By Dalila Mahdawi
Beirut – A new report released on 22 July 2009 sponsored by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) has blamed environmental, political, economic and social problems, together with the Middle East’s vulnerability to external occupation or military intervention, for hindering development in the Arab world.
While its conclusion is admittedly nothing novel, the “Arab Human Development Report 2009: Challenges to Human Security in the Arab Countries” has reinvigorated an important debate on who shoulders responsibility for the Arab world’s development and security, or rather, lack of it. The report, written by more than 100 independent and respected Arab intellectuals, suggests Arab governments have failed in their duty to provide their citizens with the security needed to foster strong economies and states.
Lebanon is a key example of an Arab country where the state is virtually ineffectual. Burgeoning civil society and politicised religious groups, as well as the private sector, have emerged from this vacuum to offer services that would normally be provided by the government.
Lebanon’s Hizbullah is one such example, which explains its enormous popularity. It was, after all, Hizbullah—not the ill-equipped Lebanese Armed Forces—that drove Israel to end its occupation of the South in 2000, and it is Hizbullah, not the Lebanese state, that today provides healthcare, political representation, housing and other social services to its marginalised Shia constituency.
If Arab nations want to curtail the popular support currently afforded the region’s numerous political-Islam and sub-state organisations, they must show that their governments can be relied upon to provide basic services, that state institutions can represent and that the army can protect.
Employment is one especially critical area where Arab governments must act to ensure the security of their people. According to the report, a staggering 60 per cent of the Arab world is under 25 years of age. In the year 2005/6 some 30 per cent of young Arabs were unemployed, compared to a world rate of 14 per cent. Unemployment and economic hardship drives the Arab world’s best brains abroad, and pushes others into informal, insecure jobs or into the clutches of radicalisation. Young Arabs must often settle for jobs for which they are overqualified and badly paid.
One reason for the region’s embarrassing unemployment rate is the stagnation of the Arab economy. According to statistics given in the report, there has been hardly any economic growth in the region since 1980: “World Bank data show that real GDP per capita … grew by a mere 6.4 percent over the entire 24 year period from 1980 to 2004”, a woeful figure that doesn’t even correspond to 0.5 per cent annually.
Arab states must engage with such growing sectors as information technology, Islamic banking and responsible tourism to identify job creation opportunities if they wish to secure sustainable growth and provide economic opportunities to their citizens. The richer oil-producing Arab nations could further support the regional economy by investing in Arab stock markets, cultural projects or other long-term endeavours closer to home. With the UN estimating Arab countries will “need about 51 million new jobs by 2020”, no time can be lost in implementing such measures.
While the contributions of Arab non-governmental groups toward reform must be commended and even strengthened, reform is a responsibility that must be taken up primarily by the state. Non-governmental organisations have laid the groundwork for the region’s fight against gender discrimination, climate change, and political and judicial impunity. Arab states must now build upon that foundation.
Not only must the governments of the Arab world assume their responsibilities, Arab citizens must hold their leaders to account. In Lebanon, a minute country with a population of around 4.5 million, people are not even ensured reliable supplies of electricity or running water 24 hours a day. Hopefully, the dire facts presented in this UNDP report will spark the necessary outrage of Arab citizens to compel their governments into action. Continuing silence over the region’s shortcomings is tantamount to an endorsement of the status quo.
Ultimately, however, the security of Arabs depends on lasting Middle East peace. So long as the livelihoods of millions of Palestinians, Iraqis, Sudanese, Somalis, Yemenis and others are threatened by occupation or conflict, political, economic and social reform will be of little immediate significance to Arabs.
* Dalila Mahdawi is a journalist at The Daily Star, Lebanon’s only English-language daily newspaper. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).