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UN Week – 5/2/11

May 2, 2011

John and Douglas Carey, Editors, www.unweek.blogspot.com

Contents of this issue: US on Syrian atrocities; Palestinian economics.

US Ambassador Susan Rice on April 30th “welcome[d] the decision today by the UN Human Rights Council to condemn the Government of Syria for its violent crackdown against peaceful demonstrators. With today’s vote, the Council has stood against attempts to silence dissent with the use of gratuitous violence, which is not the act of a responsible government. Human Rights Council Resolution S-16/1 sets an important precedent, marking a strong step forward for this world body at a critical time. Significantly, today’s resolution mandates an urgent mission by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights to investigate all alleged violations of international human rights law, with the goal of ensuring full accountability for the perpetrators of the violence. The United States strongly supports this decision.

“The resolution also underscores the incongruity of Syria’s current candidacy for the Human Rights Council. Meeting legitimate calls for reform with tanks and bullets is unacceptable behavior by any government, least of all an aspiring member of the Council.”

Palestinian economics.

In Helsinki on April 29th, experts attending the UN Seminar on Assistance to the Palestinian People said that democratic and accountable institutions, backed by sound social and economic policies, were essential for long-term success.

The Seminar weighed issues at the heart of the effort to build and sustain an independent Palestinian State, including measures to improve public sector accountability and efficiency; create an enabling environ-ment for robust private sector-led growth; bolster the role of women in socio-economic development; and invest in youth through education. The participants also discussed the role of the donor community in achieving those ends.

Raja Khalidi, senior economist, Division on Globalisation and Development Strategies, UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), speaking in his personal capacity, opened with a quote: “the definition of insanity was said to be doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” He was critical of what he called the Palestinian Authority’s “statehood or bust” program, whose economic policy dimension, he believed, endangered the Palestinian liberation agenda, both out of error of commission and omission. Indeed, he did not take as especially good news the reports that the Bretton Woods institutions and the United Nations had affirmed, from an institutional standpoint, that the Palestinian Authority was now ready for statehood.

“There is a big contrast between those statements and the reality on the ground,” he continued, adding that the claim that the Palestinian Authority was now “at the threshold” of establishing a functioning State, oversimplified the complex governance issues in any situation, not only the Palestinian case. The real problem was that arbitrary benchmarks were irrelevant to the actual dynamics of attaining sovereignty, and ignored “the big elephant in the room of Palestinian governance”, namely, prolonged Israeli occupation. “In contrast today, what actually matters is what happens in September when, at best we witness an upgrading of the international diplomatic status of the State of Palestine.”

What was going to make that “virtual State” turn into a “real State” and not just “prized real estate”?, he asked, adding that no one seemed to be discussing that. Indeed, the Palestinian Authority discourse seemed to assume that by the will of the people, the citizens who proved themselves to be capable of respecting traffic signals, paying electric bills, and not carrying guns in public, statehood would impose itself. “Somehow, statehood just arrives in September because, technically, everything is ready,” he said, adding: “This is politically farfetched, theoretically implausible, and economically dangerous.”

Continuing, Mr. Khalidi said that while the Bretton Woods institutions had certified the modern bases and sound economic policies of a successful developing economy, he was concerned about the sort of economy that the Palestinian Authority was establishing. Assuming that a State was established in September and Israel withdrew, “what sort of economy are we talking about?” The Palestinian Authority had called for a very open trade system, compliance with World Trade Organization standards and “light touch” fiscal regulations, among other aims. “You don’t need an UNCTAD economist to tell you that’s an odd choice for a situation of post–conflict State-building and reconstruction,” he said.

In that context, he said it was important to remember that about one third of the productive capacity that had existed prior to the 2000 Intifada had been lost due to occupation and war. Certainly, investment in industry was needed as part of strengthening the components of domestic demand. Yet, he did not see that happening in Palestine, except in certain niche sectors. “Why not? How do you come out of a conflict with a war-torn economy wanting your State to stand on its own feet when it has no domestic industrial productive capacity?”, he asked, noting that agriculture continued to receive only “pitiful” attention by Palestinian policymakers and international donors. With high unemployment and poverty rates, it was clear that benefits of growth spurts were not trickling down. Moreover, he asked, if a Palestinian State emerged in September, its access to markets would still remain totally in Israel’s hands, so what sort of export-led growth was really being considered?

