The Road to Recovery: MENA’s time is now

School children in Mus, Turkey. Banner image: Shutterstock/Thomas Koch

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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.

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As we pass the one-year mark since the COVID-19 pandemic went global, governments around the world are engaged in a battle on multiple fronts. On the one hand, they are acting decisively to protect their citizens’ lives and livelihoods, while helping their economies weather one of the worst crises of the modern era. Yet at the same time, governments must also look ahead to plan for recovery, which will require an honest assessment of past shortfalls and the political will to correct them in order to build back better.

The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region also faces this dual challenge, and has shown strong resilience in many areas. It has been relatively successful in containing the spread of the virus compared to other regions around the world. It has also been active in vaccination roll-out, albeit unevenly across the region. Although drops in demand for oil and trade disruptions have contracted economic output, early evidence suggests that the crisis has had unexpected positive effects in other areas, notably in spurring digitalisation. In Jordan, for example, 80% of businesses intend to change their business models post-COVID, of which 56% plan to intensify digitalisation.

See the latest findings of the COVID-19 crisis response in MENA countries by the OECD-MENA Initiative

See the latest findings of the COVID-19 crisis response in MENA countries by the OECD-MENA Initiative

At the same time, the crisis has exacerbated existing fragilities in the region, hitting the most vulnerable the hardest, notably women and youth. Already prior to the crisis, the OECD Youth Governance Survey showed that youth in the region often expressed higher disinterest in politics and lower trust in government compared to their parents. Only 32% of the region's youth expressed trust in their government, and the pressure on governments to deliver on their needs and demands has only increased since. Moreover, the pandemic has led an additional 8.3 million people from the region to fall into poverty. It is estimated that to counteract the effects of the pandemic, the region will have to create 30 million jobs in the next decade.

Today, as the MENA region looks ahead to move beyond the crisis, it should focus its efforts on two key priorities: investing in the future and investing in its people. As governments craft their recovery packages, they must use them as tools for economic and societal transformation. Investing today in digital, skills, greening and closing the infrastructure gap will pay off in more vibrant MENA economies tomorrow. Building a stronger fiscal basis to deliver social welfare and quality public services, reducing informality and ensuring that men and women have equal access to opportunities are all foundational reforms on which the recovery must be built.

In addition, to ensure that MENA economies can generate quality jobs for increasingly educated youth in a post-COVID world will also necessitate tackling underlying structural issues. For example, the regional share of adults who are starting a business or who own a new business is 10.8%, compared to 19.5% in Latin America and 22.7% in Africa. This points to the importance of creating a level playing field between private and state-owned companies, rendering public procurement more transparent, opening up trade and investment frameworks to build regional value chains, closing the skills gap and promoting entrepreneurship.

Read more from Angel Gurría on the Forum Network: A Turning Point for Tax: International co-operation for better regulation of globalisation
Read more from Angel Gurría on the Forum Network: A Turning Point for Tax: International co-operation for better regulation of globalisation

Besides, indicators show that MENA countries continue to face challenges when it comes to government effectiveness, regulatory quality, control of corruption and the rule of law. In the area of voice and accountability, the MENA region has been the lowest-ranking region in the world over the past decade. A fair and inclusive recovery for all necessitates stepping up good governance efforts in the region. By delivering better policies for better lives with shared wealth and benefits for all, MENA governments can make good on citizens’ demands and rebuild a relationship of trust with them.

The OECD has had the great honour of working with the region for almost two decades to support both objectives, and I am proud to say that progress has been palpable.

In 2007, I stood before an audience of 3,000 stakeholders from governments, business and civil society who had travelled to Cairo for the second Ministerial Conference of the MENA-OECD Initiative on Governance and Competitiveness for Development. At this landmark meeting, MENA Ministers called on the OECD to undertake peer reviews of the region, provide targeted policy analysis on wide range of key challenges, and work toward including MENA economies in our OECD databases and reviews. At the 2009 MENA Ministerial in Marrakech, we took a major step forward in supporting gender equality in the region by launching the MENA-OECD Women’s Economic Empowerment Forum and the MENA-OECD Platform on Gender Mainstreaming, Governance and Leadership[1]. Last but not least, I was deeply privileged to open our 2016 Ministerial with the Tunisian Nobel Peace Prize winners who supported the democratic transition in their country. Together, we shared our vision for MENA's youth, launching the Regional Youth Governance Conference.

Through our Governance and Competitiveness Programmes, we have supported MENA governments to implement governance frameworks to decide, spend and engage better, redesign their investment frameworks, improve corporate governance policies, fight corruption, strengthen the rule of law and support SME development. We have also had a real impact on advancing gender equality, fostering more inclusive legal frameworks, and promoting youth empowerment.

Now is the time for the MENA region to use the recovery from this crisis as a lever to overcome remaining structural barriers and challenges and ensure that the post-COVID-19 world delivers the prosperity and inclusiveness that citizens are demanding. With the region’s vast human and natural resources, its dynamism and positive spirit, there is little doubt that it will succeed. The OECD stands ready to work side-by-side with our valued partners in MENA to support them in this effort. We look forward to our dialogue at the forthcoming fifth Ministerial of the MENA-OECD Initiative on 1 April to chart the path to recovery together.

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

[1] Initially called the MENA-OECD Women’s Business Forum, the group’s mandate was enlarged in 2017 and the name changed to the MENA-OECD Women’s Economic Empowerment Forum and Gender Focus Group of the MENA-OECD Governance Programme.

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Angel Gurría

Secretary-General, OECD

As Secretary-General of the Organisation of Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) since 2006, Angel Gurría has firmly established the Organisation as a pillar of the global economic governance architecture including the G7, G20 and APEC, and a reference point in the design and implementation of better policies for better lives. He has broadened OECD’s membership with the accession of Chile, Estonia, Israel, Latvia and Slovenia, and has made the Organisation more inclusive by strengthening its links with key emerging economies. Under his watch, the OECD is leading the effort to reform the international tax system, and to improve governance frameworks in anti-corruption and other fields. He has also heralded a new growth narrative that promotes the well-being of people, including women, gender and youth, and has scaled up the OECD contribution to the global agenda, including the Paris Agreement on Climate Change and the adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals.