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IMF Head Warns of Public Frustration in Middle East, North Africa

by AFP

Georg Hochmuth-APA—AFP

Christine Lagarde urges scaling up of reforms to meet the expectations of local populations

IMF chief Christine Lagarde warned on Tuesday that “public dissatisfaction is bubbling up” in the Middle East and North Africa, calling for reforms that “respond faster to the expectations and sometimes to the frustration of the people.”

Speaking at a conference in Morocco’s Marrakesh, the head of the International Monetary Fund called for “inclusive, sustainable growth” and urged delegates to consider “how do we scale up the reform so it provides for the people?”

The two-day “Opportunities for All” conference brought together senior political and business leaders, young people and representatives of civil society from Arab countries, many of them rocked by economic instability since the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings. The gathering focused on fighting corruption, boosting the private sector and creating jobs.

Moroccan Prime Minister Saad Eddine El Othmani spoke of “social pressure, expectations, aspirations and pressures from the population,” calling for emergency programs. “The population has expectations for immediate solutions, needs that must be met immediately,” he added.

Morocco has in recent months seen mass protests linked to perceived neglect of its northern Rif region and the northeastern former mining town of Jerada. An official report published in October revealed persistent poverty in rural areas.

Following revolts born largely out of economic hardship and discontent among the young, IMF-backed reforms have proved a delicate balancing act elsewhere in the region. To benefit from IMF loans, countries such as Tunisia, Egypt and Jordan have had to reduce their budget deficits, resulting in cost of living rises for their citizens.

An austerity budget in Tunisia, along with increases in value-added taxes, sent demonstrators out onto the streets in early January.

Speaking at the Marrakesh conference, Tunisia’s Prime Minister Youssef Chahed criticized “policies… that only take into account gross domestic product, while citizens measure development by their standard of living.”

“There is often a focus on financial and monetary stability, to the detriment of the social dimension,” he said, welcoming a recent IMF initiative to diversify the indicators it uses to evaluate economic policies. He said Tunisia’s post-uprising transition had made the country “freer” but generated instability that had deterred investment.

Lagarde said promoting sustained growth in the region requires a “vibrant” private sector, fighting corruption and developing more equitable tax regimes, as well as supporting “excluded groups” including the youth, women and refugees.

As a region, the Middle East and North Africa has one of the lowest employment rates in the world, partly because of low women’s participation in the workforce, according to a recent IMF report.

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