The Arab Spring and the sociopolitical transformations in the region represent a real opportunity for reforms and reconsideration of development priorities, notably social justice and job creation as well as the adoption of green economy as a tool to achieve sustainable development.
Most analysts viewed the Arab Spring as a struggle for freedom and democracy. In fact, it was a movement by the people against inequitable distribution of wealth. Yes, political and economic themes were clearly behind the uprisings, but there is no doubt that environmental issues and fair distribution of natural resources and their sound management were also at the heart of the uprisings.
What drove people to the streets was not only freedom, democracy and rising unemployment, but their suffering because of water and electricity shortages, water pollution and degradation of agricultural land. In short, people were asking for a better quality of life.
Environmental justice aims at achieving social equity as there is a strong link between environmental quality and social equity. Any environmental degradation leads to injustice, poor quality of life, health hazards, etc. After all, the poor suffer most from such environmental degradation.
A lot of cases of environmental corruption emerged on the horizon in many Arab countries. These reflected cases of theft from the true value of natural resources as a result of privatisation policies and the sale of natural assets, especially land — whether protected areas, agricultural land or even desert — that aimed to achieve profits in ways that go beyond the law.
Nearly two years since the start of the Arab Spring, one realises that nothing has been achieved with regard to environmental issues. On the contrary, the quality of life is deteriorating and people are complaining more and more about pollution, water shortage, electricity shortages, etc.
In fact, the Arab Spring and subsequent sociopolitical transformations opened the door to calls from various stakeholders to adopt good environmental governance and policies. Environmental governance should aim at correcting market and regulatory failures to improve the quality of the environment. Ideally, it should be designed to maximise the net benefits to society by achieving the optimal level of environmental quality.
To achieve good environmental governance, there is a need for community participation in drafting policies. Besides, authority must be properly allocated and environmental institutions must be empowered. Strengthening the role of various stakeholders (NGOs, the private sector, local communities etc) would improve execution, monitoring, reporting and contribute towards achieving the collective goals of society.
At the international level, the global economic downturn has raised questions about development priorities and has focused more attention on social and environmental dimension of any development.
Besides, Rio+20 put us on the first step in a new direction. The outcome document “The future we want” calls for a wide range of actions.
1. Beginning the process to establish Sustainable Development Goals. These will be universal and will replace the UN’s Millennium Development Goals from 2015.
2. Detailing how the green economy can be used as a tool to achieve sustainable development; that is a step forward.
3. An agreement to improve the ‘Institutional Framework for Sustainable Development’. Or in other words reforms of international environmental governance.
4. Taking steps to go beyond gross domestic product (beyond GDP or green GDP) to assess the well-being of a country.
5. Promoting corporate sustainability reporting measures;
6. Developing a strategy for sustainable development financing;
7. Adopting a framework for tackling sustainable consumption and production.
Thus one can say that we are at a unique moment in history where the development path is being redefined for at least the next 20 years. Besides, there are many changes locally, regionally and globally with regards to development agenda, environmental rights, social equity, etc if the Arab world is able to seize this chance to transfer current brown economies towards green economies, it will be able to solve a lot of the uprising’s causes and achieve prosperity for its people.
Dr Mohamed Abdel Raouf is an independent environmental researcher.