Arab Human Development Reports: part of a bigger jigsaw

(Please note: for convenience, Arab Human Development Report is abbreviated to AHDR.)

A welcome innovation

The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) has published four annual Arab Human Development Reports (AHDRs) so far; the latest was published in late 2005. The reports are unique because they were researched and drafted by Arabs in the main. The scale of this innovation is difficult for non-Arabs to grasp. Through natural politeness, sycophancy, or fear, many Arab thinkers keep their thoughts to themselves. There are good reasons for being cautious. When Sayyid Qutb published the Arabic version of Milestones in Cairo in 1964, he was promptly arrested and then hanged in 1966 (Milestones, American Trust Publications).

The practice has not abated. Gamal Banna, an 84-year-old Egyptian author, found himself in hot water when he penned “The Responsibility for the Failure of the Islamic State”. The Islamic Research Council of Al-Azhar University, recommended a ban, and he became the target of more serious threats (Washington Post Foreign Service Monday, 7 March 2005). Dr Ahmad al-Baghdadi, a professor of political science at Kuwait University, was jailed for three months in 1999 for his liberal ideas. He was released from jail following national and international protests, but he was up in court again in 2005 on similar charges. He was fined, given one year suspended sentence, and the court ordered that his writings should be monitored for three months to make sure he behaved himself. He decided, like numerous Arab scholars before him, to move to the West.

All four Arab Human Development Reports explored the absence of basic freedoms at length. This is the second refreshing feature of the reports and the authors did not pull their punches.

The third aspect that was striking about the reports was the way they laid bare the state of abject poverty, backwardness, exclusion, and deprivation that afflicts Arab countries in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). Knowledge was already widespread about lack of liberties and human rights, rampant corruption, and weak and ineffectual governments that jumped to orders from abroad. However, the perilous social and economic life of the Arab countries was less obvious. This gap has now been filled clearly and painfully. No one is left in any doubt that the economy of this so-called ‘oil rich’ region is miniscule. More to the point, the economy is contracting and productivity is decreasing in some cases.

What little wealth is available is held by a minute group of privileged individuals who are, or are close to, the state. The bad news for the ruling elites is that skewed distribution of wealth on this scale is the most reliable indicator of violent political disturbances to come. Augusto Lopez-Claros and Danielle Pletka underlined this point in ‘Without reforms, the Mideast risks revolution’ (International Herald Tribune, 8/4/2005). Sadly, Arab leaders seem oblivious to the danger signs. Some delude themselves that reforms could be regulated. This is nonsense: once started the genii of reforms could not be put back in the bottle.

The key deficits

The reports define three fundamental deficits; freedom deficit, women’s empowerment deficit, and human capabilities/ knowledge deficit. This is only to be expected in human development reports, but the economy is not ignored.

Insignificant economy of the Arab World

“GDP in all the Arab countries stood at $531.2 billion in 1999- less than a single European country; Spain, ($595.5 billion).” (AHDR 2002: p 85)

Mohamed Heikal, in a 1992 book titled Illusions of Triumph, observed similarly that the combined income of all Arab countries by the end of the 1980s (i.e. after the so-called oil bonanza) was roughly the same as Spain’s and less than Italy’s. (See Progress-free Zone on this website)

This aspect should not be over exaggerated though. The CIA World Factbook 2005 gives the total 2004 GDP for Arab countries as $1515.5 billion; using purchasing power parity which is a better basis for comparison than national currencies. Spain’s GDP for the same year was $937.6 billion. However, it should be kept in mind that a region; an oil-rich region for that matter, is being compared to a single country. Sadly, once GDP is changed to GDP per head of population the picture changes completely and the poverty of the region is revealed beyond dispute. Apart from a few oil producing countries with low populations (such as Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates), GDP per head in the Arab world is generally in the range $4,000 to 5,000. Israel’s was $20,800 in 2004, and the economy of that country is supposed to be in real trouble!

The four AHDRs give a valuable insight into trends over time. Economic growth was good in the 1970s and particularly strong from 1975 to 1980. There followed a sharp drop between 1982 and 1990. I should point out that 1982 was the year when Mexico defaulted on its debts and signaled the start of a debt crisis that coincided with the introduction by the IMF and World Bank of their much criticised stabilisation and adjustment programmes. The period witnessed the birth of the neo-liberal economic model that the USA has been advocating for the rest of the world with some vigour.

