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UN Report Cites Threats to Arab Advancement - 2002-07-02

A United Nations report says Arab nations are falling behind the rest of the world in many areas. The study was written by Arab intellectuals and released in Cairo.

Arab societies are being damaged by illiteracy, a lack of political freedom, the repression of women and a serious decline in economic and social productivity.

Those are some of the conclusions of the Arab Human Development Report 2002. It was written by a team of about 30 academics, including economists, sociologists and experts on Arab culture.

The report is the first U.N. human development survey devoted to a single region; the Arab world is made up of 22 countries with a combined population of more than 280 million people.

According to the report, Arab "women are almost universally denied advancement," and half of them cannot read or write. Income levels are shrinking. Research and development "are weak or nonexistent." Science and technology are dormant. For example, just one percent of Arab society uses the Internet.

The report contains no surprises for Sa'id Sadek Amin, an expert on public opinion and a columnist in Cairo. "The Arab world does not need a report explaining how disturbing life has become because...everyone who lives here already knows it," he said, adding that "life for Arabs is deteriorating because political leaders want to maintain the status quo."

"The Arab regimes believe that an ignorant population is easier to rule than an educated population, and this is the reason why we have never jumped in our illiteracy eradication campaigns," Mr. Amin said. "The real cause is political stagnation, political oppression. This is the main reason that it is causing the whole Middle East to go backward. We do not have human development. There is no investment in human development."

But Mr. Amin says "winds of change" are coming to the region. He says he believes "conditions in the Middle East are similar to those in the Soviet Union just prior to the collapse of communism."

The secretary-general of Egypt's National Council for Women and the chairman of the Parliamentary Committee for Human Development, Farkhonda Hassan, says she fully agrees with the findings of the U.N. report, which she calls "extraordinarily disturbing." But unlike Mr. Amin, she thinks such reports are necessary because she believes they act as a catalyst for change.

"We have a saying here in Arabic that something, while it looks bad, might be good. So if it is disturbing it is good. Let us be disturbed and think about what we are supposed to do. It might be resented, it might be opposed, it might be criticized, whatever, but it will cause the change," she said.

While the report's conclusions were severely critical of Arab society, the report was not completely negative. It said that the standard of living in Arab countries, on the whole, is advancing. Life expectancy is longer than the world average of 67 years, and education spending is higher than in many other developing countries.

Even so, the report concluded that when it comes to women, "the Arab world is largely depriving itself of the creativity and productivity of half of its citizens."