A Times Editorial
© St. Petersburg Times, published July 7, 2002
The only surprise in a new report on the lack of development in Arab countries is that the authors were Arab themselves. The report, commissioned by the United Nations, refreshingly lays blame for the sluggish pace of economic growth in the Arab world where it belongs: at the feet of its own leaders.
This is a rare admission. Usually, when officials and businessmen in Egypt and Saudi Arabia are not blaming the United States and Israel, they will cast their economic problems in terms of demographics: a high birthrate, lack of economic diversity, too many young people with degrees in Islamic studies and not enough with computer or language skills. But there is little talk of the social policies that led to these difficulties.
The Arab Human Development Report of 2002 finally takes an honest look at the structural conditions contributing to the region's lack of growth. The report, written by Arab intellectuals from a wide variety of disciplines, notes that the most important ingredients for a successful economy are missing in the Arab states: political freedom, individual rights, decent education and equality for women. As the authors point out, without freedom, those with creative energy and vision will either be repressed or driven to seek opportunities elsewhere. When the human capital of women is ignored, the report said, the society deprives itself "of the creativity and productivity of half its citizens."
Radical Islamic influences are not specifically identified as part of the problem, but their oppressive presence is implied. Little indigenous intellectual and cultural vibrancy exists in the region, largely due to the tight rein radical Islamists keep on what is acceptable. "The whole Arab world translates about 330 books annually, one-fifth the number that Greece translates," noted the report.
Education, where it is controlled by Islamic fundamentalists, is often steeped in religious teaching without much practical application outside the mosque. Boys, at least, are taught to read so they can study the Koran. Girls often don't get that much. While some Arab nations have made real efforts to educate more girls, women still make up two-thirds of the 65-million illiterate Arabs. This large swath of uneducated women contributes mightily to a growing population problem. Forecasters say the Arab population is on track to soar from 280-million today to as much as 459-million by 2020.
As democratization and greater press freedom have made inroads in Latin America, Eastern Europe and Asia, Arab regimes have kept those liberating forces at bay -- to the serious detriment of their people. Of course, the United States could have been done a better job of nudging freedom along. Our government has been too addicted to the region's oil to care much about the devils with whom we have had to deal to keep it flowing.
The report's prescription is simple: Combine freedom with equality and education, and the result is a healthy and growing economy. Skimp on any of these ingredients and the opposite occurs. Arab leaders have some serious economic problems to tackle and a coming population explosion that could devastate the little growth their economies have shown. The report has shown a way out. Now, it is up to the Arab states to take the advice.