Reform: from rhetoric to reality
Ismail Serageldin* outlines the Bibliotheca Alexandrina's plans to host a conference promoting reforms across the Arab world, and in a second article Al-Ahram Weekly looks back at a stormy experience which underlined the historic library's role as a beacon of rationality and enlightenment
The world is in the throes of profound transformation. Driven by a true revolution in science and technology, the inexorable march towards globalisation promises increased competition, a knowledge-based economy and a society and world in which human rights, democracy and citizenship become as central to well-being as equity and fairness in human and economic development. Within this changing world, the Arab world must also change, and change profoundly. Past policies, whatever their merits at certain points in time, must be revised. Broad-based, comprehensive reform is an absolute necessity in the Arab world. We were, once, promoters of science and learning throughout the world, practitioners of tolerance and pluralism at a time when the West was in the grip of intolerance and bigotry. It is time for the Arab world to reaffirm these traditions of excellence and to reinterpret them in contemporary terms. We must become active participants in the creation of a better world and capitalise on the distinct contribution we have to make to this momentous international enterprise.
The issue of reform in the Arab world is being tackled by many groups in response to the very real need felt by Arab citizens everywhere. Yet some are concerned that the issue of reform is being imposed by external forces to serve their own purposes. Yet others are concerned that some of these efforts could be all talk and no substance. Members of Arab civil society -- broadly defined -- believe that reform is imperative, that it must be home-grown, and driven by forces internal to the society the problems of which are to be addressed.
At the behest of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina a group of civil society leaders and prominent intellectuals, businessmen and academics will be gathering, from 12 to 14 March 2004, to work out an agenda for reform and to develop follow-up mechanisms to ensure that it is not a one-off event.
The Bibliotheca Alexandrina is the organiser of this event, alongside several co- sponsoring institutions including the Arab Business Council, the Council for Arab Women, the Economic Research Forum and the Arab Academy for Science and Technology. The organisers have decided to exclude non-Arabs from the initial meetings to ensure that the formulation of the agenda and priorities are truly home-grown -- owned, as it were, by the Arabs themselves -- and to exclude any formal representation by Arab governments, so that the discussion may proceed unencumbered by formalities. Arab countries will be represented by prominent intellectuals, civil society activists and opinion-makers, though delegates will be invited as individuals and not as delegations representing particular states. President Mubarak has graciously agreed to place the conference under his patronage and has underlined his willingness to listen to any views, and allow the expression of any opinions, that might lead to constructive proposals to promote reform in Egypt and the Arab world.
In calling for this gathering we are fully aware of the important initiatives others have launched, including meetings in Doha, Jeddah and Sana'a (January 2004), as well as the series of Arab Business Council (ABC) sponsored meetings in Cairo (September 2003), Dubai (October 2003), Aqaba (December 2003) and Riyadh (January 2004). It is our intention to build on the foundations already laid by these events, avoiding duplication and strengthening the momentum of reform.
It is our firm belief that reform must be comprehensive, far reaching and tailored towards the dual task of allowing Arab societies to accelerate the speed with which reform is enacted while laying the foundations for a stronger regional cooperative framework capable of making the Arab world internationally more than the sum of its constituent states. We are thus organising the conference along four main themes: political and institutional reform (with a particular focus on democracy and the civil society); economic reform; social reform and cultural reform. In addition it is our intention to design a mechanism capable of launching an ongoing effort by Arab civil society and of ensuring that there will be a significant follow-up to this first conference, leading to action on the ground in many countries as we engage with decision-makers and collectively rise to the challenges of the new century.
REFORM AND CIVIL SOCIETY: Democracy -- i.e. government by the people for the people -- is the stated goal of all citizens. It is absolutely necessary for the development of any nation. Even if economic growth can be accelerated by autocratic regimes, real development requires participation and engagement on a broad front that only the consent of the governed can bring about. The practice of democracy is all about learning to live together, to respect diversity and to arbitrate differences in a civilised fashion. It is about decisions by majorities that respect the rights of minorities, all equal under the rule of law. It is about equality and due process. It is a state of being, reflecting a state of mind.
