In 2002, the U.N. Development Program released its first ever Arab Human Development Report, which bluntly detailed the deficits of freedom, women’s empowerment and knowledge-creation holding back the Arab world. It was buttressed with sobering statistics: Greece alone translated five times more books every year from English to Greek than the entire Arab world translated from English to Arabic; the G.D.P. of Spain was greater than that of all 22 Arab states combined; 65 million Arab adults were illiterate. It was a disturbing picture, bravely produced by Arab academics.
Coming out so soon after 9/11, the report felt like a diagnosis of all the misgovernance bedeviling the Arab world, creating the pools of angry, unemployed youth, who become easy prey for extremists. Well, the good news is that the U.N. Development Program and a new group of Arab scholars last week came out with a new Arab Human Development report. The bad news: Things have gotten worse — and many Arab governments don’t want to hear about it.
This new report was triggered by a desire to find out why the obstacles to human development in the Arab world have “proved so stubborn.” What the roughly 100 Arab authors of the 2009 study concluded was that too many Arab citizens today lack “human security — the kind of material and moral foundation that secures lives, livelihoods and an acceptable quality of life for the majority.” A sense of personal security — economic, political and social — “is a prerequisite for human development, and its widespread absence in Arab countries has held back their progress.”
The authors cite a variety of factors undermining human security in the Arab region today — beginning with environmental degradation — the toxic combination of rising desertification, water shortages and population explosion. In 1980, the Arab region had 150 million people. In 2007, it was home to 317 million people, and by 2015 its population is projected to be 395 million. Some 60 percent of this population is under the age of 25, and they will need 51 million new jobs by 2020.
Another persistent source of Arab human insecurity is high unemployment. “For nearly two and half decades after 1980, the region witnessed hardly any economic growth,” the report found. Despite the presence of oil money (or maybe because of it), there is a distinct lack of investment in scientific research, development, knowledge industries and innovation. Instead, government jobs and contracts dominate. Average unemployment in the Arab region in 2005 was 14.4 percent, compared with 6.3 percent for the rest of the world. A lot of this is because of a third source of human insecurity: autocratic and unrepresentative Arab governments, whose weaknesses “often combine to turn the state into a threat to human security, instead of its chief support.”
The whole report would have left me feeling hopeless had I not come to Ramallah, the seat of Palestinian government in the West Bank, to find some good cheer. I’m serious.
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