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An Arab Look at Arab Ills

July 15, 2002

Nations, like people, get defensive when outsiders point out their faults. For years, Westerners have criticized Arab countries' lack of political freedom and their discrimination against women, usually drawing the reply that it's part of the Arab culture or tradition or none of the West's business. Now a team of Arab intellectuals has looked at the 22 nations and 280 million people represented in the Arab League and concluded that political repression, mistreatment of women and poor education are crippling the region.

The first assessment of its kind, the Arab Human Development Report is blunt and balanced. Sponsored by the United Nations and a year in the making, it notes the good--fewer people living on an income of less than $1 a day than in other developing regions. And the bad--growth in per capita income over the last 20 years that was the lowest in the world except for sub-Saharan Africa.

In 1960, Arabs on average produced more per person than people in "Asian tiger" countries such as South Korea and Malaysia. Now they're half as productive as South Koreans. Intellectual capital is scarce as well. "The whole Arab world translates about 300 books annually," the report notes, "one-fifth of the number that Greece translates."

The computer revolution has largely left the region behind. An Arab "brain drain" is one reason, but another is language. Most material on the Web is in English, a language that few in the region speak.

The authors also decry a "freedom deficit," ranking Arab countries the world's lowest in civil liberties and representative government. The Arab-Israeli conflict is a cause and excuse for the region's retarded political development, the authors say. But they devote little space to the pro forma denunciations of Israel so common in the region--which is fortunate, since Israel, even with all its faults, could serve as a democratic model for Arabs now ruled by hereditary monarchies or other authoritarian regimes.

Which brings us to the treatment of women.

The enrollment of Arab girls in primary and secondary schools has doubled in 30 years, but too many still go without education. And those who do complete high school often find no chance to use what they've learned, since fewer women have jobs or serve in parliaments in these nations than anywhere else on the planet.

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

Recognizing problems is the prerequisite to solving them. The West should encourage the Arab world to look squarely at this benchmark report's sobering message and assist any moves toward democracy it spurs. Those Arabs inclined to react defensively to the authors' hard facts might first consider this: About half the Arab teenagers polled for the report say they want to emigrate.

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