Today the Arab world is trying to define means to both improve levels of participation and enhance the performance of democratic institutions. The control by particular elites of the political processes has, in many Arab countries, fostered a feeling of alienation among young people and generated a widespread call for the reform of political institutions to ensure greater participation, transparency and accountability. Political reform tends to focus on elections, representation, the functioning of political parties, the role of the media and relations between different branches of government. Controversial questions such as term limits, the appropriate role of religion in political life and special outreach to women and minorities in political representation are all questions that must be addressed. But as can be seen from current debates in the Western democracies with such issues there are no easy answers, and certainly not one answer that will meet all eventualities.
Each country must develop its own agenda, with an important voice given to civil society within that country. Special attention must, therefore, be given to the kinds of institutional reform that will promote good governance and empower civil society.
INSTITUTIONAL REFORM: Good governance is about transparency, accountability, institutional pluralism, participation, the rule of law and the free flow of information. Institutional pluralism requires rather more than just government and a for- profit private sector. It requires a third sector -- foundations, institutional donors -- and an active civil society in addition to trade unions, professional associations, academic groups and the research community.
The regulatory framework that makes all of this possible is inevitably underestimated in discussions of reform. Financial and capital markets require regulation and oversight that is at once flexible and rigorous. Privatisation requires transparency. Recognising the difference between policies that exist only on paper and the harsh reality in which economic transactions are made, and in which social tensions thrive, is an enormous task. For that task to be undertaken successfully we must not be restricted by ideological fervour or simplistic dogmas.
To make the new economic system work, and the new social contract a reality, requires that the political transformation of institutions be fashioned with every bit as much imagination and expertise as the economic and social dimensions of this reform agenda.
AN ENABLING ENVIRONMENT: The role that civil society is expected to play in a reformed Arab world is significant by any standard. Institutional pluralism, encouraged in the enabling environment of the reformed order, will undoubtedly bring many benefits. The mechanisms by which civil society might flourish are complex and interdependent. Overall, civil society requires an enabling environment, a phrase that subsumes legal, financial, administrative and political decisions and regulations. This will require a new relationship between the state and its citizens. The latter must have voice, choice and participation in decision-making.
The legal standing of institutions of civil society constitutes the backbone of that society. If community-based organisations, or advocacy organisations, feel they will be subject to harassment as they undertake their activities they will not only be inhibited, they will also engage in self- censorship that could defeat the very role they have to play.
Within this context it is important to distinguish between civil society efforts that deal with development, advocacy and public awareness, have watchdog functions or that are community- based.
An environment that enables requires fast-track registration and streamlined procedures. The flip- side of simplified procedures, though, is the need for strategic scrutiny, for well-designed regulatory procedures that take account of national security concerns.
Organising such scrutiny is the most important challenge facing any reformed political order in the Arab world: it will determine whether the environment is one that enables, or one that restricts. The US is itself facing many questions over privacy and due process in its fight against terrorism. How European states have dealt with separatist movements of their own is also worth examining.
Financial regulations also present a host of issues that must be resolved. The receipt of foreign funding, of Arab funding, collaboration with foreign NGOs: all are issues the conference must address face on. It must emerge with clear and unambiguous recommendations.
An overall climate of political transparency and accountability will determine whether there is a real civil society movement or merely the proliferation of paper organisations. The reform of government agencies, and of political parties, is essential to the emergence of a truly dynamic civil society. Once political reforms and an empowered civil society are underway they will be mutually reinforcing. The credibility of the government is central to any reform effort.
Protection of free speech is essential, particularly so during periods of rising intolerance, which is what is happening in many parts of the Middle East today. Participation and decentralisation are central to building civil society. Participation is the glue that holds societies together; it is the key to creating an enabling environment and empowering civil society to participate in debate and decision-making. Room must, therefore, be made for the direct involvement in key decisions of those the decisions will affect. Decentralisation brings government closer to the grass roots and allows for greater community involvement in key decision-making. Both are very positive in terms of overall political reform.
ECONOMIC REFORM: The Washington Consensus policies of the IMF-World Bank-US Treasury, with their emphasis on macro-stability and fighting inflation, have not paid enough attention to issues like employment and the provision of social services. Indeed, the triad of stabilisation, pivatisation, and liberalisation are too often taken as the measure of progress on economic reform in the Arab world.
Many countries in the Arab world have rightly tried to articulate a more nuanced approach to economic reform. In a young and growing Arab world that is entering the knowledge-based economy of the 21st century youth employment and the quality of education and other social services remain central to any notion of reform. Within the realm of strictly economic policies any more nuanced approach must start by establishing priorities and sequencing, and then link these with the non-economic aspects of social policy.
