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Sun 22 Sep 2013 09:45 AM

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Chancellor Merkel and Germany's well-being

One of the greatest challenges facing leaders today is how to bring wellbeing and progress to society, says Dr Mona AlMunajjed

Chancellor Merkel and Germany's well-being
German Chancellor Angela Merkel (centre), with Dr Mona AlMunajjed.

This week, Germany holds federal elections, and if you are reading this after the 22nd of September you will know the result and whether Angela Merkel, the most powerful woman in European politics, will be embarking on her third term of office.

A few months ago I met Dr. Merkel in Berlin. I admit that I always wanted to meet Germany’s first female chancellor.

I admired this scientist with a doctorate in Physics who has risen as a political leader in a rather conservative country.

Myself, coming from a region where traditional gender bias has a deep impact on society and where women really have to struggle their way up the ladder, I considered her to be a remarkable example to all of us women as a successful leader who has maintained her country as the largest economy in Europe and the fourth biggest in the world.

One of the greatest challenges facing leaders today is how to bring wellbeing and progress to society and how to promote economic growth and prosperity in their countries.

Dr. Merkel’s first concerns are with the German people, their welfare and happiness.

She is preoccupied with how to provide a higher quality of life, improve the quality of jobs, increase employment, improve skills training for young workers and increase assistance to the young unemployed, promote equality for all in education and job opportunities, and make the state more family-friendly.

 Dr. Merkel wants to build a dialogue about Germany’s future and wellbeing.

As a step towards this she initiated the First International German Forum about the wellbeing and progress of people, which took place at the Federal Chancellery in Berlin last June.

I was one of the 15 international experts and the only Arab Saudi woman invited by the Chancellor to participate.

The meeting also gathered other people from the national and international business, political, social and research community.

My first contact with the Chancellor occurred when she came round to shake hands with each of the experts.

She was welcoming, very much at ease and full of confidence. She looked at me with her twinkling ice-blue eyes, which matched her classic jacket, and flashed a charming smile.

We exchanged a few friendly introductory remarks and although she has a reserved personality, I sensed a deep compassion within her.

During the meeting, Dr. Merkel was alert and attentive, giving each person due consideration, with an occasional enigmatic smile.

She was eager to hear our ideas and recommendations on major topics such as world economy, climate change, urbanization, education and training, the role of women, and global digitalization.

She wanted to learn more from each of us and she listened while involving us in a motivating dialogue and a lively discussion.

She believed in positive change and was aware that serious steps forward had to be continuously taken at home.

I said that the path to wellbeing lies in the hands of the people, both men and women, who are the most valuable resource for development.

Making up half of the world’s population, women are a key mechanism for economic development and a vital link in social advancement. I asserted that investing in women will bring economic progress and sustainable development and by taking on leadership positions and having a role in decision-making, women introduce reforms and initiate better business performance.

And women as producers, entrepreneurs, employers, employees and consumers are central to the global economy.

I added that empowered women also contribute to the good health and productivity of the family and are able to influence human development.

I explained how over the past decades, positive developments have affected the status of women worldwide and especially in my region, in Saudi Arabia.

These developments are bridging gender disparities and breaking new grounds in the educational, social, economic, and political fields.

And today, educated women are increasingly having an impact on society and are becoming the genuine decision-makers.

They are the driving force behind the future development of Saudi Arabia.

My speech brought a wide smile to Dr. Merkel’s face and she started to talk about her visit three years ago to Saudi Arabia (she visited King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Thuwal on the Red Sea) and how delighted she was to meet in Jeddah businesswomen from Jeddah Chamber of Commerce.

Then she added:  “We were all women and of course the men were outside waiting and they were eager to know what we were talking about.” She also asserted that more education and greater participation for women are still needed, as they still do not play as important a role in society as they should.

A photo was taken of everyone with Dr. Merkel at the Chancellery.

I made my way through the crowd and tried to squeeze behind her.

Suddenly she turned around and smiled, “Ah! Saudi Arabia, you are here?” Then she grabbed my hand and placed me next to her. It was a nice photo.

