Nadia Younes Memorial Lecture by Sigrid Kaag

Nadia Younes Memorial Lecture by Sigrid Kaag, Minister for Foreign Trade and Development Cooperation, at the American University in Cairo.

Check against delivery – spoken version applies

Professor Haggag, Malak Younes, members of the Younes family, professors, students, ladies and gentlemen,

The 14th-century Arab historian Ibn Khaldun wrote that the past resembles the future more than one drop of water resembles another.

This may have been true once, but times have changed.

In our present age, the steps we take as individuals echo along the paths we take as societies.

It is through these countless steps that we see the world change around us.

And some individuals leave footprints so deep, that many choose to follow where they lead.

Nadia Younes left such footprints.

In the words of former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, spoken here, at the first Memorial Lecture: Nadia ‘brought with her everywhere a special Arab brand of enlightenment and tolerance – only to fall victim, in the end, to a special brand of extremism and intolerance.’

She lived for the United Nations, and the ideals for which it stands. Ultimately she died in its service.

I believe that this hope, and that tragedy, are why Nadia Younes has inspired, and will continue to inspire, so many of us. She certainly has inspired me.

Unfortunately I did not have the pleasure of meeting her personally, but her steps still echoed through the UN when I worked there.

I’ve heard so many stories that I sometimes almost feel as if I did know her.

There is, of course, a reason she is remembered so fondly and so strongly. She lived her life to the fullest, while spending it in the service of others. She was known to be a tough and determined diplomat, who could also light up the room with her devious sense of humour. It was said that she would tell Bill Clinton where to stand, and Vladimir Putin what to wear.

Her untimely death was deeply tragic, and a real loss to the international community, to the United Nations family, and to the Younes family and their friends

But perhaps there is some redemption in the warmth and devotion with which she is remembered.

It shows that, in a sense, she never really left us.

So it is truly an honour to have been invited to speak here today, and to pay tribute to her memory.

Ladies and gentlemen,

I may never have told president Putin what to wear, or former president Clinton where to stand, but like Nadia Younes I did have the pleasure of studying here at the American University, in 1985. I still remember the excitement I felt when I first walked onto campus. As I’m speaking to you today, even under these challenging circumstances, I feel it again.

It is wonderful to be back in Cairo, even if it is only on a screen. I am reminded of the Egyptian song Feha Haga Helwa.

There is something special and beautiful about Egypt that makes you want to return to it.

My time here has given me strong ties to this region and its people. I have happily spent a large part of my life and career here. In spite of its many difficulties and contradictions, it is a beautiful region whose past and future hold much promise.

But also much pain.

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought this to the foreground.

I was asked to speak today about the pandemic’s impact on the Middle East, and the future beyond it. Hence the title of this lecture: what now, and what’s next?

Let me begin with what is now.

COVID-19’s impact on the societies and economies of the Middle East has been deep and distressing.

Although some are better positioned to deal with the pandemic than others, the one thing that unites us all is the pain and suffering it has caused.

Many families have to endure the pain of seeing an empty seat at the table, or have to care for a convalescing relative.

Economies have come to a grinding halt, as the world collectively redirects its efforts to fighting the virus.

And many societies have had to adjust to life in lockdown.

But I think that the singularly most important effect of the pandemic has been to highlight the deeper, systemic challenges of this region – both economic and political.

COVID-19 has compounded these challenges, but it did not create them.

Structural issues, as you know better than anyone, already existed with regard to fragility, democracy, governance, vulnerable groups of people, and human rights.

Many Middle Eastern governments have long had poor track records in these areas, which has long served to increase tensions and reduce trust in government policies and political choices.

That is the big elephant in the room.

The current pandemic now places additional strain on social and political systems – but that strain largely serves to exacerbate problems that were already there.

It has widened existing divides, and deepened existing inequalities.

If we look at the statistics alone, we find that the Middle East and North Africa region ranks lowest in the most recent Economist Democracy Index. Challenging geopolitical circumstances, economic stagnation and endemic corruption afflict many states throughout the region. All of these factors have long fed growing public unrest, which has, from time to time, erupted into public protests. This discontent and marginalization continues to make itself felt.

A similar picture emerges from publications like Freedom House  and Our World in Data, both of which rank countries on a number of social, economic and political indicators.

The MENA region has, for several years running, ranked in the lowest percentiles for economic freedom, press freedom and women’s rights.

In its most recent report on the MENA region, the World Economic Forum concluded that the region was, and remains, structurally dependent on energy revenues, making it vulnerable to price fluctuations. The report also noted that unemployment and underemployment remain issues in most countries, compounded by fiscal problems, violent instability and the long-term effects of climate change pose particular risks to the region.

It is against this background that we must assess the damage done by the pandemic.

And, sadly, that damage is considerable.

Even just in economic terms, the outlook is dire.

