Bleak Arab progress report

The second in a series of UN reports is short on solutions for the region.

The latest in a series of hotly debated reports on Arab human development is long on criticism but short on ideas to solve the woes besetting the Arab world.

The 200-page Arab Human Development Report, the second of a planned series of four written by a group of Arab intellectuals and academics, is intended to generate debate among the 22 Arab states.

But critics say the report, like its predecessor last year, contains nothing Arabs don't know about their region: the absence of political freedoms, cultural stagnation, poor education, the failure to empower women, and submissive media.

"These are problems we in the Arab world have been talking about for decades. We need a plan of political action to address the problem and make it better," says Rami Khouri, executive editor of Lebanon's English-language Daily Star newspaper.

Last year's inaugural report sparked intense debate. Yet it was largely the West, not the Arab world, that found it revealing, some observers say. "People in the West jumped on the first report. But in the Arab world, the report was either ignored completely or embraced by leaders who promised to do something about it and then ignored it," says Mr. Khouri.

The second report, released Monday in Amman, Jordan, focuses on the poor quality of knowledge in the Arab world - education, media, culture, and research and development. Arab countries, it states, have fewer computers and newspapers compared with the world average.

Moreover, many of the existing media operate "in an environment that sharply restricts freedom of the press and freedom of expression and opinion."

Rima Khalaf Hunaidi, regional director of the UNDP's Regional Bureau for Arab states and a coauthor of the report, says it highlights the need of the Arab world to connect with the rest of the world if it is to overcome its development gap.

A number of historical factors are conspiring against that, she argues. Ms. Hunaidi speaks of a "collusion between certain political regimes and some Islamic scholars" - but adds that new factors are working against an open Arab society. They include the US clampdown on visas for students and academics from the region. The occupation of Iraq has also fueled an Arab rejection of the Western world.

"The report finds two recent trends - fear of cultural dissolution in globalization, and a tendency to close up and not accept the values of the rest of the world," she says. "That's why the report's authors find that in fact the way out for Arab countries is through the global experience."

Some analysts doubt such reports will have much long-term value, particularly given the Arab world's more pressing concerns over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the troubled US occupation of Iraq.

"The reports are very important because of their wide dissemination," says Chibli Mallat, professor of international law at St. Joseph University in Beirut. But, he adds, the latest one does not go far enough.

"Like the first report, it lacks the courage to question individual rulers and their apparatus of repression. The greatest change in the region, the collapse of Saddam Hussein, is not addressed even though it represents the first governmental change [in the Arab world] in 20 years," he says.

Analysts say that some of the report's authors once held senior positions in the very regimes that they now accuse of failing to bring in reform. And, rightly or wrongly, their association with the UNDP opens them to Arab charges of promoting Western policy ideas for the region, a contentious issue given the US-led invasion and occupation of Iraq.

"The basic points of the reports are very accurate and good," says a Jordanian political commentator. "But it does not help their case when they fly first class, stay in five-star hotels, and produce these glossy reports. If this report had come from the Arab League, then I think people would have sat up and paid more attention in the region."

Political and economic reforms have made some headway in the Arab world over the past year. In 2002, Bahrain held its first elections in 30 years, and this year is moving closer to becoming the first of the five-member Gulf Cooperation Council to establish political parties.

In April, Qatar held a referendum on adopting a formal constitution. Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah earlier this year unveiled a "Charter" recommending reforms and greater political representation in the Arab world.

Saudi Arabia has made strides in liberalizing its educational curricula and has just announced it will hold municipal elections for the first time. Even Syria, which, with Mr. Hussein's downfall, is the last Baathist regime in the Arab world, has embarked on a wobbly reform program, although critics say progress is too slow.

"Reforms don't happen quickly," says Prof. Shafiq Ghabra, president of the American University of Kuwait. "But these reports provide ammunition for reformists and undermine the arguments of those in favor of the status quo. All it takes is one leader in one Arab country to click with this kind of reform to get the process moving."

The drive toward reform in the Arab world in part is a result of the changed global realities brought about by the war on terror. Paradoxically, however, the war on terror is also blamed for allowing some authoritarian Arab regimes to crack down on political freedoms.

"One of the worst consequences of freedom-constraining measures in developed countries is that they gave authorities in some Arab countries another excuse to enact new laws limiting civil and political freedoms," the report says.

Findings of the Arab Human Development Report 2003

• The number of Arab students in the US dropped by 30 percent between 1999 and 2002.

• Public spending on education in Arab countries has declined since 1985, and enrollment in higher education has fallen. Among women, high illiteracy rates persist.

• There are less than 53 circulating newspaper copies per 1,000 Arab citizens, compared with 285 per thousand in developed countries.

• There are 18 computers per 1,000 people in Arab countries, compared with a global average of 78.3 per 1,000.

• Internet access is available to 1.6 percent of the population in Arab countries. Telephone line access in the countries is barely one-fifth that of developed countries.

• Just 4.4 translated books per 1 million people were published between 1980 and 1985. The corresponding rate for Hungary was 519 books per 1 million people, and in Spain, 920 books.

• The number of scientists and engineers working in research and development is 371 per 1 million people, compared with the global rate of 979.

• The production of literary and artistic books in 1996 did not exceed 1,945 books, representing just 0.8 percent of world production. Religious books account for 17 percent of the total.

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