases media freedom

Media freedom is limited in many parts of the region. International Media Support (IMS) runs a regional programme intended to improve security for journalists, develop media institutions and advocate for greater media freedom. This support contributes to improving journalistic work and content, primarily in terms of diversity, press ethics, conflict sensitivity, representativeness, objectivity and gender equality.

Media Supports (IMS) web page

Environment and climate

The regional impact of environmental damage and climate change – with extreme heatwaves and altered rainfall patterns – is having a severe effect on the region’s people, natural resources and biodiversity. Areas of the region may become uninhabitable during the summer months as temperatures rise towards 60°C. Rising temperatures reduce access to water, which is already a major challenge in the region, not least due to the rapid population growth. Water shortages have a direct bearing on the region’s agricultural production and are a potential source of future conflicts. Desertification presents a further challenge.

Pushes the issue of climate change

Water shortages are directly linked to food security. Through the UN Economic Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA), Sida supports investments in the environment and climate in close collaboration with organisations such as the Arab League and other regional stakeholders. Sida also supports the Regional Initiative for the Assessment of Climate Change Impacts on Water Resources and Socio-Economic Vulnerability in the Arab Region (RICCAR), which has compiled a comprehensive regional knowledge base.

Cross-border development cooperation

Environmental challenges are politically sensitive and closely linked to ongoing conflicts and are therefore a source of tensions within the region. Sida works with EcoPeace on cross-border cooperation on water resources in Jordan, Palestine and Israel. One of EcoPeace’s projects involves encouraging young people to get to know their neighbours. Learning about each other’s challenges increases understanding and facilitates cooperation between countries.

EcoPeace also develops innovative renewable energy solutions, including through a pilot project for transmitting solar energy between Jordan, Israel and Palestine, something that also promotes trade and strengthens relations between the nations. Jordan’s exports of energy will, for example, provide revenue that can be used to buy desalinated water from the Mediterranean.

EcoPeace web page

Innovation for renewable energy

Sida supports the UNDP and the initiative Climate Change Facility in promoting innovation and investment in sectors such as renewable energy. The intention is also to develop a regional network for climate change, human security and the Agenda 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The network will connect private-sector financiers with local climate security projects.

About Climate Change Facility at UNDP web page

Inclusive economic development and regional trade

Economic cooperation between the countries of the Middle East and North Africa is not fully developed and lacks the necessary coordination for smooth regional and international trade. There are a number of reasons for this, including countries’ varying levels of development and shifting political priorities. Inadequate trading infrastructure and weak institutions have a negative impact on the enormous potential of the region’s businesses to create sustainable jobs and economic growth and to contribute to gender equality and an equitable society. The COVID-19 pandemic is expected to have a negative impact on the region’s economy during 2020.

In 2017, official unemployment in the region was approximately 11 percent; however, the real rate of unemployment and underemployment is considerably higher. Youth unemployment presents a particular problem, contributing to high levels of economic migration, as well as frustration and tensions that may prove fertile ground for extremism.

Simplifying regional trade

The Middle East and North Africa region has the lowest participation in global trade, in part due to political instability, high trade costs and a lack of common trading rules and standards. Via the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO), Sida supports Arab Accreditation Cooperation (ARAC), the regional body that inspects, tests and certifies goods and services. This contributes to simplifying trade within and with the region, strengthens consumer protection and promotes environmental sustainability.

UNIDO web page

Making life easier for the region’s businesses

Many companies in the region lack sufficient knowledge or access to the right networks and necessary financial support to succeed. The Sida programme IFC MSME 2.0 aims to improve financial regulatory frameworks and infrastructure and support banks in developing financial services for small and medium-sized enterprises.

MENA MSME Technical Assistance Facility web page

Women's opportunities in the labor market

The lack of regional trade presents an obstacle to gender equality. Sida supports a collaboration between UN Women and the ILO focused on women’s opportunities and rights in the labour markets in Egypt, Jordan and Palestine. This programme works for both legislative changes and with the role of the private sector and the challenges of unpaid housework and childcare in the home, which is largely performed by women, giving them a concomitant disadvantage in working life.

Governance of Sida's development cooperation in Middle East and North Africa

Updated: September 7, 2021