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    Assessments

    Transforming the Arab World: The Arab Human

    Development Report and the Politics of Change

    Asef Bayat

    The Arab Human Development Reports:

    Changing Opportunities for Future Generations. New York: UNDP, 2002.

    168 pp. $23.00 hardback.

    Building a Knowledge Society. New York: UNDP, 2003. 217 pp. $23.00 hardback.

    Towards Freedom in the Arab World. New York: UNDP, 2004. 248 pp.

    $24.95 hardback.

    By most accounts, the Middle East currently seems to be plunged into a dead-

    lock the way out of which few would say they know for sure. Despite its massive

    oil revenue, personal income of Arabs is among the lowest in the world.

    Productivity is in decline, scientific research is in a poor state, school enrolment

    is decreasing, and illiteracy is considerable despite high spending. Arab countrieshave a lower information/media to population ratio than the world average

    less than fifty-three newspapers per 1,000 citizens, compared to 285 per 1,000

    people in the industrialized world. Translation of books remains rare only 4.4

    translated books per million people are published every year (compared to 519 in

    Hungary and 920 in Spain). The Arab worlds developmental indexes in health

    and education lag far behind comparable nations in the World Banks income

    tables. In short Arab countries are richer than they are developed (AHDR,

    2002). At the same time, the regions authoritarian regimes, ranging from Egypt,

    Jordan and Morocco to the sheikhdoms of the Persian Gulf (chiefly SaudiArabia), and all with close ties to the West, have continued to defy persistent

    calls for democratization and accountability. Precisely such an historical trajec-

    tory has engendered opposition movements, which have been overwhelmingly

    articulated by religious (Islamist), political and ethno-lingual groups, and which

    have espoused equally undemocratic, exclusive and often violent measures.

    The combination of such social and political conditions has more than

    ever reinforced, in the mainstream media and academic circles in the West,

    the already prevalent idea of Middle Eastern Exceptionalism that kernel

    of the Orientalist paradigm. Thus, in comparison with its counterparts in

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    the developing world, the Middle East in particular the Arab world is

    often viewed as something very different, a unique cultural entity which

    does not fit into conventional frames of analysis. Policy personnel in the

    West, notably the US, call for an urgent change in the region, and yetbelieve that change will not come from within, but from without, and by

    force. This juncture has encouraged the neo-conservative ideologues in the

    US Administration to put into practice their Leo Straussian philosophy of

    force, illiberal elitism in politics, and the idea of uniting political order by

    means of creating external threat. Muslim countries in the region are told to

    alter textbooks, abolish religious schools, and instruct religious preachers to

    refrain from anti-US sermons. The US has already toppled the Taliban

    regime in Afghanistan, dismantled Saddam Husseins regime by occupation

    of Iraq, while threatening Iran in a quest to generate a greater Middle East,to cultivate democracy and development.

    Few Arabs and Muslims in the region consider change by force as a viable

    or acceptable strategy, not least because it is essentially immoral, inflicts

    widespread violence and destruction, and impinges on peoples dignity.

    Having lived and worked in the Middle East for the past two decades, I

    feel that a call for political change from within continues ceaselessly even

    though the external conflicts, notably Israels continuing occupation of

    Palestinian lands and the aggressive US foreign policy in the region, have

    seriously distorted internal struggles for social and political transformation.The stubborn resiliency of the authoritarian Arab states against change,

    coupled with the threat of imperialist domination from outside, have plunged

    the region into a depressing impasse. Perhaps never before has the quest for

    an endogenous vision for change in the Arab world been so urgent as today.

    The significance of the Arab Human Development Report(AHDR), among

    others, lies precisely in its publication at this debilitating regional and global

    juncture, notably after the crucial post-9/11 turning point. The Report, now

    in three volumes Changing Opportunities for Future Generations (2002),

    Building a Knowledge Society(2003) andTowards Freedom in the Arab World(2004) with a planned fourth volume devoted to womens empowerment

    (2005) represents the most significant manifesto of change produced by

    the Arabs for the Arab world, but taking a strong cue from global discourses

    and paradigms. To serve the strategic objective of radical transformation,

    the authors adopt a broad understanding of development, in terms of a

    process of expanding peoples choices. Perceived as a mixture of Dudley

    Seers notion of development as a process which allows the realization of

    human potential and Amartya Sens freedom as development, the Report

    views human development as a process in which people enlarge their choices,influence the processes that shape their lives and enjoy full human rights

    1226 Asef Bayat

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    as freedom. Thus, in a comprehensive survey of development status ranging

    from education, health and knowledge to culture and politics, the Report

    identifies three major deficits in knowledge, in freedom/democracy, and

    in womens empowerment which are at the core of Arab developmentaldecline. It describes how some sixty-five million adult Arabs, two-thirds of

    them women, have remained illiterate. The quality of education is in decline

    and mechanisms for intellectual capital development are lacking. College

    graduates do not find jobs in suitable occupations; the use of information

    communications technology (ICT) is remarkably limited and consequently

    highly educated people are in short supply.

    Disparity in the distribution of knowledge manifests only one aspect of

    gender inequality in the Arab countries. It is true that womens education

    and literacy have certainly improved, but the prevailing social attitudes andnorms continue to focus on womens reproductive role and their unpaid tasks.

    Consequently, 50 per cent of women remain illiterate, while their mortality rate

    is double that of Latin America (AHDR 2003, p. 3). In addition, women are

    treated unfairly before the law, in personal status, pay, structures of opportu-

    nity and occupational hierarchy. With the continuing discrimination against

    women, society undermines a major segment of its productive capacity.

    As feminist theory has taught us, gender inequality reflects a deficit in

    democratic theory and practice in general. And in the Arab region in

    particular, this deficit is far more profound. According to the ArabHuman Development Report, the region in these respects lags far behind

    Latin America, Asia and Eastern Europe. While the Arab states in general

    talk the talk of democracy, they have in practice exhibited highly authori-

    tarian tendencies. Dominated by powerful executives and lifelong presiden-

    cies, the states curtail freedom of expression and association, while human

    rights have fallen victim to secretive and coercive institutions, unaccount-

    able to anyone. Suppression of freedoms and human rights is the enemy of

    human development, the Report concludes.

    To remedy these debilitating conditions and to achieve meaningful devel-opment, theArab Human Development Report calls for empowering women,

    building a knowledge society, and achieving freedom and good governance.

    POLITICS SURROUNDING THE DOCUMENT

    No comparable Arab document in recent memory has been as much

    debated, commended and contested as the AHDR. Prepared by a team ofover 100 Arab intellectuals and professionals at a cost of some US$700,000

    thus far 1 the Report has provoked unprecedented discussion in the West as

    Assessment: The Arab Human Development Report 1227

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    well as in the Arab world about the predicament of the region aired on

    television talk shows, in parliaments and in print media. The first two

    volumes of the Report were received with great jubilance and enthusiasm

    in the West. The editorials of the major US and European dailies praised theauthors for their professionalism and honesty in disclosing the sad truths of

    their nations. With uncommon candour and a battery of statistics, the pro-

    Israel Middle East Quarterly reacted, the Report tells a sorry story of two

    decades of failed planning and developmental decline (Middle East

    Quarterly, 2002). More than one million copies of the first issue of the

    Report (AHDR 2002) were downloaded within only the first year of its

    publication, while the website of the Report has received some two million

    hits.2 The US State Department described the 2002 Report as a ground

    breaking document (US State Department Briefing, 2003) and TimeMagazine deemed it the most important publication of 2002. The presti-

    gious Dutch Prince Claus Award in 2003 went to this publication; and the

    G8 in 2004 endorsed the US plan for a grea