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Can Syria be reborn from the ruins after a decade of civil war?

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According to the data from the “Syrian Observatory for Human Rights” (a non-governmental organization based in London), in 2020 – after ten years of civil war – “only” 6,800 people were killed in Syria, the lowest figure since 2011.

In this long and bloody decade a total of 387,000 people died, of whom 117,000 were innocent civilians, victims of a war that began with a student protest and, in a short time, turned into a small “world war” that saw Turkish, Iranian, Russian and American forces in the field, besides the “local” contenders, namely Bashar al-Assad’s loyalist army and the various indigenous militias, ranging from the Kurds in the North-East to the jihadist militiamen of various complexion or background.

 Considering the importance of Syria in the Middle East and in Mediterranean’s and North Africa’s equilibria, before analysing the possible developments of the geopolitical situation triggered by the conflict, it may be useful to go over the five phases in which the Syrian war unfolded, which turned out to be the most explosive and bloody consequence of the entire phenomenon of the so-called “Arab Springs”.

The first phase, in March 2011, was triggered by a demonstration of students in Deraa who, on the wave of the first protests in Egypt and Tunisia, took to the streets to demand the democratization of Assad’s regime, based on an Alawite leadership (a minority sect of Shi’ite origin) that for over forty years had been in power in a country where the Sunnis, traditional enemies of the Shi’ites, accounted for 65% of the population – as is still currently the case.

The police repression of student demonstrations was extremely harsh and, also thanks to a skilful information and disinformation campaign by Al Jazeera – the Qatari TV channel which is a master in defending the interests of the “Muslim Brotherhood” protected and supported by the Qatari Emir – the protests quickly spread throughout the country, while Assad’s forces tried to control them with the military iron fist.

Soon what looked like a re-edition of the French 1968 protest movements in Arab guise turned into a full-blown civil war.

 In early 2012 there was the second phase of the crisis. The street protests turned into armed conflict due to the fact that better armed and better organized militias took the field, thanks to weapons and money from Qatar and Erdogan’s Turkey.

While the Syrian regime began to lose control of strategic territories in the North and in the South of the country, ceding the city of Aleppo to the insurgents, Iran – worried about the fate of the regime and the Alawite minority – had the Shi’ite militias of Hezbollah intervene in the conflict, from the neighbouring Lebanon, as well as “military advisers” from the “Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps,” a powerful paramilitary organization created by the Ayatollahs to defend Iran’s interests abroad and the internal stability of the theocratic Republic.

In the spring of 2013, the Syrian regime appeared to be on the verge of collapse but, thanks to the Iranian help, it managed to maintain control of the capital and the strategic ports of Latakia and Tartus, in which a strong Russian naval presence was “hosted”.

The third phase marked the internationalization of the conflict, with the emergence of ISIS and the American and Turkish intervention.

 In June 2014, faced with the total marginalization of the Sunni minority by the Shi’ite majority in Iraq, a Sunni political-military group composed of former Iraqi members of Saddam Hussein’s regime decided to establish the “Islamic State of Iraq and Syria”, a jihadist military organization aimed at building a new Sunni nation sitting astride two States considered “bastard” because they were conceived by Anglo-French colonialism.

The armed forces of ISIS, under the leadership of the “Caliph” Al Baghdadi, quickly conquered the city of Raqqa and territories in the North-East on the borders with Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan, and initially thanks to the Turkish help they threatened to exterminate the Syrian Kurdish population and establish a bloody terror regime in the conquered areas.

The threat of ISIS led to the first American intervention, with targeted bombings in defence of the Kurds, while Turkey supported not only the Caliphate but also the creation of Sunni militias gathered under the name of “Jabhat Al Nusra”, that progressively reduced the control of the Syrian territory by the loyalist forces faithful to Damascus.

The fourth phase of the conflict started in 2015. The fate of Assad’s regime seemed doomed: the Damascus army did not even control the entire capital; the international isolation of the regime was almost absolute and the Sunni forces of ISIS and Al Nusra seemed destined to a victory that would deliver Syria to the fundamentalists and bring back to the centre of the Middle East scene a neo-Ottoman Turkey whose leader, Tayyip Recep Erdogan, pursued  the dual goal of definitively cutting Kurdish irredentism down to size and ensuring Turkey the role of centre of gravity in the whole region.

