Reclaiming the initiative
What do we know about ourselves and the world? Fatemah Farag considers the answers offered in the second Arab Human Development Report released this week
"We become accustomed to regarding abject submission as polite deference; obsequiousness as courtesy; sycophancy as oratory; bombast as substance; the surrender of basic rights as nobility; the acceptance of humiliation as modesty; the acceptance of injustice as obedience; and the pursuit of human entitlements as arrogance. Our inverted system portrayed the pursuits of simple knowledge as presumption; aspirations for the future as impossible dreams; courage as overreaching audacity; inspiration as folly; chivalry as aggression; free expression as impertinence; free thinking as heresy; and patriotism as madness."
"In your helplessness you accept a miserable life, and you call it contentment; you abdicate responsibility for your daily existence saying 'God will provide' and you believe yours is not to reason why because what befalls you is God's will. But in God's name, this passivity is not the proper status of human kind."
These paragraphs, perhaps as relevant today as when they were written over a century ago by Islamic thinker Abdel- Rahman Al-Kawakibi (1854-1902) in The Character of Despotism, strike a raw nerve in today's Arab world. Israel continues its savagery against the Palestinian people and the United States occupies a sanction-ravaged Iraq, while poverty, ignorance, intolerance, humiliation and frustrated anger mar the lives of Arabs every day. Meanwhile, thousands of miles away, the current US administration and their neo-con pundits arrogantly talk of liberating and reforming the region and its peoples.
In the context of this privotal transitional period, the second Arab Human Development Report (AHDR) was released this week in Amman, Jordan. "In contrast to efforts to restructure the region from outside, the AHDR series aims to crystallise a strategic vision by Arab elites through a societal innovation process that envisages the restructuring of the region from within, and in service to Arab human development. Such reform from within, based on rigorous self-criticism, is a far more proper and sustainable alternative," says the Executive Summary of the AHDR 2003.
AHDR 2003, written by a team of specialists from across the Arab region headed by Nader Fergany, director of the Cairo- based Almishkat Centre for Research and Training, and published by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the Arab Fund for Economic and Social Development (AFESD), is the second in a four-part series covering issues of freedoms, political institutions, gender imbalance and the empowerment of women in 22 Arab states. The reports are divided into two sections -- the first takes stock of human development indicators, while the second focusses on a particular theme.
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Early century lithograph of a kuttab (source: University of Colorado); Nader Fergany, director of the Cairo-based Almishkat Centre for Research and Training; pages from the Qur'an
The release of the first AHDR last year drew mixed reactions. Arab critics argued that the report failed to give sufficient weight to the Arab-Israeli conflict as a major obstacle to human development in the region, while internationally the report was used by many, including US President George W Bush, to support aggressive anti-Arab policies. Commenting on the report's relevance, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman wrote at the time, "Getting rid of the Bin Ladens, Saddams and Arafats is necessary, but is hardly sufficient. Americans also need to roll up their sleeves and help the Arabs address all the problems out back." Fergany took issue with this misuse of the report. In a column published by Al-Ahram Weekly he countered: "Thanks, but no thanks. We have our own analysis of our predicament and you would be wiser for listening to it. ... In our analysis, the West, especially the US, has some serious answering to do with respect to the gravity of the human development crises in the region. ... An American invasion of Iraq, for example, will not further the human development in the Arab region, in exactly the same way that the death of nearly half-a-million Iraqi children as a result of the sanctions regime imposed on Iraq did not further human development in the Arab region."
With all of this in mind, and perhaps in spite of it, the second AHDR went ahead. In the report's forward, Rima Khalaf Hunaidi, assistant secretary-general and regional director of the Regional Bureau for Arab States (RBAS) at UNDP, wrote, "At this precarious juncture, some observers questioned the wisdom of issuing further reports, while others worried that special interest groups might exploit their outspoken approach, to the detriment of Arabs. Indeed, the authors are well aware that their work might be misused or misinterpreted to serve the purposes of parties -- outside as well as inside the Arab world -- whose interests run counter to an Arab awakening.
"The majority, however, argued forcefully that to leave the initiative to others would be the more ominous choice. Self- reform stemming from open, scrupulous and balanced self- criticism is the right, if not the only, alternative to plans that are apparently being drawn up outside the Arab world for restructuring the area and for reshaping the Arab identity. Turning a blind eye to the weaknesses and shortfalls of the region, instead of decisively identifying and overcoming them, can only increase its vulnerability and leave it more exposed."
The first report was unique in that it attempted to provide a comprehensive understanding of the Arab situation as seen by Arabs. The report argued that human development involves expanding people's options for achieving goals that support a dignified life, both in the material and moral sense, and highlighted the importance of freedom -- political, economic, and social.
This year, the AHDR has chosen to focus on the developmental challenges of building a knowledge-based society in Arab countries. The report indicates that despite the quantitative expansion of education in the Arab world in the last half of the 20th century, it is still modest in comparison to the expansion in developed countries or the requirements of human development in the Arab world. "High rates of illiteracy among women persist, particularly in some of the less developed Arab countries. Many children still do not have access to basic education. Higher education is characterised by decreasing enrollment, and public spending on education has actually declined since 1985," the report explained. Furthermore, while mass media is defined as the most important agent of the public diffusion of knowledge, it is noted that Arab countries have a lower information media to population ratio than the world average. "There are less than 53 newspapers per 1,000 Arab citizens, compared to 285 papers per 1,000 people in developed countries," the report said. The Arab world's access to digital media continues to be one of the lowest in the world -- 18 computers per 1,000 people -- and the number of telephone lines in the region is one-fifth of that in developed countries. Translation of books remains rare -- 4.4 translated books per million people as compared to, for example, 519 translated books per million people in Hungary and 920 books per million people in Spain.
Furthermore, data supplied in the report indicates stagnation in certain areas of knowledge production -- scientific research in particular. For example, the number of scientists and engineers working in research and development in Arab countries is no more that 371 per million citizens, significantly lower than the global rate of 979 per million.
But perhaps more important than the report's wealth of quantitative information on the various aspects of knowledge production is its regional specific political, economic and social context. For example, in the section discussing mass media, the report points out that "In most Arab countries, the media operate in an environment that sharply restricts freedom of the press and freedom of expression and opinion." The report looks squarely at the relationship between poverty and class structure, as well as the polarisation of wealth in the region and knowledge acquisition. The report even goes as far as to link the crises of knowledge in the Arab region with the curbing of freedom in the US: "One of the worst consequences of freedom- constraining measures in developed countries is that they gave authorities in some Arab countries another excuse to enact new laws limiting civil and political freedoms."
The point, stresses AHDR 2003, is not just to catch up to other countries, but to create and develop institutional structures and the political will necessary to achieve similar knowledge outcomes within the Arab region.