Deficit of rights costs Arab world

July 04, 2002|By Thomas L. Friedman

WASHINGTON -- President Bush was right to declare that the Palestinians need to produce decent governance before they can get a state. Too bad, though, that he didn't say that it's not only the Palestinians who need radical reform of their governance -- it's most of the Arab world.

By coincidence, though, some other important folks had the courage to say that just this week: The U.N. Development Program, which on Tuesday published, along with the Arab Fund for Economic and Social Development, a brutally honest Arab Human Development Report, analyzing the three main reasons the Arab world is falling off the globe. (The GDP of Spain is greater than that of all 22 Arab states combined.)

In brief, it's because of a shortage of freedom to speak, innovate and affect political life, a shortage of women's rights and a shortage of quality education. If you want to understand the milieu that produced bin Ladenism -- and will reproduce it if nothing changes -- read this report.

While the 22 Arab states currently have 280 million people, soaring birthrates indicate that by 2020 they will have 410 million to 459 million. If this new generation is not to grow up angry and impoverished, in already overcrowded cities, the Arab world will have to overcome its poverty -- which is not a poverty of resources but a "poverty of capabilities and poverty of opportunities," the report argues.

Using a standard freedom index, the report notes that out of seven key regions of the world, the Arab region has the lowest freedom score -- which includes civil liberties, political rights, a voice for the people, independence of the media and government accountability.

In too many Arab states women can't vote, hold office or get access to capital for starting businesses. "Sadly, the Arab world is largely depriving itself of the creativity and productivity of half its citizens," the report says.

On education, the report reveals that the whole Arab world translates about 300 books annually -- one-fifth the number that Greece alone translates; investment in research is less than one-seventh the world average; and Internet connectivity is worse than that in sub-Saharan Africa. In spite of progress in school enrollment, 65 million Arab adults are still illiterate, almost two-thirds of them women. No wonder half the Arab youths polled said they wanted to emigrate.

The report concludes that "what the region needs to ensure a bright future for coming generations is the political will to invest in Arab capabilities and knowledge, particularly those of Arab women, in good governance, and in strong cooperation between Arab nations. ... The Arab world is at a crossroads. The fundamental choice is whether its trajectory will remain marked by inertia ... and by ineffective policies that have produced the substantial development challenges facing the region; or whether prospects for an Arab renaissance, anchored in human development, will be actively pursued."

Well said -- and here's the best part: The report was written by a "group of distinguished Arab intellectuals" who believed that only an "unbiased, objective analysis" could help the "Arab peoples and policymakers in search of a brighter future."

There is a message in this bottle for America: For too many years we've treated the Arab world as just a big dumb gas station, and as long as the top leader kept the oil flowing, or was nice to Israel, we didn't really care what was happening to the women and children out back -- where bad governance, rising unemployment and a stifled intellectual life were killing the Arab future.

It's time to stop kidding ourselves. Getting rid of the Osamas, Saddams and Arafats is necessary to change this situation, but it's hardly sufficient. We also need to roll up our sleeves and help the Arabs address all the problems out back.

The bad news is that they've dug themselves a mighty deep hole there. The good news, as this report shows, is that we have liberal Arab partners for change. It's time we teamed up with them, and not just with the bums who got them into this mess.

Thomas L. Friedman is a columnist for The New York Times. His column appears Tuesdays and Thursdays in The Sun.

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