The IMF projects that the MENA region’s GDP will decline by 4.1 percent this year alone – its lowest forecast for the region in 50 years. These are worrying numbers, but more concerning is how they will make themselves felt.

The biggest burden will likely fall on those without stable work, housing or schooling.

The weakest shoulders will have to carry the heaviest load.

This will be felt in refugee camps, and migrant communities – themselves the result of long-running conflicts and fragility.

According to the UNHCR, there are currently 16 million internally displaced persons and refugees in the Middle East and North Africa.

Equally worrying is the strain the pandemic puts on host nations, and on the systems that provide healthcare and social services for the most vulnerable.

These services are needed now more than ever, as unparalleled numbers of people require assistance to keep their lives on track.

This will also be seen in the gendered impact of the pandemic: women suffer more than men.

More than half the global female labour force works in the informal economy. As their jobs are not registered, they do not qualify for any social safety net. When economies shut down, this group is most vulnerable, and worst affected

At the same time, gender-based violence has dramatically increased, as people spend more time in their homes. This poses a serious danger to women who live with abusive partners or family members. The UN has called this a shadow pandemic.

Even before COVID-19, 37 per cent of Arab women had experienced violence in their lifetime – a figure that sadly is likely to increase.

Finally, the uneven impact of the pandemic will be seen in schools. UNICEF has reported that millions of children will likely not return to school, even after lockdowns end.

In the MENA region, 37 million schoolchildren do not have access to remote learning – making it much harder to stay in school while the pandemic continues.

This risks creating a lost generation.

And not only that – many young people who do have degrees now have an even greater difficulty finding employment.

The recent Arab Youth Survey shows where this may lead: nearly half of Arab young people have considered emigrating, and one-third indicated that the pandemic makes this step more likely.

The future, they are concluding in great and growing numbers, leads away from home.

Ladies and gentlemen,

This final point is particularly concerning.

As you are no doubt aware, the MENA region’s population is growing rapidly. It has quadrupled in the last half-century, and is expected to almost double again over the next thirty years.

This means that a large majority of today’s population is young: fully two-thirds of the people in the region are under the age of 35.

This abundance of youth can bring enormous dividends.

After all, young people have the strongest drive to renew, to innovate, and move forward. If given the opportunity, they can revitalise atrophied economies.

But thus far, this has not been the case.

Even before the pandemic, states throughout the MENA region were struggling to create enough jobs. Last year the World Bank concluded that the region had the highest youth unemployment rate in the world: close to a third of all young people were without a job. This figure is now likely to grow.

This touches on a question at the heart of any social contract: if citizens fulfil their duties, will they be rewarded with rights and privileges?

If a growing number of people, especially young people, find that the answer to this question is ‘no’, then they will either try to change that, or try their luck elsewhere.

This brings me to the second question you have asked me to address today: what is next?

My thoughts on that difficult question start precisely where I just left off.

With young people.

Much of what I have said on this topic has perhaps been somewhat dispiriting. So I want to stress that, although the situation is serious, it also offers opportunities for change.

Over the last few years we have seen the power of young people. The strength of their voices, and the beauty of their convictions.

As young people around the world marched against climate change, and for social justice, they managed to reshape the international agenda.

This makes sense. Throughout history change has often come from those who have the longest future still ahead of them.

It is young people who show societies the best way forward, and so it is to young people that we should listen.

This means giving them a greater say in policy and politics.

Investing in education and youth employment.

Especially in this region, which is home to such a large new generation, this is the ticket to the future.

Their involvement in the future developments of the Middle East is essential: because the systemic challenges afflicting this region require structural solutions.

After all, you cannot fix the foundations of a house by fitting new window blinds. You need to dig deep, add scaffolding, and address the structural issues.

Who better to do this construction work than the people who will live in the house for the next decades?

There are numerous challenges facing the Middle East, and COVID-19, although deeply serious, is just one of them.

The devastation this pandemic is wreaking is a terrible tragedy.

So we must ask ourselves: what follows tragedy?

Aristotle tells us that it is catharsis.

A cleansing experience that moves us beyond fear and grief, and helps us face the world again.

The great medieval Arab philosopher Ibn Rushd wrote about catharsis. He believed that it ‘makes souls become tender and prompts them to accept virtues’.

Virtues that fuel human action.

In his vision, tragedy had a function: to inspire the exercise of virtue.

To have a real and forward-looking impact on the world around us.

To help us do better.

That spirit of catharsis reminds me of Nadia Younes, who did so much in her life to help the people who needed it most.

Her tragedy has left a deep mark.

But that mark now inspires others to follow in her footsteps.

That same spirit of catharsis – expressed through action – can help guide the countries of the Middle East as they move beyond the present tragedy.

It can inspire a new generation to find ways of bridging the divides that have, for so long, afflicted this region.

It can help an older generation to give them the space they need to do this.

It can show that hope outlives tragedy. 

Thank you.