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Tuesday, 2 July, 2002, 15:39 GMT 16:39 UK
UN report criticises Arab states
Iraqi oil field
Oil wealth has not been spent wisely, the report found

A United Nations report on development in the Arab world says the region is not developing as fast or as fully as other comparable regions.

The report was compiled by a team of Arab scholars for UNDP - the United Nations Development Programme.

The range of disparity among Arab countries is almost as large as that for the entire world. Kuwait scores only slightly lower than Canada, the world leader, while Djibouti is close to Sierra Leone

UNDP report
Its publication comes at a time when the Arab world is under increased scrutiny in the wake of the 11 September terrorist attacks.

Many people have been asking what kind of societies produce the type of militant movements from which Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda network arose.

This report provides some interesting answers.

Poor governance

The most striking weakness identified in the report and one which the authors suggest lies behind all other problems is a lack of democracy, which leads to poor governance.

Kofi Annan, the UN Secretary-General has said, "Good governance is perhaps the single most important factor in eradicating poverty and promoting development".

The report points out that political participation in the Arab region is still limited compared to other regions - and the region is rated lower than any other for freedom of expression and accountability.

The Arab media was found to be "at best partly free"
Arab governments' attitudes towards civil societies ranged from opposition to manipulation to "freedom under surveillance", according to the report, which assessed various aspects of the political process, civil liberties, political rights and independence of the media.

The Arab media was described as "at best partly free" and even when civil rights were enshrined in constitutions and laws, they were often ignored in practice.

The "freedom deficit" identified by the report goes some way to explaining why the Arab world can be seen to have squandered some of the advantages it has enjoyed in terms of oil wealth and a strong natural sense of solidarity within Arab culture.

The impact of oil

A tradition of aid for the poor, whether expressed politically or religiously, has led to less severe poverty in Arab countries than in some comparable regions, the report notes.

UNDP findings
Arab life expectancy increased by 15 yrs in the last 30 yrs
Infant mortality rates dropped by two thirds in the last 30 yrs
Arab women have lower life expectancy than the world average
Women occupy only 3.5% of all seats in Arab parliaments
GDP for all Arab countries is less than the GDP of Spain
One in five Arabs lives on less than $2 per day
Arab unemployment, at 15%, is the highest in the developing world
51% of older adolescents interviewed expressed a desire to emigrate
It points out that life expectancy has increased by 15 years over the last three decades, and infant mortality rates have dropped by two thirds.

But oil revenues have not contributed as much to human development in the region as might have been expected.

This is because they have not always been reinvested productively in the country concerned, let alone in the region.

As the report notes: "A very large investment in fixed capital formation of over $3,000 billion, over the past 20 years, has had poor returns in per capita income, which experienced the lowest growth rate in the world apart from sub-Saharan Africa."

Cross-border and internal conflicts were identified as serious obstacles to progress.

The Arab-Israeli conflict in particular was seen as contributing to the democratic deficit, providing governments with an excuse for distorting the development agenda by diverting resources to military spending.

'Poverty of opportunities'

But above all, the Arab people have been "hobbled" by poverty of capabilities and poverty of opportunities, the report concludes.

In addition to a lack of freedom, failures in the areas of women's empowerment and knowledge needed to be remedied to help the region break out of its current inertia.

The use of Arab women's capabilities through political and economic participation remains the lowest in the world in quantitative terms, the report says.

Arab women
Half of all Arab women cannot read or write, the report found
In many countries of the region, women suffer from unequal citizenship and legal entitlements, and one in every two Arab women can neither read nor write.

The report argues that "no society can achieve the desired state of well being and human development, or compete in a globalising world, if half its people remain marginalised and disempowered".

Education too has been moving in the wrong direction. Spending levels have fallen since the mid 1990s and school enrolment levels are not keeping up with rapid population growth, the report found.

It also notes that while personal computers are more widespread in the Arab region than in any other part of the developing world outside Latin America, the region has by far the lowest internet access and usage.

Assistant administrator and director of the Regional Bureau for Arab States, Rima Khalaf Hunaidi, said she saw an accurate diagnosis of the problem as being an important part of the solution.

"The wealth of unbiased, objective analysis the report contains is part of our contribution to Arab peoples and policy-makers, in the search for a brighter future."

But unless the report is heeded, the growing army of young people in the region face an uncertain future - and they themselves are clearly not optimistic about the prospects for change.

"In a worrying trend, 51% of older adolescents interviewed and 45% of younger ones expressed a desire to emigrate, clearly indicating dissatisfaction with current conditions and future prospects," the report says.

See also:

18 Jun 02 | In Depth
20 Jun 02 | Middle East
21 Sep 01 | Country profiles
04 Jan 02 | Country profiles
19 Nov 99 | Americas
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