At that juncture Russia directly entered the field with its own air force, siding with the Iranian forces deployed in defence of Assad, thus turning the tide of an increasingly confused and bloody conflict.

In the fifth and final phase of the Syrian war, thanks to the Russian military support, which almost led to a direct clash between Russian and Turkish forces, the Syrian armed forces not only regained total control of the capital but also of all the cities that had fallen under the control of ISIS and its allies, ranging from Aleppo to Raqqa, at the time reduced to a heap of rubble as a result of street fighting and Russian and American bombings.

The final conquest of Deraa – the symbolic city of the civil war – by Assad’s military forces at the end of 2018 marked the end of Sunnis’ and their internal and external supporters’ hopes to overthrow the secular Alawite regime in Damascus. However, as the 6,800 deaths in 2020 show, Syria cannot be considered pacified.

The Syrian civil war had significant impacts throughout the Middle East and Europe.

Over 3 million refugees poured into Turkey, the Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt. Some of them arrived also in Europe via Greece, while Erdogan was “convinced” – with a donation of 7 billion euros- initially to curb and later to stop the flow of Syrian migrants to Europe.

 Currently Syria is a country in ruins which, however, remains fundamental for the Middle East equilibria.

The role played so far in the conflict by Russia, Iran and Turkey and, albeit marginally, by the United States and Israel, shows that what appeared to be the “Arab Spring” in Damascus, was indeed an attempt to exploit the international unpopularity of Assad’s regime to alter the regional balance in favour of Turkey, Qatar and the most reactionary Sunnis.

 Despite the Turkish military backlash that, in 2019, attempted to definitively eliminate the Kurdish threat from its borders by seizing Syrian territories, currently Syria is gradually integrating again into the Arab world.

It is a world that survived the impact of false “Arab Springs” which, badly analysed by a short-sighted and superficial West, were not initially understood in their most realistic sense, i.e. a well-orchestrated attempt by the most reactionary part of political Islam to overthrow the secular governments of the Arab-Muslim world.

Thanks to the efforts of Al Sisi’s Egypt, Syria is back again in the Arab League and has progressively resumed diplomatic relations with most Arab nations. With its support for Assad, Egypt is trying to curb the strong Iranian presence in the region and the unscrupulous activism of Turkish President Erdogan, who still dreams of becoming the “dominus” of the region.

The worst part of the Syrian war has come to an end. The Caliphate has been defeated militarily, but it still controls some parts of territory in the North-East of the country and is still able to carry out sporadic attacks against the regular armed forces.

Turkey remains a threat to the stability of Syria, a half-destroyed country, with a collapsing economy as a result of the U.S. sanctions and the Covid 19 pandemic.

Egypt, the Gulf States and Russia are working to bring Syria’s relations with the rest of the world back to normalcy, thus taking the first steps in the process of physically rebuilding a country in ruins. China and North Korea are also players in the game – a game that, in the future, will have important positive economic repercussions for the protagonists of the process.

For the time being, Europe and the United States have a wait-and-see attitude and are satisfied with maintaining a system of indiscriminate sanctions that have negative effects not on the stability of the regime, but on the well-being of its citizens.

After a decade of war, Syria has the right to peace and reconstruction – a complex process at which Europe should look with pragmatism and rationality, recalling the statement by Henry Kissinger that “in the Middle East there can be no peace without Syria”.

Advisory Board Co-chair Honoris Causa Professor Giancarlo Elia Valori is an eminent Italian economist and businessman. He holds prestigious academic distinctions and national orders. Mr. Valori has lectured on international affairs and economics at the world’s leading universities such as Peking University, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the Yeshiva University in New York. He currently chairs “International World Group”, he is also the honorary president of Huawei Italy, economic adviser to the Chinese giant HNA Group. In 1992 he was appointed Officier de la Légion d’Honneur de la République Francaise, with this motivation: “A man who can see across borders to understand the world” and in 2002 he received the title “Honorable” of the Académie des Sciences de l’Institut de France. “

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The Mediterranean: Will Turkey be successful in pulling Egypt to its side?

