It’s difficult to look at the Middle East and consider its future optimistically. Much of the analysis of the region centers on crisis and collapse. There is plenty of both, fueled by wars and civil conflicts, poverty, extremism, and more. Given the human toll, focusing on all this is natural. It is also necessary if solutions to deeply rooted problems are ever to be developed, leading to a better future.
At the same time, such a singular focus holds risks. A better future, if that is possible, is not only a matter of devising solutions to the problems of today. It also requires envisioning what a better future could look like. That is increasingly difficult if policymakers, scholars, and others become inured to the current chaos and project forward only today’s bleak assumptions about the future.
A related risk is becoming blinded to “weak signals” — early indicators of what could become features of potential alternative futures. Weak signals are developments that are emerging outside the dominant norms and trends of today. In the Middle East, probably the most dominant norm is the inability of governments throughout the region to provide security and prosperity for their citizens. The COVID-19 pandemic is making this even more apparent, and markedly worse. It is not just the obvious failed states — as Steven Cook recently observed, “sometimes state failure is a more chronic condition.” But in the midst of this — and fueled by it — there is evidence of activities at the local level to create what is missing. Could these be signals of a future different than the one it is so easy to expect for the region?
Grow your own
Food security is one area where people-driven initiatives are on the rise. Challenges of water scarcity and limited arable land are exacerbated by government mismanagement and underinvestment in agricultural sectors. Over the last decade, home farming agriculture and a fledgling scene for agriculture-oriented start-ups have surfaced in the region. Tulua is a Jordanian start-up in aquaponics, an agricultural technique to grow plants with nutrient-filled water in a soilless medium. This innovative method is enabling individuals in local communities to grow their own crops year round, and ultimately can allow them to generate income from it. In the UAE, the “My Arabian Almanakh” urban gardening program published a guidebook in 2017 aiming to foster self-sufficiency and food sustainability in city populations in the Middle East.
Over the last few months as the pandemic has deepened food insecurity, more such initiatives have come into view across the region. In Lebanon, which imports 85 percent of its food, home farming initiatives are responding to growing food shortages and steep price rises for staple foods. The Ghaletna project ("our crops" in Arabic) is providing local families with seedlings and agriculture training to improve self-sufficiency in Keserwan, north of Beirut. In May, Oscar-nominated Lebanese filmmaker Nadine Labaki launched the "Plant of my Heart" campaign, bringing multiple sustainable agriculture initiatives together to help citizens grow seeds and vegetables in their homes or on their lands.
Striving to secure their livelihoods in the pandemic and beyond, individual families across the region are accelerating a turn toward home farming with the hope of selling the crop surplus on local markets in the future. Responding to market disruptions caused by COVID-19, the initiative “From the Villages,” led by a group of Lebanese students, set up an online platform to support struggling local farmers and families in selling their products. And more urban locations are transforming into farming spots as well. In Damascus, Abdulrahman al-Masria, a local entrepreneur, turned his building rooftop into a hydroponic farm and is working to demonstrate the potential for others to do the same. By saving on space, water, and pesticides, this initiative arose as a cost-effective answer to food shortages that were already serious due to the civil war and have worsened with the COVID-19 crisis.
Will such initiatives address food insecurity for the nearly 110 million undernourished people across the Middle East? Of course not. But are they data points in the emergence of a future trend that could make some difference in the region and for its people? Perhaps. We shouldn’t overstate what’s happening, of course. Weak signals are called that for a reason. They’re early in their progress and even earlier in their impact. They take time to materialize and become widespread. They may not be very reliable, as many things can influence the course they take, and whether they in fact spark major change.
Seeds of something bigger?
A change that these micro-level, people-driven food and agriculture initiatives could foreshadow is a rising, broader self-reliance in a region where government structures have rendered themselves increasingly irrelevant. That is a different future than the one that consumes our attention when we focus principally on the failures of Middle East states.
Some weak signals become strong on their own momentum. Others do so as a result of a catalyst. The coronavirus pandemic may be that catalyst for many emergent changes around the world — and perhaps for this one.
