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UN: Report Says Lack Of Freedoms Hurting Arab Development

  • Robert McMahon

A United Nations report released today draws direct links between the development gap in the Arab world and the absence of political freedoms in those countries. The report was compiled by experts from the 22 Arab League countries and is seen as an important call for reform within Arab culture. One expert who helped prepare the report told RFE/RL that the authors hope to generate dialogue in the Arab world about how to improve conditions for human development to combat everything from illiteracy to Islamic fundamentalism.

Prague, 2 July 2002 (RFE/RL) -- A new report commissioned by the United Nations finds Arab countries lagging behind most of the world in basic freedoms, posing serious development problems for the region.

The Arab Human Development Report, released today in Cairo, says the oil-rich region has wasted its great potential because of its failure to permit political freedoms, its suppression of women's rights, and its falling education standards.

The report says that while per capita income in the region is higher than most of the developing world, growth in that income during the past 20 years was the lowest in the world except for sub-Saharan Africa. It said Arab countries score lower than any other region in the world on international measurements for governmental accountability, civil liberties, and media independence.

The report uses the standard indices of the UN Development Program to look at levels of human opportunity, including economy, health, education, and human rights. It portrays conditions in the 22 Arab League countries, based on reporting by experts from those countries.

One of the experts who helped prepare the report, Atif Kubursi, told RFE/RL the authors are hoping to generate a dialogue in Arab countries about increasing the choices and freedoms available to people.

Kubursi said one crucial area for human development that requires fundamental changes in the Arab world is women's rights. "Development that does not involve the participation of women is an endangered development. It can't happen when half the society is left behind," Kubursi said.

The report says, for example, that tens of millions of adult women are illiterate and are generally kept subjugated. This is consistent with the findings of the latest annual report by Human Rights Watch, which said women across the Arab region suffer from severe forms of institutional and societal discrimination in nearly every aspect of their lives.

The researchers also found the quality of education declining in most Arab countries. They said there was a particular shortage of new writing and translations from outside the Arab world.

These shortcomings, combined with a lack of political expression and stagnant economic conditions, have helped give rise to Islamic fundamentalism in recent years, according to Kubursi. "We really feel that fundamentalism usually grows under oppression and deprivation and dispossession and humiliation, that once you liberate people, once you give them hope, once you give them stakes, once you give them political space, they don't have to really move underground and into these marginal and marginalized positions," Kubursi said.

The Arab Human Development Report was commissioned before 11 September but has taken on additional importance now that concerns have emerged that politically repressive Arab countries have become breeding grounds for terrorism.

Kubursi said there is a danger that antiterrorism measures enacted since 11 September could increase repression in Arab states and impede crucial reforms in areas of human development. "If you really want to prevent more September 11ths in the future, well, then development is probably one of the major contributors towards preventive measures," Kubursi said.

Kubursi, who is originally from Lebanon, is an economics professor at McMaster University in Canada. He was one in a cross section of Arab authorities who participated in the report, including sociologists and experts on Arab culture.

He said the authors are hopeful the report will become a basis for debate in the Arab media, as well as high schools and universities. He said it was an important signal that the Arab League served as a platform to launch the report, which was released at the League's Cairo headquarters.

Alla Shalabi is a spokesman for the Cairo-based Arab Organization for Human Rights, which cooperates with UN agencies in seeking to promote political freedoms in the Arab world. Shalabi told RFE/RL that the mounting problems in the Arab world have become exacerbated by what he called outside pressures in the post-11 September crackdown in some Arab countries.

Shalabi said some Arab countries have recently demonstrated a concern for improving human development, especially in areas like health and education. He said the UN-sponsored report issued today will help boost this effort. "You can see some social developments are going on in some countries like Egypt, Morocco, maybe Algeria, and others. I think there were will be great influence [from] the report on the thinking of governments in the region," Shalabi said.

The report included a mention of the impact of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on the region. It said Israeli occupation has stunted Palestinian development but has also given Arab states a "cause and excuse" for delaying democratic reforms.