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UNDP:  Poverty, Conflict Inhibit Arab Development

A report by more than 100 intellectuals from Arab countries says poverty, unemployment, authoritarian rule and conflict are undermining freedoms and quality of life for people in the Middle East and North Africa, according to the Arab Human Development Report, which was presented at a recent event in Washington.

The report is the fifth in a series sponsored by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) and is independently compiled by scholars from Arab countries.

Hindrances to development

The report says spreading poverty, unemployment, civil wars, ethnic conflicts and authoritarian repression are inhibiting development.

Amat Alsoswa directs the UNDP's Regional Bureau for Arab States.

"This is still a region with knowledge levels that are not up to the standards of the globalized economy, where women suffer discrimination and where political rights are entrenched. But it is also a region plagued by poverty. It is water scarce and highly vulnerable to climate change," said Alsoswa.

The report says among the threats to human security is a lack of representative government coupled with human rights violations and sweeping powers for security agencies.

Alsoswa told reporters at a Washington event to present the report that economies are overly dependent on oil, and most Arab countries are unable to cope with growing populations and an unemployment rate among young people that is nearly double that of the rest of the world.

"It is a region where governments at times appear to be overwhelmed, unable in many cases to develop the institutional capacity necessary to address these massive challenges that are only becoming more severe," Alsoswa added.

Arab structures becoming more fragile

The study comes seven years after the first Arab Human Development Report and says the region's political, social, economic and environmental structures are becoming more fragile.

Amit Pandya is a senior associate at the Henry L. Stimson Center, who focuses on regional security issues.

"The trends that the report identifies, urban growth, a bulge in the youth population, unemployment, difficulties with job creation, now you look at all of that, and you think that is a pretty toxic mix," he said.

The report says all Arab justice systems lack complete independence, citing what the authors call executive domination of both the legislative and judicial branches of government.

Closing the gap between leaders and society

Bahgat Korany is a professor of international relations at The American University in Cairo and one of the main writers of the human development study. He told reporters Arab leaders frequently ignore the problems within their societies.

"People in power seem to have blinders about the problems they are facing, both socially, politically and economically, and we felt it was our duty as Arab thinkers to describe the situation as we see it on the ground," he said.

External factors, occupation, intervention

The report also identifies human insecurity caused by occupation and military intervention.

It says conflicts in Iraq, the Israeli occupied West Bank, Somalia, Sudan and elsewhere are threatening lives and peace for millions of people.

Thomas Friedman, a Middle East analyst and Pulitzer Prize winning columnist for The New York Times newspaper, said he does not expect significant change in the Arab world anytime soon.

"The agents of change that would actually take the conclusions of this report and drive it into new policies of reform are all too weak. The state has no incentive, civil society has no power and external forces are not legitimate," said Freidman.

The report calls on Arab governments to enact and enforce laws to protect the environment, change laws and attitudes that discriminate against women, step up efforts to end hunger and expand access to affordable, quality health care.