The conference must, then, move beyond generalities and ensure that serious attention is given to the whole array of issues that will promote private investment, generate growth, create employment and social well-being in a gender-sensitive, sustainable development framework.
The economic part of the conference should, therefore, focus on three aspects of economic reform:
Individual reform packages should be subjected to case studies, each subjected to a rigorous review within a common analytical framework, paying special attention to youth employment and educational reforms. Thus might we define the appropriate sets of policies -- including timetabling -- that different countries should adopt. What is suitable for Egypt is not necessarily what Yemen or Saudi Arabia need.
Collective actions within that package of reforms must be carefully coordinated to avoid regional problems. For example, are there particular financial sector reforms that need to be enacted to avoid the kind of contagion problems witnessed during the East- Asia crisis in 1997? What regional moves are needed to turn the much discussed Arab Common Market into a reality?
Attention must also be paid to effectively integrating the Arab World with the global economy, which will require the examination of inter-Arab and Arab-international trade relations, the possibility of establishing an Arab free trade area and/or integrating Arab economies into the WTO framework and possibly other free trade zones.
SOCIAL POLICIES: The examination of social policy, as distinct from the social impact of economic policies, could include issues such as maintaining social cohesion, fostering equity and upholding a cultural identity based on shared universal values and not divisive micro-identities. This would be in addition to dealing with social services -- education, health, housing, etc. It is particularly important to address the following issues: youth employment; gender consciousness; research and development; health and human services and social safety nets.
A rapidly growing population means the Arab world must create millions of new jobs each year. The spectre of tens of millions of the half-educated, unemployed young roaming the cities of the Arab world is disturbing. The waste of talent, the frustration of ambitions, would be tragic, and the social and political implications frightening.
Nor can any society advance if it ignores the talents and contributions of half its population. Ample evidence exists that educating girls and empowering women is central to real socio-economic development. The Arab world has its own specificities, and Arab women are playing an increasingly important role in public life. Much more needs to be done, and claims to cultural specificity cannot be given credence if they lead to the oppression of women or the mutilation of girls.
Research and development in science and technology is central to successfully addressing the challenges we will face as we move towards the knowledge-based society. This, in turn, requires a massive overhaul of our education systems, and the restructuring of research establishments.
The relative merits and benefits of preventative versus curative medicine must be examined. Alongside careful epidemiological studies, such an examination will play an important role in defining health priorities for a rapidly growing population. Within this context outreach and public awareness, even in sensitive areas such as HIV/AIDS and reproductive health must be addressed forcefully, but with tact.
It is impossible to talk of market reform without taking into account the costs incurred by displacing workers, and potential impacts on the business cycle, on employment and on the proper management of social security and retirement benefits. Likewise, efforts to facilitate broad-based participation in market reform must be undertaken with imagination.
CULTURAL REFORM: Cultural reform is a prerequisite for all other reforms. Attitudes towards progress, the meaning of modernity and the nature of our common identity in a rapidly globalising world all demand a careful and critical evaluation of past and future orientations.
Without a profound transformation in our cultural outlook other reforms will be impossible to either formulate or implement.
Science and the scientific outlook must be considered basic components of culture. Cultural institutions must be modernised, new bases for cultural activity developed, new mechanisms and techniques of cultural production and exchange explored. And all of this must be accompanied by a new cultural dialogue, based on mutual respect and tolerance.
Different facets of the cultural discourse must be addressed -- including the creative, educational, scientific, religious, media and public (nationalistic) -- alongside many other aspects that will doubtless emerge in the course of the conference.
A FOLLOW-UP MECHANISM: Conference participants will not only review the themes set out above and produce a concluding document, they will also propose a specific follow-up mechanism for the further interaction of civil society with the processes of reform throughout the Arab world. Several ideas are being developed which should lead to making it a credible instrument.
Many groups are meeting to elaborate on these ideas before the meeting in March. In Egypt we are organising a brainstorming event to prepare for the conference. Scores of Egyptian intellectuals and civil society activists are meeting in Alexandria on 19 and 20 February for that purpose. All views will be welcomed, and a bottom-up approach will be pursued.
* The writer is the director of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina and former vice-president of the World Bank for Special Programmes.