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Respect for human rights necessary for progress

August 20, 2009

THE recently released 2009 Arab Human Development Report (AHDR) provides some fascinating insights into the causes of instability, stagnancy and decline in the Arab world and carries important lessons for all who are concerned with national development.

The report, the fifth in the series, was written by over 100 of the Arab world’s leading intellectuals, economists and political thinkers under the sponsorship of the United Nations Development Programme.

Not surprisingly, Arab governments panned the report; they were, after all, taken to task in it.

The US reportedly tried to block one of the earlier submissions because the authors opined that Arab extremism and instability can be traced in part to American and Israeli policies.

Yet, there can be no doubt that the report represents a credible and refreshing voice from within the Arab world and cannot easily be dismissed.

That the Arab world is in crisis is beyond doubt. The facts speak for themselves: although the region earns billions in oil revenues, it remains one of the least developed regions of the world. Two in five Arabs live on less than US$2 (RM7) per day (the international poverty line).

It also has one of the world’s highest population growth rates together with one of the world’s highest unemployment rates, a veritable witches’ brew.

Its oil-dependent economies suffer from serious structural weaknesses while insufficient investment in education and human infrastructure consign millions to an endless cycle of poverty and despair.

According to the World Bank, between 1980 and 2004, real GDP per capita in the Arab countries grew by less than 0.5% annually.

The report also noted that overall, Arab countries were less industrialised today than they were four decades ago.

This gloomy situation is made worse by a steady brain drain that robs the region of initiative, innovation and much needed skills. Between 1998 and 2000, more than 15,000 Arab doctors migrated. Today, some of the best Arab minds are to be found in the West.

As an example of just how intellectually isolated the Arab world has become, earlier reports noted that the total number of books translated into Arabic over the last 1,000 years was less than those translated in Spain in one year! This has not changed.

The first AHDR, published in 2002, noted that Arab societies were hobbled by the absence of political freedom, the marginalisation of women and their lack of openness.

The 2009 report carried this further, concluding that while foreign military intervention and Israeli occupation have all caused widespread human suffering and undermined development, many of the problems of the region can be traced directly to the repressive policies of Arab governments themselves.

All Arab heads of state wield absolute authority. Political parties, especially opposition parties, are either completely prohibited or suppressed. Civil society groups are also severely restricted.

Dissent, even when peaceful, is not tolerated. In addition, political leaders routinely exploit tribal, ethnic and sectarian differences for their own ends, engendering “the largest volume of human casualties in the Arab countries.”

The inference was that in failing to introduce democratic governance and representational institutions that foster inclusion, the state itself had become a stumbling block to national development and progress.

The authors of the report also made the case that for too long Arab governments have been almost exclusively preoccupied with the preservation of state security at the expense of individual security.

Yet, they are two sides of the same coin. Without a political system that guarantees the rights of citizens and encourages, inspires and protects them, the state itself is ultimately the loser.

This then is a cry from the Arab world’s best and brightest to their governments to respect human rights. It is not a call for the overthrow of the state; it is a plea for reform and renewal.

While the AHDR has immediate application to the Arab world, its conclusions are germane for other developing regions as well. It should be required reading for all our politicians and decision makers.

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