Look ahead, but don’t forget to look back

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This article is part of a series in which OECD experts and thought leaders — from around the world and all parts of society — address the COVID-19 crisis, discussing and developing solutions now and for the future. Aiming to foster the fruitful exchange of expertise and perspectives across fields to help us rise to this critical challenge, opinions expressed do not necessarily represent the views of the OECD.

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The worldwide pandemic has brought the world to a halt. Things we thought were a given are now scarce. Once this is over some things might go back to the old normal, but I am convinced that many of our expectations and behaviours will have changed for good. As the world looks ahead to exiting the crisis and to recovery, we must not forget to look back—back to basics.

A year ago, before the pandemic struck with full force, I naively thought that things would go back to business as usual. But today, I see it will more likely be “business as unusual”.

Digitalisation, e-commerce, e-payments and e-government are making quantum leaps globally, and the generation gap between a tech savvy youth and a more traditional older generation is narrowing. What seemed too complicated or too technical a year ago is today part of many people’s daily routine and vocabulary, regardless of their age. We Skype, we Zoom...as a Swede, the fact that “to skype” has become a verb makes me proud, as my fellow citizen Niklas Zennström is one of Skype’s founders. 

But there is another divide that remains and has become more apparent: the divide between those who have access to tech tools and those who do not. As we move toward e-government and e-payment, we must make sure that no one is left on the outside looking in. When it comes to the digital divide, the risk of exclusion in a post-COVID world is even more daunting than the generational one, as it hits less empowered groups even harder, often in developing country contexts. 

Find out more about the OECD and its focus on an inclusive recovery Find out more about the OECD and its focus on an inclusive recovery

Women in the MENA region are a prime example. Even before the COVID-crisis, women faced many barriers to formal employment and entrepreneuship, despite their greater access to education—a factor usually leading to higher levels of employment. Women’s labour-force participation in the region is not only the lowest in the world, but is also rising very slowly; by some accounts, it has risen by barely one percentage point over the past two decades. The digital revolution could potentially enable more women in the region to access a job outside the household, and make their voices not only heard but listened to.

But first, there are other issues that need to be tackled—the “basics”.  Women in the region are hindered in their access to economic opportunity by incoherencies in legal frameworks, a lack of enforcement of existing laws, and restricted access to justice. Discriminatory social norms about men’s and women’s place in society constrain women’s ability to participate in the workforce. But they also influence their choices when they do, for example discouraging them from working in the private sector where benefits and job security are lower than in the public sector. And these entrenched stereotypes can also open the door to other harmful practices such as gender-based violence, a “shadow pandemic” we have seen worsen over the past year.

Read more on the Forum Network: Time to reset the clock for trade reform and recovery in MENA by Hichem Elloumi, Co-Chair of the MENA-OECD Business Advisory Board; CEO, Coficab Group

Read more on the Forum Network: Time to reset the clock for trade reform and recovery in MENA by Hichem ElloumiRead more on the Forum Network: Time to reset the clock for trade reform and recovery in MENA by Hichem Elloumi

As a gender champion—and the co-Chair of the MENA-OECD Women’s Economic Empowerment Forum, working with the Egyptian co-Chair H.E. the Egyptian Minister of Planning, Dr Hala el-Said—I daily note and try to highlight the risk that the situation for girls and women is even more challenging in the wake of the pandemic. Let’s not lose sight of the fundamental issues that existed before the pandemic, and that should remain in focus after it. The recent OECD publication Changing Laws and Breaking Barriers for Women’s Economic Empowerment in Egypt, Jordan, Morocco and Tunisia analyses many of them, and provides recommendations that governments of the region can draw upon to build a more inclusive recovery.

  Find more about the work of the OECD in the Middle East and North Africa

Find more about the MENA-OECD Ministerial Conference “Designing a Roadmap to Recovery in MENA”, taking place on 1 April 2021

Find more about the MENA-OECD Ministerial Conference “Designing a Roadmap to Recovery in MENA”, taking place on 1 April 2021

I have spent almost seven years of my diplomatic career in Egypt. Fantastic years with fantastic people, history and beauty. This year I was appointed Commissioner General at the upcoming world exhibition in Dubai, Expo 2020. World exhibitions have been held in different shapes all since the first one in London in 1851, but this is the first in the Middle East. What makes it even more unique is its timing. We now have a great opportunity to build back better and to showcase what the “new normal” could and should look like: a more sustainable world in all senses of the word, environmentally, economically and socially. Gender equality is one of the fundamental building blocks of more sustainable societies. Resilence can only be achieved by reaching out to 100% of the population. 

Let’s not make the stumbling blocks of yesterday prevent us from building back better. Let’s look ahead while remembering and dealing with the basic issues, the inequalities and prejudices, of both the past and the present. By working together—governments of the MENA region, OECD members, and stakeholders from the private sector and civil society—we can build the better world that we dream of, for ourselves and for our children.

 Find more on the work of the OECD in the Middle East and North Africa

Related Topics

Tackling Covid-19 Gender Equality New Societal Contract Digital inclusion

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Jan Thesleff

Co-Chair of the MENA-OECD Women’s Economic Empowerment Forum & Ambassador to Egypt, Government of Sweden

Jan Thesleff is a Swedish Diplomat, having served in the Middle East and North Africa for the past thirty years. Most recently as Ambassador to Egypt, the UAE, Tunisia, Libya and Saudi Arabia. In 2021 he was appointed as Commissioner General for Sweden’s participation at Expo 2020 in Dubai. He is since 2020 vice-chair of the OECD-MENA Women’s Economic Empowerment Forum and an active gender champion.//Jan Thesleff est un diplomate suédois ayant exercé au Moyen-Orient et en Afrique du Nord au cours des trente dernières années, et plus récemment en tant qu'ambassadeur en Égypte, aux Émirats arabes unis, en Tunisie, en Libye et en Arabie saoudite. En 2021, il a été nommé commissaire général pour la participation de la Suède à l'Expo 2020 à Dubaï. Il est depuis 2020 vice-président du Forum OCDE-MENA sur l'autonomisation économique des femmes et un défenseur actif de l'égalité des genres.