In the face of COVID-19 the Middle East is seeing the rise of other kinds of innovative grassroots initiatives. Some of these directly target efficient and effective health responses at the individual and community levels to the spread and effects of the virus. In Libya, young tech developers launched the "covid.ly" app, which provides reliable and updated information on COVID infection rates in the country. Other projects focus on providing new medical technology materials. In response to media reports on equipment shortages, three Lebanese engineering students launched a project to produce preliminary prototypes of 3D-printed ventilators. The start-up FabLab in Benghazi, Libya has developed disinfection tunnels for moving infected patients across hospital departments.
Other community-driven initiatives have also mobilized to provide for people. Earlier this year a network of health and social professionals, the Iranian Scientific Association of Social Work, set up a hotline and website providing information on protection measures against the virus. In addition, Iranian women’s associations and local families have taken up the responsibility to quarantine infected populations in improvised rehabilitation centers. In Libya, new charity associations have emerged, like the Sidi Abdelghani Mosque Charity in Souq al-Jumaa offering hygienic training in public schools. In the country’s rural areas, grassroots networks have launched awareness campaigns on social media and posters. In Lebanon, families from the civil initiative “Baytna Baytak'' came together to provide housing for health workers next to hospitals.
It’s worth considering if such initiatives are emerging in a broader context in which citizens enable one another to become more meaningfully independent from the state for their welfare. In a present-day reality of dashed popular trust in state structures, and those structures’ inability to address the struggles people contend with, do such initiatives foreshadow futures that reimagine social contracts? Perhaps they reflect the concept of "non-movement," framed by Asef Bayat as acts of presence by individuals sharing common everyday life practices in their efforts to thrive. Individuals and innovators are improving their own and each other's lives through increasingly widespread and networked efforts. Unguided by ideology, at an important time, perhaps such "quiet encroachments of the ordinary" are becoming louder.
In the work of strategic foresight, we do not only envision alternative futures. We also make efforts to “backcast” from those futures, thinking through what events or developments would enable them to emerge, or forestall them. What should we be looking for with regard to futures that these “non-movement” signals suggest?
One is success by these grassroots initiatives in resisting co-optation by the region's governments. In the southern region of Daraa in Syria, local campaigns to raise public awareness about the coronavirus and provide financial support and protective equipment have quickly been turned into an expanded workforce for the performance of government duties. State structures capitalizing on such efforts to recoup their lost legitimacy could disrupt and set back prospects for more independent modes of social organization and citizen empowerment in Syria and elsewhere in the region.
A positive or enabling force to look for is increased and effective use of the internet by micro-initiatives to grow in scope and scale. Social media is already playing a key role in promoting resilience in the face of the coronavirus crisis. For example, it is providing a platform for Egyptian livestock traders to sell their cattle despite constraints imposed by government movement restrictions. On a larger level, AMEL ecosystem, a civil society network, is leveraging social media and webinars to disseminate accurate information on the virus and help civil organizations promote hygienic habits in Middle East communities.
It’s important to look backward from potential alternative futures to what precedes them. When we do, we are identifying decisions and actions that individuals, organizations, and governments can make today to contribute to creating those futures.
It’s also important, when we stand in the present, to project forward not only the “inescapable” consequences of today’s dominant conditions. We should also consider the potential acceleration of early signals of futures different from the one we expect. For the Middle East, that should include paying heed to examples of resilience at the micro level, independent of the sources of today’s grim narrative. Leaders in and outside the region need to see the nascent foundations for positive change exist before they can consider how to build on them for a different future.
Steven Kenney is the founder and principal of Foresight LLC, a strategy consultancy, advising public and private sector executives on how to create their organizations’ future. He is also a Non-Resident Fellow at MEI and leads MEI's Strategic Foresight Initiative program.
Chloé Bernadaux received her master’s degree in International Security from Sciences Po Paris. She previously conducted research on gender dynamics in the Middle East at the Lebanese-American University in Beirut. She is also a contributor to several platforms, among them the International Institute for Middle East and Balkan Studies, Encyclopedia Geopolitica, and L’Orient Le Jour. The views presented in this piece are their own.
Photo by Marwan Naamani/picture alliance via Getty Images