Heeding the Times from Harry Antonides' Desk

Arab Human Development Report 2002

 What happened? Why do we find ourselves losing our way along the developmental path so many years after our region has achieved independence in all but one case: Palestine?

 ( Leila Sharaf, p. 115) 

The news from the Middle East is overshadowed by the spectacular, such as military actions, bombings, terrorist attacks on civilians, and a threat of more to come. The pro and con arguments about the war on terrorism, led by the United States are heatedly debated on the airwaves and in print all over the world. There is no shortage of doomsayers and fear mongers. How to sort it all out? Who is speaking the truth? Not easy questions.

This report, complied by a team of Arab scholars, at one level at least, is an attempt to take the discussion away for the ideological battlefield – with one major exception - where there are only winners and losers. Instead of joining in the turmoil of battle, this report takes a hard look at the every day existence of the people in 22 member states of the Arab League.  

First of all, some statistics:

The total population of the Arab League states discussed in this report was about  280 million in 2000, about 5 per cent of the world population Only  six countries  have  more than 20 million population,  accounting  for 200 million of the total. The largest country is Egypt (68 million), then Sudan(31 million) and Algeria (30 million). The smallest is Quatar (565,000), with Bahrain, Comoros and Djibouti have fewer than one million each. (Iran and Pakistan do not belong to this League.) 

The combined GDP of all Arab countries was $531.2 billion in 1999 – less than that of Spain (595.5 billion). In 1998, the purchasing power parity income of the average Arab citizen had dropped to 13.9 per cent of that of the average OECD citizen.  

Although the number of illiterate adults in the Arab countries in 1980 was over 60 million, of whom most were women and poor people, the rate of illiteracy has improved, since then. 

The Arab world translates about 330 books annually. The total of translated books in the Arab countries since the ninth century is about 100,000, the same average that Spain translates annually. 

This report proceeds from the assumption that an “accurate diagnosis of the problem is an important part of the solution… The wealth of unbiased objective analysis it contains is part of our contribution to the Arab peoples and policy-makers in the search for a brighter future.” Despite considerable progress in the last three decades, the authors find that “the predominant characteristic of the current Arab reality seems to be the existence of deeply rooted shortcomings in the Arab institutional structure – freedom, empowerment of women, and knowledge.” 

 The main focus of Arab Human Development Report is on what needs to be done to ensure the well being of future generations by means of a comprehensive approach to public and private policies and initiatives. The authors want to broaden the concept of human development and therefore go beyond purely economic measurements, to what it calls a more holistic approach to development. They analyze, backed by a wide array of statistical information, the state of health, habitat, education, training, reducing poverty, promoting industry, the role of the private sector, the nature of governance, and cooperation in and among Arab countries. 

While this report seeks to be objective and to shy away from partisan conflicts, there is one exception that it is anything but open to dialogue, self criticism and the give and take of debate. You guessed it. That is not surprisingly the issue of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. 

This report blames the “continued occupation of Arab territories” for the political instability and poor governance that are obstacles to human development in the Arab world. Millions have lost lives and livelihood according this report, which has given rise to the vicious circle of wasted resources devoted to acquire weapons and armies. (p. 31) 

Hanan Ashrawi writes from the Palestinian perspective in terms that leave no room for disagreement. “Imprisoned in our own lands by a multiple, and suffocating, state of siege, our homes and institutions are being shelled and bombed on a daily basis, our activists and leaders assassinated, while innocent children and adults are murdered in cold blood. Prevented from laying claim to our resources and rights, we witness our lands being confiscated and our crops and trees destroyed Israeli military checkpoints fragment our human and territorial continuity and have become the most brutal expression of a discriminatory and pervasive system of willful humiliation and subjugation.” (sidebar, p. 32.)   

Freedom, democracy

Again and again, comparison with other countries indicates that the Arab countries are lagging. Most notably, there is a substantial lag between Arab countries and other regions in terms of participatory governance. The wave of democracy that has transformed other countries in Latin America and east Asia in the 1080s and 1990s we are told, has barely reached the Arab states. (p.2) 

The authors devote a chapter to liberating the human capabilities through good governance. It defines this governance as that which enhances human wellbeing by expanding human capabilities, choices and freedoms. They recognize that such requires strong societal institutions, a solid network of regulations that are transparent, enhance accountability and serve the public good. One of the goals must be to “empower the poor to lift themselves out of poverty. 

There are plenty of prescriptions of what constitutes good government that also leaves room for freedom of action for the private sector (civil society). The report notes that in recent years political systems have begun to open up in ways that have seemed to herald a significant revival or introduction of democratic practices. But then it acknowledges that on closer observation the picture is more complex. The process of opening up has not reached all citizens. Persistent inequities in the region – reflecting poverty, illiteracy, the urban/rural divide and gender inequality- continue to exclude many from public discourse. As a result, the process of political liberalization has by-passed too many people.  

The report complains that what it calls “mass mobilization-type regimes’ still exist in a number of Arab countries, freedom of association is restricted in other cases [including freedom of the press], levels of political participation are uneven, and the transfer of power through the ballot box is not a common phenomenon in the Arab world.” The Arab countries had the lowest freedom score in the late 1990s out of seven world regions  

Despite these negatives, this report mentions improvements in governance, e.g., in Morocco and in Bahrain where a national Action Charter provides for freedom and equality for all, freedom of religion, freedom  of expression and publication, and protection for various civil associations. “No individual is to be coerced to join a society or a labor union or forced to maintain membership thereof.”  

Liberation through Education. 

The authors of this report stress that education as away to develop the kb “knowledge society.” Is the means to escape from poverty and backwardness... On that score, too, as the illiteracy rate, indicates, there is a long way to go. One serious problem is what this report describes as  signs of decreasing internal deficiency, marked by a low quality of education, the “Achilles heel” of education in the Arab world. What worries the authors is that this not only stands in the way lifting the poor out of their poverty but also that “Arab countries become isolated from global knowledge, information and technology. To counteract that outcome, the authors set out a concept of education aimed at a program of educational reforms at the pan-Arab level. Areas of improvements touch on adult, pre-school, special education, technical and vocational, and higher education. Much attention is paid to the need for expanding the availability of the internet and foreign scientific and professional papers through translation. 

While advocating the pursuit of knowledge as a means to empower people to cope with a fast-changing world, this report emphasizes that that the concept of knowledge should go beyond scientific knowledge and “embrace the full triad of knowledge about science, humanities and art.”  

One recurring topic and hopeful sign is that there is much attention paid to the need for empowering women and granting them equal rights. This means especially that in the general culture but particularly with respect to the rules for governance and educational opportunities women must be grantedm This is how  Nader Fergany, in an accompanying sidebar, place the challenge in the Arab league countries: 

 “Freedom of all does not admit the disempowerment of any group, be it women, the poor or a religious or ethnic minority. In other words, freedom for all incorporates women’s empowerment, indeed empowerment for all. 

Nevertheless, disempowerment of women remains a major impediment to human development in many parts of the world, especial in the Arab region as noted in chapter 2”.

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