UNESCWA concluded an Expert Group Meeting (EGM) on Development Under Crisis Conditions that was held at the UN House, Beirut, from 27 to 28 June 2006 in which experts from the United States, Europe and the Arab world discussed the causes and effects of conflict and political tensions in the region, documented best practices, and made recommendations for future development efforts in Western Asia.
Speaking on behalf of UNESCWA Executive Secretary Mervat Tallawy, Mr. Atif Kubursi, Deputy Executive Secretary, underscored the need to push forth a new philosophy of development aid. Kubursi cautioned that “if we allow the emerging needs to trump the long-term vision and commitment to develop and advance, we will be condemned to a life of underdevelopment and servility.” He stressed that even the most pressing short term need can be linked to a development aim or target. Hence, the distribution of food could be made by purchasing local products and international charity can be transformed into an investment program. Kubursi cautioned that crisis should not set back development objectives and plans, and concluded by pointing out that conflicts and political instability, although they exact heavy costs on economic and political systems, present opportunities to restructure and balance systems to overcome inequities and imbalances that give rise to conflict. He held that these opportunities can be taken advantage of despite the countervailing force of dynamic instability.
Mr. Samir Abdalla, Director of the Palestinian Economic Policy Research Institute, made a presentation on the ongoing and emerging challenges faced by the occupied Palestinian territory in pursuing development amidst conflict and occupation, including an unfavorable investment climate and structural dependence on Israel. Mr. Mahmoud El-Khafif from United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) spoke about the effect that Israeli closures and the withdrawal of aid have had on the Palestinian economy, highlighting that donor support retraction has resulted in a 45% loss of real GDP. Mr. David Shearer, director of the United Nations Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Assistance (OCHA) in the occupied Palestinian territory and Ms. Francine Pickup, head of OCHA’s monitoring and analysis unit, presented an assessment of the effects of Israeli closures and the withdrawal of aid on the humanitarian situation in the occupied Palestinian territory. They underlined that the UN and NGOs cannot substitute for the ministries of the Palestinian Authority, which have degraded in the past three months and are indeed on the verge of collapse. Mr. Alam Jarrar, representing a Palestinian Non-Governmental Organizations (PNGO) network, shared the role that Palestinian civil society has played in meeting development needs.
During the discussion on Lebanon entitled “Development Under Uncertainty”, Mr. Kamal Hamdan, director of the Consultations and Research Institute in Lebanon, stressed that peace was only apparent at the end of the war, with instability and tension remaining. He discussed the economic impacts of the war on the Lebanese economy, noting that the huge post-war public debt continues to be the biggest economic problem in Lebanon. Mr. Salim Nasr of the UNDP Programme on Governance in the Arab Region (POGAR), and Mr. Oussama Safa, head of the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies, agreed that investment had focused on physical reconstruction and neglected human resources and peace-building after the war. Mr. Ziad Abdel Samad, head of the Arab NGO Network for Development, shared the contributions that civil society made to post-war development by providing services and helping to preserve national unity. Finally, Mr. Dimyanos Kattar, former Lebanese Minister of Finance, Economy and Trade, concluded that “wrong economic decisions to sustain political interests could lead to renewed tensions in Lebanon.” All participants weighed in on options to reform the Lebanese confessional system, and many agreed that the high level of remittances makes the Lebanese economy uniquely resilient.
To conclude the Expert Group Meeting, participants discussed the recommendations to be made to UNESCWA and to stakeholders working on development under crisis conditions. Mr. George Corm, former Lebanese Minister of Finance, stressed the importance of the universal implementation of international law. Mr. Samir Abdalla, whose comments were echoed by others, suggested that donors should not focus on aid alone, but that donor efforts should intensely focus on stopping conflict and crisis. He also indicated that an investment in local capacity building and human capital is essential during crisis. Mr. Roman Poeschke, from the German Technical Cooperation (GTZ), suggested that UNESCWA help the region by defining terms, issues, and standards, and by creating public awareness of the issues involved. Participants also suggested that UNESCWA act as a coordinating body for UN agencies, NGOs, and think tanks working on these issues. Participants repeatedly articulated the need for flexibility in planning and operation by donors and national agencies, as well as the need for continual project assessment rather than a single assessment based on old indicators.
Mr. Hasan Charif of UNESCWA, one of the organizers of the meeting, congratulated participants on their fruitful discussion but reminded everyone of the work that is still to be done. He spoke about the need to deliberate further on a conceptual framework for development under crisis, which might require the redefinition of development. Charif also spoke about the need to discuss mechanisms for the integration of humanitarian efforts and long-term development, the disparity between views of people on the ground and donors and decision-makers, the role of NGOs and the private sector during crisis, and mechanisms by which the UN can play an important role in development under crisis.