Why the Arab Nations Are Lagging

U.N. Publishes a First-of-Its-Kind Report on Human Development

NEW YORK, JULY 20, 2002 (Zenit.org).- The U.N. Development Program recently published its first human-development report for the Arab states. The report criticized the countries for a path “marked by inertia … and by ineffective policies that have produced the substantial development challenges facing the region.”

The UNDP report covers the 22 member countries of the Arab League. They had a combined population of 280 million in 2000, 5% of the world total. By 2020 that is projected to reach between 410 million and 459 million Arabs, with a slightly older age structure than that of today.

Wide disparities mark the Arab countries. In the global Human Development Index prepared each year by the UNDP, Kuwait scores only slightly lower than Canada, the world leader, while Djibouti is close to Sierra Leone, the country with the lowest value.

The report does note some achievements made by Arab countries. Among these is the substantial increase in educational opportunities. Adult illiteracy dropped from 60% in 1980 to around 43% in the mid-1990s, and female literacy rates tripled since 1970. Yet 65 million adults are still illiterate, almost two-thirds of them women.

By 1995, over 90% of males and 75% of females were enrolled in primary schools, and nearly 60% of males and almost 50% of females were enrolled in secondary education. However, about 10 million children between 6 and 15 years of age are out of school. Enrollment rates in higher education reaches only 13%.

Another area marked by notable improvement is health. Life expectancy has increased by 15 years over the last three decades, for example, and infant mortality rates have dropped by two-thirds.

But, warns the United Nations, not all is rosy. The combined gross domestic product of the Arab countries stood at $531.2 billion in 1999 (less than Spain at $595.5 billion). By 1998, the real income of the Arab citizen adjusted for purchasing power parity had on average fallen to 13.9% of that of the citizen of a member country of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. One out of every five Arabs lives on less than $2 per day.

During the last two decades, growth in per capita income, at a 0.5% annual rate, was the lowest in the world except for sub-Saharan Africa. At that rate, it will take the average Arab citizen 140 years to double income, while other regions will achieve that in less than 10 years.

Contributing to this problem is a low level of labor productivity. In fact, it has declined at an annual average of 0.2% during 1960-1990, while it rapidly accelerated in other parts of the world. Whereas Arab countries in 1960 enjoyed higher per capita output than the “Asian tigers,” today their level is only half that of South Korea.

Three critical deficits

The U.N. report states that “three critical deficits face all Arab countries: freedom; women’s empowerment; human capabilities and knowledge relative to income.” On the subject of freedom the report diplomatically explains: “Civil society actors continue to encounter several external constraints in playing their role effectively.”

More concretely, the UNDP freedom index shows that out of the seven regions of the world, Arab countries had the lowest freedom score in the late 1990s. Arab states also ranked lowest on civil liberties, political rights and independence of the media.

When it comes to the role of women, the report observes that their political and economic participation remains the lowest in the world in quantitative terms. Women occupy only 3.5% of all seats in parliaments of Arab countries compared with 11% in sub-Saharan Africa and 12.9% in Latin America and Caribbean countries. In some countries with elected national assemblies, women are still denied the right to vote or hold office.

On the theme of capabilities and knowledge, there are serious deficits, including a serious lack of scientific research and development. Scientific expenditure in Arab countries was less than 0.5% of Arab GDP for 1996, compared with 1.26% for Cuba and 2.9% for Japan in 1995. Investment in research and development is less than one-seventh the world average. In the area of information technology, only 0.6% of the population uses the Internet, and 1.2% has a personal computer.

Priorities for the future

To overcome these problems, the report sets out three areas where improvements need to be made: building capabilities and knowledge; using human capabilities by stimulating growth and productivity; and promoting good governance.

On the first of these priorities the UNDP recommends that governments ensure 100% enrollment in basic education, an increase in mandatory schooling to 10 years, as well as support for self-learning and lifelong education. They also call for greater incentives for those prepared to risk by innovating, and quadrupling the share of GDP devoted to research and development, to 2%, by the end of the decade.

The second priority, increasing growth and productivity, can be stimulated by providing more space for the private sector. “Governments should disengage from productive activities while strengthening their regulatory role to ensure openness and competitiveness,” the report recommends.

The UNDP also calls for a greater degree of inter-Arab integration, including by means of the creation of a customs union or a common market.

On the goal of improving governance the report calls for “activating the voice of the people.” This means improving the functions of representation and legislation. The report urges “comprehensive political representation in effective legislatures based on free, honest, efficient and regular elections.”

The UNDP asks Arab countries to ensure that the law and administrative procedures guarantee citizen’s rights and are compatible with fundamental human rights, particularly the rights to freedom of expression and freedom of association for all, under a truly independent judiciary that impartially enforces the rule of law.

They also ask for a reform of public administration, particularly in the matter of awarding contracts, which should be done “in an effective, efficient and transparent manner,” putting an end to “graft and cronyism.”

The Economist in its July 6 issue observed that the report avoided the delicate issue of religion. The magazine opines that Islam has delayed development and “has played a significant part in stifling constructive Arab thought.”

The Wall Street Journal said another important factor left out by the report is the culture of victimization that blights Arab society. The Journal on July 9 quoted Bernard Lewis, a Princeton scholar who has dedicated his life to studying the Arabs.

In his recent book “What Went Wrong?” Lewis describes how an insular Arab world was blindsided by European progress from the 14th century onward. When the Arab countries later realized how they had been left behind, they “reacted badly, searching for scapegoats and excuses, rather than addressing their own inherent shortcomings.” After Sept. 11, many in the West would agree that the Arabs’ problems are everyone’s concern.

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