For Arabs, report is a must-read

Lebanon and Syria 2004

By Kathy Lally

June 10, 2009

BEIRUT, Lebanon - Nader Fergani smiles almost mischievously when he discusses the next installment - coming in October - of the most widely read publication in the Arab world.

He enumerates the tantalizing details: analytical background reports from different scholars, field surveys, case studies, even, mountains of material - inputs, he calls them - all synthesized into draft reports and fashioned into a seamless narrative, buttressed by facts and figures.

"Then we launch it," Fergani says, "and hell breaks loose."

Fergani, an Egyptian social scientist, oversees the Arab Human Development Report, published in 2002 and again last year to anger, acclaim - and intense interest - in the Arab world. More than a million copies of the reports have been downloaded from the Internet, giving them "most widely read" honors, according to officials of the United Nations Development Program, which sponsors the project.

Fergani sums them up like this:

"There are major flaws in the legal and political architecture of Arab societies. If the basic trends continue, we'll end up with nothing less than disaster. Something has to change in this part of the world. We can't continue with business as usual."

The reports were inevitably controversial, calling for drastic reforms in the areas of freedom, women's rights and acquisition of knowledge. Some Arabs did not like to hear their countries described as essentially backward, and authoritarian governments felt an implicit threat in exhortations for reform. But no one was predicting they would become popular reading.

"The first report became an instant success," Fergani says, "to the surprise of many, including myself."

Now Fergani and others are working on this year's version - Freedom Through Good Governance. Fergani offered a preview to a group of American journalists in Beirut recently, in a meeting arranged by the International Reporting Project, based at the Johns Hopkins University.

The authors are urging freedom in Arab countries, but they are not particularly interested in having it imposed from the outside. The U.S. occupation of Iraq looms large here, and American help appears most unwelcome.

"The Bush administration has lost all credibility in association with reform in the Arab world," Fergani says. "No one would ever dare be associated with the Bush administration."

This is a theme repeated again and again in the region. Rami Khouri, executive editor of the Beirut Daily Star, says the United States has made itself look confused and inept by its actions in Iraq.

"Here you have Muqtada al-Sadr, who was nobody six months ago, standing up to the greatest power in the history of the world," Khouri says, going on to refer to Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani as well. "You have these two bearded guys single-handedly defeating the greatest power in the world."

And of course there's the prison abuse issue, he says, destroying any vestiges of moral authority the United States might hold in this part of the world.

Fergani says the best way for the rest of the world to promote freedom here is for the countries that are allied with Arab countries to exert pressure on them to listen to their own people and relax their tight grip on power.

"If the rest of the world can help us initiate the process," he says, "and then leave it to internal forces, that would be best of all. No Iraq, no thank you."

Instead, he says, the West appears to shore up repressive Arab regimes.

"It is a coalition of the bad inside and the self-serving outside," he says, and it's time for the outside to put muscle into their talk about freedom and democracy.

"If they cannot do this," he says, "they better shut up and keep quiet."

Both Fergani and Khouri perceive the Palestinian-Israeli conflict as a larger and more difficult problem than Iraq; they see the United States as siding with Israel without any consideration of the Palestinian point of view, and they say that lack of resolution will undermine any progress in the region.

Each side in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, Khouri says, thinks the other is trying to destroy it, so each is determined to destroy the other first.

"There is mediocre leadership on both sides," he says, and this is complicated by "equally mediocre leadership in the United States."

Fergani hopes that the report will at least get people thinking and talking about all these issues.

"There has been a yearning in this part of the world for a call to arms," he says. "We would like to think there was a historical opportunity, and we took it. The reports touched a sore nerve. Everyone was looking for something like this."

The 2002 report said, in part, "Although income poverty is low compared to other parts of the world, the Arab region is hobbled by a different kind of poverty - poverty of capabilities and poverty of opportunities.

"These have their roots in three deficits: freedom, women's empowerment and knowledge. Growth alone will neither bridge these gaps nor set the region on the road to sustainable development."

Last year's 210-page report, prepared by 40 Arab scholars with the help of U.N. staff, examined the knowledge gap in depth, finding that education emphasizes obedience at the expense of critical thought, that universities are crowded and have old laboratories and poor libraries, that 15,000 doctors emigrated from 1998 to 2000.

In addition:

The region has 18 computers for every 1,000 people, compared with 78.3 for every 1,000 on average in the rest of the world.

Only 1.6 percent of people have Internet access, compared with 79 percent in the United States.

The average print run for an Arabic novel is 1,000 to 3,000 copies.

Arabs, with 5 percent of the world's population (280 million people), publish 1.1 percent of the world's books.

"Full respect for human rights and freedoms are the cornerstones of good governance that can unleash creativity and serve empowerment and participation, leading to human development," last year's report said.

"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."

Fergani puts it this way:

"If we don't have redistribution of power in Arab countries, we won't have societal renaissance.

"Some help and compassion is needed. If we can assure freedom of expression and opinion, internal reforms can be left to take their own course.

"This is how the outside world can help - assuring freedom of expression and opinion."

He has high hopes for this year's report - and one coming next year that will be devoted to women.

"If the report manages to ignite serious debate in which Arab society engages," he says, "it will have succeeded."

The first two reports can be found on the Web at http://www.undp.org/rbas/ahdr/