The AIWF Webinar Series 2020 launched in July with an inaugural webinar, The Role of the World Bank in Coordinating Responses to Economic Challenges Aggravated by COVID-19 in the Mashreq Region, featuring Saroj Kumar Jha, Regional Director, Middle East Department (Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan, Iran, and Syria), The World Bank, who shared the World Bank’s mission to lift both formal and informal constraints to women’s economic participation in the region and also covered Mashreq responses to the pandemic to mitigate adverse impact of unprecedented economic and social disruption in the medium and longer terms.
AIWF Founder & Chairman Haifa Al Kaylani acknowledged the many years of partnership between the World Bank and the Arab International Women’s Forum, which goes back to 2008 when AIWF held its Annual Conference at the World Bank in Washington DC and has continued throughout the years with major collaborations on conference initiatives, most recently in Amman for a high-level conference on the intersection between women, water and youth as key development issues in the MENA. During her opening remarks, Mrs Al Kaylani said: “The Mashreq region, like many other regions in the world faced significant economic and social concerns even prior to COVID-19 – from the refugee crisis which has impacted Jordan and Lebanon more than any other refugee-receiving country, to climate change, to stagnant private sector growth, widespread youth unemployment and persistent gender-based inequality. We need to look at the macro picture for the MENA more broadly, in order to understand where the region stands now and what we can do to help the region move past the current crisis, looking beyond COVID-19 and into a secure and prosperous future. The support provided to date has been to create relief, but if there is not a transition to productivity and growth, there will be even more serious problems in the future.”
Mr Jha’s Keynote focused on specific development challenges in the MENA Region which have been exacerbated by the pandemic, with women and young people disproportionately impacted by instability, food poverty, and fiscal constraints compounding the long-term challenges of job creation and mass unemployment in the region. Mr Jha said: “The impact of COVID-19 on Mashreq countries has been significant, slowing progress made to date in human capital, job creation, and compounding existing gender disparities in the region. Less than a third of jobs in the Mashreq can be done from home, and women are carrying he heaviest burden of the pandemic.”
Mr Jha discussed the additional barriers faced by women to economic participation, including restrictive social norms, legal constraints, childcare and transportation, as outlined in the State of Mashreq Women Report, launched by the World Bank in June 2020 as a “lifecycle approach to analysing each constraint as it occurs in a particular point in a woman’s life, acknowledging that women’s experiences will be different depending on their different socioeconomic backgrounds.” The report promotes the digital economy as an opportunity for women to work flexible hours and from home, which eliminates at least a few of these barriers to economic participation.
The World Bank, Mr Jha said, recognises that gender equality is not just good for women but good for whole economies, as well as being key to inclusive growth and the development of a vibrant middle class. Challenges women face in the Mashreq can be addressed within the following four pillars of engagement: 1) Enabling a non-discriminatory legal framework; 2) Accessible and affordable childcare; 3) Safe transportation; and 4) Empowering women in the digital economy.
Further, Mr Jha shared, “we need to promote a more egalitarian society overall, to develop women’s capacity in political leadership, and the importance of protecting women affected by gender-based violence we need to women’s voice and agency in all decision-making spaces such as political leadership, the importance of supporting and protecting GBV cannot be stressed enough especially in this region where the number of refugees and displaced persons is very high.”
Initially, Mr Jha shared, the World Bank offered broad support to strengthen health systems for preparedness; in the second phase of its response, he said, the World Bank’s Strategic Preparedness and Response Programme was applying $160 billion in financial support over the next 15 months to countries facing financial crisis in the pandemic. This would be applied to supporting businesses and bolstering economic recovery building among the most vulnerable segments of society and economy – as one example, mobilising more support for farmers and agricultural organisations to offset the key challenge of food poverty.
The Board of AIWF reiterates its deepest thanks and appreciation to Mr Saroj Kumar Jha for his valued participation in this inaugural session, and especially looks forward to continuing its close association with the World Bank in the years ahead.