Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Self-doomed to Failure

What went wrong in the Arab world? The Economist has an article dating back to 2002 on the United Nations Development Programme's Arab Human Development Report 2002, authored by Arab researchers, that takes a critical and honest look at the region -- its strengths and failings. UNDP has been publishing the Human Development Index (HDI) for a number of years now -- but this was the first attempt to focus directly at a region. Subsequent reports have been published in 2003, 2004, with the 2005 report soon to be released. The HDI traditionally looked at life expectancy, education and income -- on which the Arab countries traditionally don't score very well. For this regional focus however, the authors came up with the Alternative Human Development Index (AHDI), which added the measures of: use of the Internet; carbon-dioxide emissions; and, record on freedom. It excluded income from the measures. On the AHDI scale, the Arab world fared even worse.

The good news from the report -- and yes, there was good news. Life expectancy had increase over the last three decades; infant mortality had dropped; income had increased.

The bad news, and there was a lot of bad news, should come as no surprise -- especially with the latest row over freedom of the press and cartoons. Although the region was, and continues to roll in black gold, the wealth isn't evenly distributed. One in five Arabs lived on less than $2 per day, and growth in income had been dismal. (The only region worse off was sub-Saharan Africa.) No growth with a rapidly increasing population, meant a continued increase in joblessness. 15% of the region's labour force was already unemployed in 2002. The barrier to growth wasn't seen as the lack of money. The authors of the report pointed to three deficits of the region: Freedom, Knowledge and Women's Status.

The report threads lightly when dealing with the influence of Islam on the region. The Economist gives the following interpretation:
One of the report's signed articles explains Islam's support for justice, peace, tolerance, equilibrium and all good things besides. But most secularists believe that the pervasive Islamisation of society, which in several Arab countries has largely replaced the frightening militancy of the 1980s and early 1990s, has played a significant part in stifling constructive Arab thought.

From their schooldays onwards, Arabs are instructed that they should not defy tradition, that they should respect authority, that truth should be sought in the text and not in experience. Fear of fawda (chaos) and fitna (schism) are deeply engrained in much Arab-Islamic teaching. “The role of thought”, wrote a Syrian intellectual “is to explain and transmit...and not to search and question.”

Such tenets never held back the great Arab astronomers and mathematicians of the Middle Ages. But now, it seems, they hold sway, discouraging critical thought and innovation and helping to produce a great army of young Arabs, jobless, unskilled and embittered, cut off from changing their own societies by democratic means. Islam at least offers them a little self-respect. With so many paths closed to them, some are now turning their dangerous anger on the western world.

It is interesting to note -- especially when viewed in context of the latest waves of violence in protest of the caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed -- where certain countries are on the HDI [PDF]. Denmark ranks at #14, and the highest ranking Arab country is Qatar (40). There are only four Arab states in the list that are flagged as having "high human development." One doesn't need to wonder -- the truth speaks for itself.

Read the details on the Economist, and check out the UNDP Regional Bureau for Arab States site for the latest reports.

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