July 2, 2002

Study Warns of Stagnation in Arab Societies

The New York Times

A blunt new report by Arab intellectuals commissioned by the United Nations warns that Arab societies are being crippled by a lack of political freedom, the repression of women and an isolation from the world of ideas that stifles creativity.

The survey, the Arab Human Development Report 2002, will be released today in Cairo.

The report notes that while oil income has transformed the landscapes of some Arab countries, the region remains "richer than it is developed." Per capita income growth has shrunk in the last 20 years to a level just above that of sub-Saharan Africa. Productivity is declining. Research and development are weak or nonexistent. Science and technology are dormant.

Intellectuals flee a stultifying -- if not repressive -- political and social environment, it says.

Arab women, the report found, are almost universally denied advancement. Half of them still cannot read or write. The maternal mortality rate is double that of Latin America and four times that of East Asia.

"Sadly, the Arab world is largely depriving itself of the creativity and productivity of half its citizens," the report concluded.

An advisory team of well-known Arabs in international public life was assembled to oversee the study. They included Thoraya Obaid, a Saudi who is executive director of the United Nations Population Fund; Mervat Tallawy, an Egyptian diplomat who heads the Economic and Social Council for West Asia; and Clovis Maksoud, who directs the Center for the Global South at American University in Washington and was formerly the Arab League's representative at the United Nations.

A team of nearly 30 authorities in various fields, including sociologists, economists and experts on Arab culture presented papers. A core group drawn from these authors and representing a wide variety of Middle Eastern and Arab majority African nations then completed the report.

Nader Fergany, a labor economist and director of the Almishkat Center for Research in Egypt, was chosen as the lead author. The report was published in Arabic, English and French, with an editorial team in each language. Women were represented at all stages of the formulation and writing of the report.

Planning for the report "started over a year ago, when we thought that there was a serious development problem in the Arab countries," Rima Khalaf Hunaidi, director of the United Nations Development Program's Arab regional bureau and the driving force behind the survey, said in an interview in her New York office. "There were some very scary signals that were specific to Arab countries and not other regions."

Then came the attacks on the United States, giving the report unexpected new relevance as explanations for Arab anger against the West are being sought.

The report, the first United Nations human development report devoted to a single region, was prepared by Arab intellectuals from a variety of disciplines, who do not fault others for what they see as the "deficits" in contemporary Arab culture, Ms. Khalaf Hunaidi said.

Ms. Khalaf Hunaidi, 49, a former deputy prime minister of Jordan who led its economic policy team, said that she had asked the authors, "to come and look at this problem and decide: Why is Arab culture, why are Arab countries lagging behind?"

"It's not outsiders looking at Arab countries," she said. "It's Arabs deciding for themselves."

There are 280 million people in the 22 Arab countries covered by the report, which was co-sponsored by the Arab Fund for Economic and Social Development, a development finance institution set up by members of the Arab League. The number of Arabs is expected to grow to between 410 million and 459 million by 2020.

For the Palestinians in particular, the report says, human development is all but impossible under Israeli occupation. Moreover, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict "has been a cause and a pretext for delaying democratic change," contended Ms. Khalaf Hunaidi, who was born in Kuwait to Palestinian parents. She studied at the American University of Beirut and Portland State University in Oregon, where she received a doctorate in systems science.

The report does not directly criticize Islamic militancy and its effects on intellectual and economic growth, although Ms. Khalaf Hunaidi said this was implicit in passages that refer to a less tolerant social environment.

Despite growing populations, the standard of living in Arab countries on the whole has advanced considerably. Life expectancy is longer than the world average of 67 years, the report noted. The level of abject poverty is the world's lowest. Education spending is higher than elsewhere in the developing world.

But the use of the Internet is low. Filmmaking appears to be declining. The authors also describe a "severe shortage" of new writing and a dearth of translations of works from outside. "The whole Arab world translates about 330 books annually, one-fifth the number that Greece translates," the report said. In the 1,000 years since the reign of the Caliph Mamoun, it concludes, the Arabs have translated as many books as Spain translates in just one year.

Laila Abou-Saif, an Egyptian writer and theater director whose theater in Cairo was closed in 1979 after she produced a play that satirized polygamy, said in an interview that the Islamic factor must be acknowledged in explaining the condition of the Arab world, which was a center of arts and sciences.

Ms. Abou-Saif, a Coptic Christian who now lives in the United States, said that creativity among Arabs now often hewed to religious themes.

Books are not being translated, in part because of Islamic pressures, said Ms. Abou-Saif, the author of "Middle East Journal: A Woman's Journey Into the Heart of the Arab World" (Scribner, 1990). "A whole gamut of religious literature are best sellers," she said.

Fouad Ajami, director of Middle East Studies at Johns Hopkins University and the author, most recently, of "The Dream Palace of the Arabs: A Generation's Odyssey" (Vintage Books, 1999) said in an interview that there is a pervasive sense that life in the Arab world is repressed by both the state and religious vigilantes.

"Arabs today feel monitored," he said, attributing a decrease in intellectual freedom to the growing power of a lower middle class whose members are literate but not broadly educated.

This group shows "its lack of hospitality to anyone of free spirit, anyone who is a dissident, anyone who is different," he said.

Mr. Ajami said that for many Arab intellectuals the only option has been exile. "There is a deep, deep nostalgia today in the Arab world," he said. "Societies looking ahead and feeling a positive movement never succumb to nostalgia."

Above all, there is no movement in politics, he said. Rulers, even elected, stay in power for life and create dynasties. "People just don't know how to overthrow, how to reform, how to change them."

Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company

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