He was very concerned that the Palestinian Authority was making plans for such an economy, when all the recent experiences of neo-liberal market fundamentalism around the world, and many experiences with export-led growth strategies in similarly weak economies in Africa, had failed, in some North African countries, particularly. While he knew that some might feel that his critique of the Palestinian Authority’s policy framework came from “the fringe of economics and old-school liberation-ists”, “truth” in economics was decided not by the strength of its theories but whether they fit within certain paradigms of power. The dissonance between neo-liberal policies and the Palestinian economic reality seemed obvious to him and he wondered why so few seemed to be concerned by it.

Returning to the situation of women, Alia El-Yassir, Head of the West Bank and Gaza Office of the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN Women), identified positive trends, gaps and key steps for making progress. Using the Palestinian Authority’s own framework, she noted, among other things, that in public administration, a national women’s machinery was in place and the first ever cross-sectoral national gender strategy had been set up “without a push from the interna-tional community”. Also, the Palestinian Authority had pledged its commit-ment to gender responsive budgeting and to ensuring that gender equality and women’s empowerment receive the required funds. It had also endorsed the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women.

She stressed that women were contributing at the household level and at the community level, including playing a strong role in local resistance movements. Yet, it was clear that women were still the most under-utilized resource for socio-economic development, with formal labor force participa-tion at around 15 per cent — among the lowest in the world — and lack of diversification in women’s employment, with approximately 61 per cent in services and 20 per cent in agriculture. Women were generally forced to work in “hidden sectors” and their work was not considered in economic terms. Also their assistance to family-owned businesses, such as farms, went mostly unpaid.

Control over household assets and resources, she went on to say, was largely restricted by traditional gender roles. Another key problem was that women’s rights were not protected in the informal sector. Studies had shown, for example, that huge numbers of women in Gaza and the West Bank were not claiming their inheritances, chiefly because they were un-aware of their rights in that regard. The Government must provide social protections for women in home-based and informal economies, and a legal framework should be elaborated for domestic work. Such actions would put Palestinian women on par with their international counterparts and enhance social equity, she said.

Urging participants to consider alternative models to bolster socio-economic development and gender equality, Ms. El-Yassir highlighted an innovative initiative that supported school canteens run by rural women. That program balanced socio-economic goals by improving schoolchildren’s health, nu-rition and academic attainment, and created sustainable business for women. If the program was scaled up, more than half a million children would be impacted and nearly 3,000 rural women would be employed throughout the Occupied Palestinian Territory.

There were important developments in the realm of education for Palestinians in the Occupied Territory. Most notable were significant declines in illiteracy, higher secondary-school completion rates and a dramatic increase in post-secondary educational attainment, said Salem Ajluni, an UNRWA consultant. At the same time illitercy rates among those 10 years and older had fallen from 11.6 per cent of that population to 5.6 per cent. Moreover, the portion of the population with only basic abilities to read and write had fallen by about one fifth.

Continuing, he said that both the West Bank and Gaza had experienced similar declines in illiteracy, while advances in post-secondary education had been somewhat more pronounced in the West Bank. Furthermore, advances in women’s educational attainment were greater than for men in the decade after 1997, especially in post-secondary education.

He provided figures for labor-market demographics, noting that they were impacted, to some degree, by the fact that more youths were attending school. He said the “explosion” in unemployment had been driven by disruptions on the ground, especially the restrictions on movement and work permits. He said that there were no more shoe manufacturers in Hebron, because competitively priced products from Turkey or China had forced them out of business. He added that Israel’s separation policies had disrupted the construction industry, as many of those Palestinians that had been employed in Israel were no longer allowed permits to work there.

Concluding, he said that, “Without policy independence, we can not expect youth to benefit from the high levels of education they have attained.” Mr. Khalidi said he had nothing against State-building generally, but to be successful, such exercises must be based on policies that promoted, among other things, clear, State-led development and gradual liberalization. Neo-liberal economic policies were not conducive to the sustained growth of a nascent State. If the Palestinian Authority began discussing issues such as customs and trade policies, “we will then not be trying to attain some prescribed threshold, but we will be putting our hands on the levers of economic sovereignty.”

The United Nations Seminar on Assistance to the Palestinian People concluded its work last week, so we will have to await further word on plans for the economic evolution of a possible Palestinian State.

That’s all for this May 2nd issue of United Nations Week: News and Views. We’ll be back with the next issue. Meantime do send your own views on UN-related issues to http://www.unweek.blogspot.com

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