Figure 6.1 of the 2002 report demonstrated that the general pattern of growth was downward from 1975 to 1998. This negative trend is noted in other economic indicators reported in the later reports. Figure 7.2 of AHDR 2003, for instance, highlights the relative absence of high-technology and manufactured exports from the Arab Middle East and North Africa region (MENA) when compared with sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, and other low-income countries. It is not unfair to state that the Arabs are not in the industrial age yet.

Productivity is possibly one of the most telling indicators of the economic health of a country. Figure 7.4 of AHDR 2003 leaves little to say on the subject when it comes to the Arab world. Productivity was actually on the increase from 1965 to 1980 (just over 3 percent annually). Since that time decline set in especially in the oil producing Arab countries (decline by over 5 percent annually in the period 1985 to 1993).

No less worrying is the low annual growth rate of GDP per head in the MENA region when compared to even low and middle income countries; as illustrated in figure 7.3 of AHDR 2003. Yet again, performance in recent years is most disappointing even when compared with the modest growth achieved in 1970 to 1980.

These alarming trends are exposed most tellingly in figure 7.7 of AHDR 2003. Workers’ share of GDP in Egypt showed a dramatic drop between 1974 and 1993 (from just under 40 percent to 25 percent). Social or political stability and harmony is virtually impossible under such circumstances. The increasingly acrimonious debate in Egypt between the government and opposition groups (led by the ‘Enough’ movement) is not unexpected.

The above sample of instances reveal a pattern of economic weakness that is quite shocking in a region that is reputedly ‘oil rich’. This is an unsustainable state of affairs. Under democratic conditions, few (if any) of the present Arab governments would remain in power beyond the next election. Under existing conditions of lack of accountability, governance, voice, and democracy, economic (let alone social and political) pressures suggest one possible outcome for the future: violent, and unpredictable, change. Iraq since its 1958 revolution gives a sad picture of what could happen.

Deprivation in the Arab world!

The casual visitor to most of the Arab countries; arriving at opulent airports and staying in luxurious hotels would be forgiven for thinking that the population are reasonably free from deprivation and hardship. Well, that illusion was shattered by AHDR 2004. Figure 3.2 focused on poverty, inadequate income, ignorance, disease, and hunger in Algeria, Morocco, Palestine, Lebanon, and Jordan. The percentages of the populations suffering from these deprivations of human capabilities (ranging from 5 to 25 percent of people) are striking. Poverty in the Lebanon at about 25 percent might be unremarkable, but hunger and disease both at some 18 percent? This is a loud wakeup call.

What about the status and role of women?

The four Arab Human Development Reports highlighted this topic as a key deficit in the Arab world. If human development, as I argue in my book on development, depends on local interactions by the whole community then the significance of women’s contribution does not require elaboration. This, however, seems beyond the comprehension of some of the Arab states. Interestingly, the UNDP reports demonstrate that ordinary citizens in these countries are more enlightened than their political and religious leaders. Figure 3.1 in AHDR 2004 shows remarkably high percentages of survey respondents who supported political and employment rights for women. Education is seen by respondents, as AHDR 2004 argues throughout, as the key to progress here as in most other issue areas.

What does all the above lead to?

This is not rocket science, anyone could predict the outcome of economic stagnation, disparity in the sharing of what little wealth is available, state oppression, ethnic and religious factionalism, and foreign overbearing presence. The last point is highly important as revealed in responses to surveys carried out as background for the UNDP reports.

It is difficult to envisage how the Arabs could make any headway in the absence of political stability. Equally, it is difficult to see how stability could be achieved in the absence of voice and accountability. Figures 5.10 and 6 (dealing with instability and lack of voice and accountability) sum up the verdict. Little can be achieved under existing conditions. On the other hand, as demonstrated in the tragic events in Iraq, reforms and democracy cannot be imported from abroad or imposed by outside forces no matter how powerful they happen to be. Change must come from within and that takes time, effort, and many reverses and sacrifices. There are no guarantees or signposts on the way.

Stronger Arab cooperation: the people again are ahead of their leaders.

One aspect, however, gives an indication of the desirable direction of travel: greater cooperation between the Arab countries. Despite the evidence of successful ventures, such as the UAE and the Gulf Cooperation Council, the Arab world remains just as divided as it was after the Sykes-Picot agreement of 1917. Fourteen centuries of large-scale regional government and cooperation were put aside in favour of the wishes of the European powers. The US government has continued this tried and tested strategy, as shown in the increase in religious and ethnic factionalism in Iraq since 2003. Arab leaders habitually fall in line with these wishes, but the man and woman in the Arab street is in no doubt as revealed by surveys reported in figures 7.2 and 6.3 in AHDR 2004. Most respondents are dissatisfied with existing levels of cooperation. Stronger cooperation is clearly preferred and demanded by the public.