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The Mediterranean acts as a channel connecting Europe, the Middle East and Asia. The region has, however, become a bone of contention due to varying political setups, religions and cultural values, economic resources, and the existence of crisis situations. The maritime dispute between Turkey and Greece is highly contentious, developing new complexities that worries the international community. Greece prefersinternational arbitrationwhile Turkey favors the option of bilateral negotiationsconstituting asthe main cause of friction between the two countries.

Historically, root of the crisis also lies in conflicting claims by Turkey and Greece concerning maritime boundaries and Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ), threatening Ankara’s “Blue Homeland”doctrine. To further aggravate the situation, the dispute has now been intertwined withdisputes in the eastern Mediterranean among Turkey and a coalition of countries including France, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates that are doused in geopolitical tensions, energy disputes and Libyan conflict.

Gas discoveries in eastern Mediterranean have increased Turkey’s greed for hydrocarbon exploration. Turkey aims to solve its longstanding economic challenges and reduce its energy dependency due to which the country has increased its energy-related exploration activities in the region resulting in a major gas discovery thus shaping the region towards resource competition. Moreover, Turkey seeks to establish itself as an energy hub for Europe and has signed several oil and gas pipeline deals with Azerbaijan, Iraq, Iran, and Russia. However, its aspirations have significantly remained unsuccessful, and the gas discoveries have deepened its concerns of being left out from the region’s emerging energy and security order due to the creation of the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum (EMGF).

Conflict in the Mediterranean has unwittingly pushed Libya into a proxy war. Scuffle between Libyan National Army (LNA) and Government of National Accord (GNA) has pushed Turkey to increase its support for GNA by sending troops and weapons to Libya which is a move directly affecting the ongoing situation in the region. GNA signing its EEZ agreement with Turkey while Greece turning to LNA and signing an agreement with Egypt have contributed to exacerbating the dispute. Not only this, but major European powers have shown keen interest in the region that patently require Turkey’s support in terms of migration and counterterrorism. If the conflict between the Turkish-backed GNA and the LNA stabilizes, this would result in an ordered flow of migrants to Europe.

Moreover, Europeans do not wish to abandon a 2016 German-brokered deal between Turkey and the European Union (EU) that allows Turkey to maintain a considerable control over refugee movements into Europe. On counterterrorism, France to fight against the terrorism in southern Libya and Benghazi, allied with Haftar against Turkey, despite recognizing the GNA’s sovereignty.  France has developed security partnerships with UAE and Egypt, who are opponents of Turkey in the region.

Egypt’s possession of two liquefication facilities, making the country act as both an exporter and re-exporter of LNG including a potential Cyprus-Egypt pipeline beneficial to Egypt in terms of economic stability, and help establish itself as a regional power. Cyprus-Egypt pipeline will allow Cyprus to export gas from the Aphrodite gas field to Egypt for liquefaction and Egypt would then reexport LNG to the European market. Turkey, however, argues that revenue generated from the process must be shared with the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TNRC). Turkey’s continuation on the belligerent course will bring consequences for Egypt making its support for Greece more prominent. Turkey also stands with Mediterranean cooperation through initiatives like the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum that focuses on exploitation and regional energy resource sale.

Turkey is keen to become a regional gas trade hub thus looks forward to the initiative of a Trans-Anatolian Natural Gas Pipeline (TANAP) which transfers from Azerbaijan to Europe through Turkey. Reducing the region’s reliance on Russian gas could certainly achieve the goals. Talks between Israel and Turkey of a pipeline from Israel to Europe were also initiated, however relations between Turkey and Israel have deteriorated following Erdogan blatantly supporting Palestine. This led Israel to work with Cyprus and Greece on the EastMed pipeline, stemming in devaluation of the Trans-Anatolian pipeline.

