Al-Ahram Weekly Online   5 - 11 November 2009
Issue No. 971
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Arab human development crisis

While the information revolution is proceeding elsewhere apace, the Arab world is falling behind, held back by government failure, writes Ramzy Baroud*

When the first Arab Human Development Report (AHDR) was published in 2002, a star glistened in a vast, gloomy sky. The fact that a UN sponsored report, authored by independent Arab scholars, received so much attention in the Arab media was in itself a promising start. That such terminology as "human security", "personal security", "economic security", etc -- as highlighted in the report -- would compete with largely ceremonial news bulletin headlines in many Arab countries was an achievement. But then the star faded, the terms became clichés, and the report -- updated seven times since then -- became a haunting reminder of how bad things really are in the Arab world.

Those who wish to discredit Arab countries, individually or collectively, now find in these reports plenty of fuel for their constant diatribes. Those who genuinely care and wish for things to improve are either silent or muted.

The last report sponsored, like the rest, by the UN Development Programme (UNDP) was published in July 2009. It is the grimmest. Its statistics are intriguing, although depressing. Some 2.9 million square kilometres of land in the Arab world is threatened by desertification. Natural resources are depleting at an alarming level. Birth rates are the highest in the world. Unemployment is skyrocketing. Some 50 million new jobs must be created by 2020. Arab oil- based economies leave some Arab countries entirely vulnerable to market price fluctuations or the depletion of oil altogether. While many economies, especially in Asia are shifting or have already achieved great strides into becoming knowledge-based economies, Arab economies are still hostage to the same cycle of oil and cheap labour. In fact, 70 per cent of the Arab region's total exports -- according to the report -- is oil.

The problem is not just economic, or environmental, it's societal as well. Inequality is entrenched in many Arab societies. Women's rights are not the only individual rights violated. Men's rights are violated too, that is if they are not members of the dominant group, which is divided into blind political allegiance, tribal or sectarian membership, or economic leverage.

Admittedly, Arab societies are not the only societies that suffer from these ills, but sadly the problems of Arab countries are the most convoluted, accentuated by the fact that there is little action to rectify the problem -- neither at the individual country level nor using joint platforms like the Arab League. Why didn't the Arab League hold an emergency summit following the release of the first or even the last AHDR report? One would think that problems of such magnitude, ones that affect the lives of 330 million people, are pressing enough for such gatherings.

Arab media has been highlighting the issue and the shortcomings -- some media outlets more than others. But the discussion is largely political; at times a mere attempt at discrediting this government or that leader. The latest report, for example, was supplemented by opinion polls conducted in four Arab countries -- Kuwait, Lebanon, Morocco and occupied Palestine. One need not emphasise the different human development challenges in these countries, situated in diverse geopolitical settings. One cannot possibly advocate the same solution to a country occupied by a foreign army, to an independent country with untold oil wealth, to a third with immense human potential but dire poverty.

Generalised approaches to problems can only beget generalised -- thus superficial --solutions. Therefore, it has been summarily decided that the Arab problem lies in a lack of education, not inequitable and unrepresentative political systems. Education became the buzzword, as if education is a detached value; therefore, education cities are erected in Arab countries that can easily afford importing the best teachers and curricula money can buy. Moreover, research institutions are also making appearances in various Arab capitals. Those existing in rich Arab countries are operated largely by foreigners whose priorities lie, naturally, elsewhere.

But of course education is a mindset, a culture even. What is the point of pursuing a PhD in a society where nepotism determines who does what? It's more rational, from a self-seeker's point of view, to spend time knowing -- and passing one's business cards to -- the "right people" than spending years of one's life pursuing a university degree.

The UNDP recently launched "The Arab Knowledge Report 2009" jointly with the United Arab Emirates-based Mohamed bin Rashid Al-Maktoum Foundation. Another depressing read. Governments were criticised for paying lip service to reform yet "widening the gap between word and deed". It concluded that Arab countries are far from being knowledge-based societies. Numbers and more numbers told the story: Finland spends $1,000 per person on scientific research, while less than $10 is spent annually in the Arab world. The number of published books averages one for every 491 British citizens, while in the Arab world it's one for every 19,150. But that should not be much of a surprise considering that one-third of older Arab citizens is illiterate, two-thirds of which are women. Meanwhile, more than seven million children who should be in school are not. Illiteracy stands at 30 per cent in the Arab world.

Professor Ghassan Khateeb of Birzeit University in the occupied West Bank believes that there "is a direct relation between the lack of investment and the problematic situation in which we find ourselves in relation to knowledge". "This is all related to politics; the lack of democracy and the lack of knowledge enforce each other," he was quoted as saying.

Paul Salem, writing in the British Guardian, while recognising the failure of Arab governments found that others are also -- if not equally -- responsible. "The cost of a single month of Western military spending in Iraq or Afghanistan would be enough to triple total aid for education in the Middle East. The cost of two cruise missiles would build a school, the cost of a Eurofighter a small university."

Alas, some Arab governments spend twice, if not three times more on their military budget than invest in education. And keeping in mind that nearly one out of every five Arab citizens lives below the poverty threshold of $2 a day, the tragedy is suddenly augmented.

Arab governments must rethink and reconsider their current priorities and course of action. They must think and act individually, but collectively as well, before the crisis turns into a catastrophe, as will surely be the case if nothing is done.

* The writer is editor of

© Copyright Al-Ahram Weekly. All rights reserved

Issue 971 Front Page
Front Page | Egypt | Region | Focus | Economy | International | Opinion | Press review | Culture | Entertainment | Features | Living | Sports | Cartoons | People | Listings | BOOKS | TRAVEL
Current issue | Previous issue | Site map