Complete political unity is not necessarily seen as an immediate need, but Arab free citizenship zone, free trade zone, and unified Arab currency are considered sensible steps forward. This realism is encouraging: ‘functionalism’ (bilateral and multilateral agreements on coal, steel, etc.) was adopted in the early years as the most efficient way to promote the European Union concept.

What is to be done?

The AHDRs are firmly focused on ‘human development’. Coming from UNDP this refreshing perspective is not surprising. I have always believed that there could be no economic development without human development (see book), but this is by no means a universal viewpoint. Whilst the World Bank’s research and publications often take that sensible approach, in practice the Bank and the IMF seem wedded to the idea that human development follows economic development. Thoughts of putting the carriage before the horses spring to mind here! Plentiful supply of money is not necessarily the only way to make progress (see Cost versus Value on this website).

The four reports are also focused on the need to address the wider political/ social agenda. In addition to the more obvious impediments, widespread corruption and favouritism (wasta) are discussed in AHDR 2004. It is tragic to read (page 136) that in some Arab countries the land and all its resources belong to the ruler. In this respect, the report points out, “it is difficult to talk of corruption in governance, for whatever the ruler does, he is disposing of his own property.”

Couple this sort of ancient feudal thinking with persistent foreign support for these rulers and the plight of the Arab world, and what could possibly be done about it, becomes all too obvious. Citizens are not unaware of the evils that come with foreign occupation, sanctions, and more subtle forms of control, as exemplified in figure 7.1 of AHDR 2004. Surveys show that between 80 and 95 percent of people interviewed were dissatisfied over the presence of foreign military bases in Arab countries. Such bases serve the geopolitical interests of the foreign powers and help protect and keep the rulers in power. Combination of these two imperatives ensures that military bases will be difficult to eradicate despite the obvious wish of the vast majority of people.
Knowledge: the final frontier for Arabs

The reports are right in stressing the importance of knowledge (including formal and informal education as well as free media and knowledge based industries) as a key factor in initiating change, and hopefully progress. However, this will take time. But then in all complex situations passage of time is a necessary component of evolutionary transformations. The fundamental question is whether the populations are prepared to wait that long or whether they would opt for revolutionary changes. This is perhaps pessimistic, but in the current absence of international and domestic wisdom it would seem the latter course might prevail.

Equally, spread of reliable information and knowledge and the presence of independent sources for this essential commodity is anathema to entrenched elites and the regimes they impose. History suggests that once people are literate and informed they become virtually impossible to oppress and control. The Enlightenment changed European life beyond recognition. Arab countries have not yet had their Enlightenment. At the moment religion is being used as a means to keep populations quiet: mirroring the situation in Europe before the Enlightenment. But this is not a sustainable stance; sooner or later people find a way out of their mental shackles.

The Internet is seen as one source of information, sometimes unreliable but at least unregulated. This would explain the preoccupation in some Arab states with the ‘bad influence of the Internet’ and how the flow of information could be purified before it is offered to the public. Judging by the childish and inane level of propaganda broadcast by state controlled radio and television stations in the Arab world this would be a travesty, but then that is precisely the purpose.

No need for despair

At the present there is a palpable feeling of despair in the Arab world. Those able to leave; sorely needed highly qualified, young, and talented people, are doing so in droves. The disastrous situation in Iraq; a country that has regressed in five decades to the lowest levels of human and economic development, has focused minds immeasurably. The ‘gift of American freedom and democracy’ has succeeded in turning these concepts into repellent ideas that should be avoided at all costs. Arabs have good reasons for losing hope and seeking solace in other countries, in religion, and in the final analysis in acts of wanton terror.

However, the experience of other nations are not dissimilar. There is nothing special about the Arabs and about what they are going through now. Massive shifts in long-held beliefs and understandings (paradigms) are uncomfortable. Life goes on in deceptive stability for long periods, but these periods are punctuated by sudden shifts that look much like chaos. These shifts typically take several decades to unfold. Arab nations are in the midst of such a transformation. This is unavoidable, but it is also unstoppable. Present ruling elites and regimes are powerless to prevent the change but they could impede its speed. This is a ticklish operation: too much and they would be toppled violently and too little and they would be toppled peacefully. What is the difference? Peaceful transformation would allow members of the elites to survive and to seek a place in the new power structure. Are they wise enough to make the right choice.

Only history will tell.