Self-assessment, warts and all

Observations on Arabs

The Arabs have been given a serious mauling by the UN Development Programme (UNDP). The latest in its highly acclaimed series of reports focuses on the 22 countries of the Arab League. If the Arab Human Development Report 2002 is to be believed, the region is firmly stuck in the Dark Ages.

On every measurable human index, the Arabs fail to get a pass grade. They are among the most illiterate and least-free people in the world. Arab states are incapable of managing their development, and their economies are nearing the brink of collapse. Political freedom is conspicuous by its total absence. Thanks to censorship and political suppression, the Arabs are the least connected to information technology - few own computers and fewer still use the internet. Arab women are the most oppressed and their participation in politics and economics remains the lowest on the planet.

So, what else is new? Something quite profound and important, as it turns out. This scathing study is a work of self-assessment by a distinguished panel of Arab intellectuals and experts. Appropriately chaired by a woman, the formidable Rima Khalaf Hunaidi, former deputy prime minister of Jordan, the panel included people such as Antoine Zahlan, the well-known expert on science and technology in the Middle East, Mervat Badawi of the Arab Fund and Nader Fergany, a leading development expert.

Even more important, they place the blame for these problems squarely on Arab states themselves. They make short shrift of the scapegoat theories so common in Arab self-justification.

The authors acknowledge that Israeli occupation of Arab lands has stunted Arab development "in every conceivable way". But they move on quickly to assert that the Palestinian issue has been turned into a wide-ranging excuse for distorting the development agenda, retarding political development and suppressing freedoms of thought and action.

The overwhelming burden of this report concerns three "deficits" that keep the Arabs trapped in their own malaise: freedom, gender and knowledge. The only notion of governance that Arabs rulers seem to entertain is ruthless oppression. The state takes every opportunity to marginalise political participation and undermine civil society.

The Arabs have turned gender bias into a major ideology. In some oil-rich states, women are treated as objects of contempt; half the women in the Arab world can't read or write. Death during childbirth is double that of Latin America, four times that of east Asia.

Investments in science and technology are unheard of. There is a ridiculous overemphasis on religion, but the historic tradition of religion prompting creative thinking is as dead as the dodo.

The report contains the usual UNDP-type recommendations: seek economic growth, create full employment, build human capabilities - conventional development rubbish. Its real import lies in challenging the Arabs to address basic issues directly. But the diagnosis of an absence of a genuine Arab body politic begs the questions of how, where and when, reform can take place.

And what of the western powers? Are they not most comfortable with authoritarian regimes and the cheap oil they guarantee? Still, if such self-critical reflection takes a foothold in the Arab world, we will all have real reasons for hope.