Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Arab Human Development Report Takes an Honest Look at Region

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Arab Human Development Report Takes an Honest Look at Region

Article excerpt

AT THE BEGINNING of July, the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) issued the first Arab Human Development Report examining the social progress of the Arab world. Overall, it does not look good. Because this was a regional report, its authors were able to be much more candid than if dealing with individual countries with sensitive governments.

The independent experts who worked on the report for over a year have not pulled their punches in describing what is wrong with the region. They target in particular three deficits: exclusion of women from social, economic and political life; the exclusion of most citizens of whatever gender from politics and governance; and the exclusion of most of the region from the modern, knowledge-based economy.

Overall, the report emphasizes, the Arab states have lower freedom indexes and lower voice and accountability figures than sub-Saharan Africa. More than half of Arab women cannot read or write, and the maternal mortality rate is double that of Latin America and the Caribbean and four times that of East Asia. Compared with industrialized countries, Arab spending per person on education dropped from one-fifth of that in industrialized countries in 1980 to one-tenth in the mid-1990s. Arab spending on research and development represents less than 0.5 percent of GNP, compared to 1.26 percent for Cuba and 2.9 percent for Japan in 1995. Internet connectivity is worse than in sub-Saharan Africa.

The report points out that more than a million highly qualified Arabs already are working in and contributing to the prosperity of the industrialized countries. While exporting skills, however, the region is not importing sufficient knowledge from elsewhere. The entire Arab world translates only about 300 books a year, for example--one-fifth of the number that Greece translates, while Spain translates more books annually than the whole Arab world has done in over a thousand years!

The small size of the Arab states demands regional economic cooperation to survive, let alone thrive, the report concludes. While the Arab region has some of the world's oldest regional institutions and a host of treaties and committees on integration of defense, culture, economy, freedom of movement for capital goods and people, the report suggests that, all too often, these are rhetorical rather than real.

In fact, the Arab region has fewer excuses for its poor performance, since compared with others it is "richer than it is developed," the AHDR concludes. The report also takes pains, however, to correct the distorted global perception of untold Arab wealth. Despite the oil, the GDP of all Arab states combined is less than that of Spain alone. There are huge disparities among Arab countries. moreover, with Kuwait near the top of the Human Development Index and Djibouti near the bottom. Indeed the report shows that, over the past decade, the oil-based economies have grown more slowly than their more diversified counterparts.

Not Just GDP

There is a background to all this. In 1990, UNDP had its finest hour with the publication of the first Human Development Report, which has been published annually since. Throughout the Reagan years, the World Bank and the IMF, along with many Western governments, had tried to force a "Chile"-style economic model on the world: Low taxes, low tariffs, and low government spending, the argument went, would give economies a boom and everyone would benefit from the increase in wealth.

The IMF and World Bank introduced "Structural Adjustment Programs," which made loans--and hence countries' credit ratings--conditional on compliance with the Reaganstyle economics. …

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