I was impressed by Dr. Merkel’s determination to seek better levels of comfort and happiness for her people even though Germany is already among the top countries in the world and savoring the ripe fruits of wellbeing.

High average wages, high-quality health insurance, and strong infrastructure have given Germany a great standard of living.

Recent data from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) Better Life Index 2013 indicate that in Germany the average net disposable income per person is US$28,799 a year, well above the OECD annual average of US$23,047.

Additionally, 73% of people aged 15-64 have a paid job compared to the OECD average of 66%, and 86% of adults aged 25-64 have the equivalent of a high school degree, considerably more than the OECD average of 74%.

Life expectancy at birth is almost 81 years, a year longer than the OECD average of 80 years; and 81% of people are satisfied with their lives, close to the OECD average of 80%.

Germany holds 5th place worldwide in the 2013 United Nations Human Development Index, preceded only by Norway, Australia, the USA, and the Netherlands.

Of the GCC countries, Qatar ranks 36th, the United Arab Emirates 41st, followed by Bahrain 48th, Kuwait 54th, Saudi Arabia 57th, and Oman 84th.

The 2013 Quality of Life Index ranked Germany second only to Switzerland, while the United Arab Emirates ranked 6th, Qatar 9th and Saudi Arabia 22nd. In addition, according to the Mercer 2012 Quality of Living Survey, five German cities are in the top 20 cities with the best quality of living, with Munich in 4th place, Dusseldorf 6th, Frankfurt 7th, Berlin 16th, and Hamburg 17th. In the GCC, Dubai ranked 73rd and Abu Dhabi 78th.

A 2013 BBC World Service Poll conducted in 25 countries around the world revealed that Germany was the most positively viewed nation out of a list of 22 with 59% positive ratings.

And according to The Travel & Tourism Competitiveness Report 2013 (World Economic Forum), which ranks 140 countries according to their attractiveness and ability to develop their travel and tourism industries, Germany ranks number one in the world for business travelers and infrastructure and holds 2nd place for cities and attractions for potential tourism.

So, what makes Germany so exceptional?

Obviously, it is the German economy, which has become one of the largest in Europe and has expanded faster than any country in the European Union (EU).

It even grew at its strongest rate by 0.7% in the second quarter of 2013, due to increased domestic consumption, and a boost in foreign trade.

It also witnessed a drop in unemployment and a budget deficit cut close to zero.

And what lies behind the strength of the German economy?

There are several factors: Not only has Germany benefited greatly from the euro, but it also has a stable and flexible labour market as result of new labor market reforms which introduced employment protection legislation and solid links between workers and employers.

Furthermore, the German education system provides a highly skilled labour force to meet the needs of the country's industrial base.

It focuses on technical and vocational training, as well as apprenticeships where 15 and 16 year-olds receive on-the-job training starting from upper secondary school. 

Add to that its important manufacturing expertise along with worldwide innovation and competence, making Germany the world’s third biggest exporter, after China and the United States.

Although the seeds of Germany’s economic success were sown in the 1990s, Dr. Merkel has been a steady pair of hands and a good steward of the economy.

Seen by many at home as someone who has protected Germans from the euro-crisis, she has held her nerve in the face of protests from some of the southern Euro-zone countries hit worst by economic stagnation, which have criticized her government for spending at home while advocating austerity and deep structural reforms for the rest of Europe.

According to Chancellor Merkel, cutting budget deficits, labour costs and welfare or, as she calls it, “balancing the budget” is essential to end the euro-crisis and lead to the consolidation of the European budget and the economic reconstruction of the European Union.

Some may think that what happens in the German elections is irrelevant at a time of crisis and hazard in my region but I think we can learn a few good lessons from the Chancellor Angela Merkel and Germany’s wellbeing.

We also need in our region to gain the ultimate wellbeing which Germany enjoys.

Peace, security and a permanent improvement in quality of life are important for further progress and stability.

And it is only through continuous and fruitful dialogue that we can achieve this.

Dr Mona AlMunajjed is a Sociologist, author and advisor on social and gender issues. Mail to: mona.almunajjed@gmail.com

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