Most of the Middle Eastern countries have recalibratedtheir foreign policy following Joe Biden’s presidential win in the United States. Similarly, both Turkey and Egypt have begun to revise their foreign policies as well. The two countries have initiated a series of new diplomatic dialogue including Turkey and Greece signing a maritime delimitation agreement in August 2020.Nonetheless Egypt did not accept Greece’s thesis of having claims over islands in the south of Aegean Sea and it also announced a new oil and gas exploration bid with taking Turkey’s coordinates of the continental shelf into consideration. Moreover, Egypt began to change its Libya policy and improve relations with GNA. Turkey has stated that it is willing to negotiate dialogue with Egypt and focus on common interests.

Understanding the new developments, it is suggested to continue to alleviate tensions as the two countries enjoy same moral values at cultural level, given their shared past and historical ties. That is only possible if the expansionist pan-Islamistproject stops with Erdogan and does not continue with future Turkish governments. Cairo and Ankara must move together on the issues concerning Palestine, Libyan conflict, and the eastern Mediterranean. Despite possible pressure from the Democrats in the Biden administration, Egypt seems reluctant to consider convergence on Islamic synthesisand integration of Muslim brotherhood. Complete normalization of relations between the two sides may take time therefore to establish trust in one another, all parties must take certain confidence-building steps.

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Israel and Turkey in search of solutions

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Twelve and eleven years have elapsed since the Davos and Mavi Marmara incidents, respectively, and Turkey-Israel relations are undergoing intense recovery efforts. They are two important Eastern neighbours and influence regional stability.

Currently, as in the past, relations between the two countries have a structure based on realpolitik, thus pursuing a relationship of balance/interest, and hinge around the Palestinian issue and Israel’s position as the White House’s privileged counterpart. However, let us now briefly summarise the history of Turkish-Jewish relations.

The first important event that comes to mind when mentioning Jews and Turks is that when over 200,000 Jews were expelled by the Spanish Inquisition in 1491, the Ottoman Empire invited them to settle in its territory.

Turkey was the first Muslim country to recognise Israel in 1949. Israel’s first diplomatic Mission to Turkey was opened on January 7, 1950 but, following the Suez crisis in 1956, relations were reduced to the level of chargé d’affaires. In the second Arab-Israeli war of 1967, Turkey chose not to get involved and it did not allow relations to break off completely.

The 1990s saw a positive trend and development in terms of bilateral relations. After the second Gulf War in 1991 -which, as you may recall, followed the first Iraqi one of 1980-1988 in which the whole world was against Iran (with the only exception of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Syria, Libya and the moral support of Enver Hoxha’s Albania) – Turkey was at the centre of security policy in the region. In that context, Turkey-Israel relations were seriously rekindled.

In 1993, Turkey upgraded diplomatic relations with Israel to ambassadorial level. The signing of the Oslo Accords between Palestine and Israel led to closer relations. The 1996 military cooperation agreement was signed between the two countries in the fight against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Turkey, which provided significant logistical and intelligence support to both sides.

In the 2000s, there was a further rapprochement with Israel, due to the “zero problems with neighbours” policy promoted by Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party. I still remember issue No. 3/1999 of the Italian review of geopolitics “Limes” entitled “Turkey-Israel, the New Alliance”.

In 2002, an Israeli company undertook the project of modernising twelve M-60 tanks belonging to the Turkish armed forces. In 2004, Turkey agreed to sell water to Israel from the Manavgat River.

Prime Minister Erdoğan’s visit to Israel in 2005 was a turning point in terms of mediation between Palestine and Israel and further advancement of bilateral relations. In 2007, Israeli President Shimon Peres and Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas spoke at the Turkish Grand National Assembly one day apart. High-level visits from Israel continued.

On December 22, 2008, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert came to Ankara and met with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. In that meeting, significant progress was made regarding Turkey’s mediation between Israel and Syria.

Apart from the aforementioned incidents, the deterioration of Turkish-Israeli relations occurred five days after the above stated meeting, i.e. Operation “Cast Lead” against Gaza on December 27, 2008. After that event, relations between the two sides were never the same as before.

