At the start of 2016, the Middle East feels battered and bruised. For many of us who take a determinedly optimistic view of the world, 2015 pulled no punches. Despite this, many people are working towards a brighter future.
But we’ve got to take the blinkers off. The key to success is long-term thinking. For the region to get ahead, we must build local solutions to the underlying challenges faced by the region. We need to rediscover the spirit of creativity that once made the Fertile Crescent the cradle of civilization and the home of innovation. To do so, we need to look beyond the immediate crises—pressing as they are—and focus on local institutions and their ability to advance sustainable development.
Food production is a great example of where forward planning matters.
The region where farming was invented is in need of another agricultural revolution. With populations booming and the growing threat of climate change, countries that were once major exporters of food such as Egypt and Syria have seen farmers’ livelihoods threatened by failing crops.
Higher-priced imports have put pressure on the already-strained budgets of the urban poor. Even before the current war in Yemen, an impoverished country with an agricultural economy, it was importing 95 percent of its food. It is no mere coincidence that countries suffering from food insecurity also endure instability and violence.
A set of high-calibre institutions across the Middle East, however, are quietly crafting solutions. The International Centre for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) is a research centre with archives that contain samples of almost every wheat variety in existence as well as nearly every plant cultivated by humans. The genetic data contained within this ‘seed bank’ is an invaluable global resource, and one which can be used to create new varieties of wheat that are more able to survive the volatile climates the world is facing. Forced by the Syrian war to leave their high-tech facility in Aleppo, ICARDA’s brave staff spirited nearly all of their precious seed bank to safety. They did this by smuggling the seeds unnoticed in small containers, across the border with Turkey. ICARDA is now operating across a network of centres across the region.
ICARDA is also working to expand its “Arab Food Security Project” into a second phase across seven countries, after the pilot phase showed that wheat production across the Arab world could be increased by up to 70 percent, while using less water, by using improved seeds and techniques.
That means more food for the farmers’ own families, as well as lower prices for bread across their country, easing the lives of the millions who depend on bread for basic nutrition. The program is working with national governments in each country to build their capacity to implement. The hope is that all farmers will one day benefit from the improvements that have been shown in test fields.
Getting the best seeds and farming techniques into the hands of farmers in the field is a necessary part of the solution. But some challenges require more work in the laboratory to come up with new approaches. That is where institutions like KAUST, the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Saudi Arabia, come into their own. Built on the model of Caltech, one of the USA’s most advanced research institutions, KAUST has rapidly become a leading research university on the global level since its establishment in 2009 with a rumoured $11 billion endowment. Its Center for Desert Agriculture is exploring uncharted territory in the race to solve the most complex questions of food production in an environment with little sweet water. Amongst these, one of the research programs that is most likely to help the poorest farmers is KAUST’s research into Striga, a weed that kills off wheat in marginal land across the Arab world and the Sahel region of Africa. Getting rid of Striga would save billions of dollars every year in lost harvests for some of the world’s poorest people.
We must continue to work with cutting-edge agriculture research institutions in the region and raise their profile with policy makers and the public. They are a little-known, but highly precious resource.
For some of the challenges we face, the institutions that will build the solutions of tomorrow don’t yet exist. To back local innovations across the board, it is critical to build a new generation of highly qualified, socially minded young Arabs. The King Khalid Foundation in Saudi Arabia is working on exactly this. They are building a new fellowship program that will aim to attract outstanding Saudi graduates into a career in the non-profit sector. Starting from September 2016, the program will provide fellows with mentoring, training in the UK and US, and a two-year placement in a top-performing local non-profit organization. By nurturing the next generation of talent, and opening up exciting career paths in the fields of development, social impact and philanthropy, they hope to support the non-profit sector to provide new answers to tomorrow’s challenges, some of which we may not yet be able to see.
By investing in the institutions that are already working, and building the leadership of the future, the Arab world can lift itself out of crisis. The final piece of the jigsaw is to create an environment of hope by sharing the stories of success and optimism which demonstrate the resilience and ingenuity of the region.
That’s why it is exciting to see Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Global Initiatives launch the Middle East Exchange, a media hub which will source and disseminate the powerful stories of local development solutions from across the region. These stories will be syndicated in at least 12 languages, including Arabic, to 468 publications in 154 countries. This will work to dispel the perceptions of instability and crisis in the region with readers from around the world.
As we start 2016, the newspapers are still full of shocking headlines about violence and displacement. But there are a number of good ideas and exciting developments arising from our region that have the power to change local, but also global futures.
Hassan Al Damluji is Head of Middle East relations at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which co-funds the projects mentioned.