World Bank President Robert B. Zoellick (file photo)
World Bank President Robert B. Zoellick (file photo)

The president of the World Bank cautioned on Monday that much remains to be done to improve the economies in countries in the Middle East and North Africa where popular uprisings have removed repressive leaders. Regional experts at a conference sponsored by the World Bank discussed recent events in the Arab world.

World Bank President Robert Zoellick noted that many of the uprisings in Arab countries were triggered by social and economic grievances.

He cited lack of access to good jobs and economic opportunities. He also cited lack of good governance, not enough transparent and accountable public policy institutions and few places where "citizens' voices can be heard and counted."

"While many of these issues are complex and will take time to be addressed, they are nevertheless, issues that will not go away just because one government fell, or one leader replaced another," he said.

Zoellick, a former U.S. trade representative under President George W. Bush, added that the World Bank had produced a number of reports on governance, youth unemployment, education and other problems in the region.  "But the record of action has been spotty. Like others, we also have much to learn," he said.

Much of the discussion that followed dealt with the role of social media in the uprisings, and why so few people predicted them.

Samer Shahata of Georgetown University recalled that, from 2004 until the beginning of this year, Egypt was being lauded for its economic growth rates and levels of foreign investment. "But in fact anyone who would have visited the country for two weeks during this period would have seen a different Egypt," he said.

That different Egypt, he said, was marked by high inflation, increasing income inequality and what he called "a tsunami" of labor and economic unrest.

Reema Ali, a lawyer at the Washington firm of Ali and Partners which specializes in Middle East law, said that in Arab countries, a culture of "us and them" still separates the government from the people. "In the Middle East, the average person really thinks that he has opinions about very big, general foreign policy issues, but does not have an opinion about the traffic light that goes into his street because there is no mechanism for him to do so," she said

She said Arab countries need to develop a body of administrative law like in the West. She said that by regulating lower and middle levels of government, it gives ordinary citizens a feeling of empowerment in their daily lives.