Recently, however, statements of goodwill have been made by both countries to normalise political relations. In December 2020, President Erdoğan stated he wanted to improve relations with Israel and said: “It is not possible for us to accept Israel’s attitude towards the Palestinian territories. This is the point in which we differ from Israel – otherwise, our heart desires to improve our relations with it as well”.

In its relations with Israel, Turkey is posing the Palestinian issue as a condition. When we look at it from the opposite perspective, the Palestinian issue is a vital matter for Israel. It is therefore a severe obstacle to bilateral relations.

On the other hand, many regional issues such as Eastern Mediterranean, Syria and some security issues in the region require the cooperation of these two key countries. For this reason, it is clear that both sides wish at least to end the crisis, reduce rhetoric at leadership level and focus on cooperation and realpolitik areas.

In the coming months, efforts will certainly be made to strike a balance between these intentions and the conditions that make it necessary to restart bilateral relations with Israel on an equal footing. As improved relations with Israel will also positively influence Turkey’s relations with the United States.

Turkey seeks to avoid the USA and the EU imposing sanctions that could go so far as to increase anti-Western neo-Ottoman rhetoric, while improved relations with Israel could offer a positive outcome not only to avoid the aforementioned damage, but also to solve the Turkish issues related to Eastern Mediterranean, territorial waters, Libya and Syria. Turkey has no intention of backing down on such issues that it deems vital. Quite the reverse. It would like to convey positive messages at the level of talks and Summits.

Another important matter of friction between Turkey and Israel is the use of oil and gas in the Eastern Mediterranean reserves between Egypt, Israel, Greece and Cyprus (Nicosia).

This approach is excluding Turkey. The USA and the EU also strongly support the current situation (which we addressed in a previous article) for the additional reason that France has been included in the equation.

The alignment of forces and fronts in these maritime areas were also widely seen during the civil war in Libya, where Turkey, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, France, as well as other players such as Russia, Italy, etc. came into the picture.

Ultimately, a point of contact between Turkey and Israel is the mediation role that the former could play in relations between Iran and Israel, especially after the improvement of Turkish-Iranian relations.

Indeed, in the aftermath of the U.S. airstrike in Baghdad – which killed Iranian General Qassem Soleimani on January 3, 2020 -the Turkish Foreign Minister stated that the U.S. action would increase insecurity and instability in the region. He also reported that Turkey was worried about rising tensions between the United States and Iran that could turn Iraq back into an area of conflict to the detriment of peace and stability in the region. There was also a condolence phone call from President Erdoğan to Iranian President Rouhani, urging him to avoid a conflictual escalation with the United States following the airstrike.

Consequently, it is in the Turkish President’s interest to maintain an open channel with Iran, so that he himself can soften the mutual tensions between Israel and Iran, and – in turn – Israeli diplomacy can influence President Biden’s choices, albeit less pro-Israel than Donald Trump’s.

Turkey is known to have many relationship problems with the United States – especially after the attempted coup of July 15-16, 2016 and including the aforementioned oil issue – and realises that only Israel can resolve the situation smoothly.

In fact, Israel-USA relations are not at their best as they were under President Trump. President Erdoğan seems to be unaware of this fact, but indeed the Turkish President knows that the only voice the White House can hear is Israel’s, and certainly not the voice of the Gulf monarchies, currently at odds with Turkey.

Israel keeps a low profile on the statements made by President Erdoğan with regard to the Palestinians- since it believes them to be consequential – as well as in relation to a series of clearly anti-Zionist attitudes of the Turkish people.

We are certain, however, that President Erdoğan’s declarations of openness and Israeli acquiescence will surely yield concrete results.

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The 25-year China-Iran agreement

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On March 27, 2021, a document entitled “Comprehensive Document of Iran-China Cooperation” was signed by Javad Zarif, Iran’s Foreign Minister, and his Chinese counterpart. The Iranian regime’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei had previously called “the agreement between the presidents of Iran and China correct and wise.” However, the Iranian people have widely criticized it as entirely against their national interests. Iranian officials have not even publicized the document’s contents yet probably because it is highly contentious.

In 2019, excerpts from this document were revealed by the Economist Petroleum news site. The details included:

  • China invests $460 billion in Iranian oil and transportation sectors. China will get its investment back from the sale of Iranian crude during the first five years.
  • China buys Iranian petroleum products at least 32% cheaper.
  • The Chinese can decide before other companies whether to participate in completing all or part of a petrochemical project.
  • 50,000 Chinese security personnel will be deployed to protect Chinese projects in Iran.
  • China has the right to delay the repayment of its debts for up to two years in exchange for Iranian products’ purchase.
  • At least one Russian company will be allowed to participate in the Tabriz-Ankara gas pipeline design together with the Chinese operator.
  • Every year, 110 senior Revolutionary Guards officers travel to China and Russia for military training. 110 Chinese and Russian advisers will be stationed in Iran to train Revolutionary Guards officers.
  • Development of Iranian military equipment and facilities will be outsourced to China, and Chinese and Russian military aircraft and ships will operate the developed facilities.

Even some circles within the regime have criticized the agreement. The state-run Arman newspaper wrote, “China has a 25-year contract with Iran and is investing $460 billion in Iran. It is somewhat ambiguous. Presently, China is holding the money it owes us and blames it on the U.S. sanctions. How can we trust this country to invest $460 billion in Iran?”

Last year, Iran and China had the lowest trade in the previous 16 years, and according to statistics, by the end of 2020, the volume of trade between Iran and China was about $16 billion, which, including undocumented oil sales, still does not reach $20 billion.

Jalal Mirzaei, a former member of Iran’s parliament, said: “If in the future the tensions between Tehran and Washington are moderated, and we see the lifting of some of the sanctions, China can also provide the basis for implementing the provisions of this document, but if the situation continues like today, Beijing will not make any effort to implement the document, as it is essentially unable to take concrete action on the ground because of the sanctions.”

China’s objectives

Iran is vital to China in two ways, through its geopolitical location and its geo-economic importance. China knows that it does not have enough natural resources and is currently having a hard time supplying them from Russia and Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia supplies its energy needs from oil giant Aramco, half of which is owned by the United States. That is why China is looking for a safe alternative that the United States will not influence, and the only option is Iran. They may also have a two-pronged plan in Iran, which involves using Iran’s profitable market and making Iran into a lever of pressure against the United States for additional concessions.

The Iranian regime’s objectives

The deal could deepen China’s influence in the Middle East and undermine U.S. efforts to isolate the Iranian regime. While the international dispute over the Iranian regime’s nuclear program has not been resolved, it is unclear how much this agreement could be implemented. The regime intends to make it a bargaining chip in possible future nuclear negotiations. However, some of Iran’s top authorities believe that China and Russia cannot be trusted 100 percent.

Due to the sanctions, the regime has a tough time to continue providing financial support to its proxy militias in the region. The regime also faced two major domestic uprisings in 2017 and 2019. Khamenei’s regime survived the widespread uprisings by committing a massacre, killing 1,500 young protesters in the 2019 uprising alone, according to the Iranian opposition, the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) and later confirmed by the Iranian regime’s Interior Ministry officials. Now with the coronavirus pandemic, Khamenei has been able to delay another major uprising.

Iran’s economy is on the verge of collapse. Khamenei must bow to western countries’ demands regarding the nuclear issue, including an end to its regional interventions and its ballistic missile program. Khamenei will struggle to save his regime from s imminent uprisings and a deteriorating economy that will undoubtedly facilitate more protests by the army of the unemployed and the hungry at any moment.

Unlike the 2015 JCPOA, the Iranian regime in 2021 is in a much weaker position. In fact, by many accounts, it is the weakest in its 40-year history. By signing the recent Iran-China agreement and auctioning Iranian resources, Khamenei wants to pressure the United States to surrender and restore the 2015 JCPOA as quickly as possible. But in the end, this pivot will not counteract domestic pressures that target the regime’s very existence.

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