Following last year’s watershed publication, the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) released its second annual Arab Human Development Report.  Written “by Arabs for Arabs,” the report takes a critical look at the cardinal obstacles to human development in the Arab world.  While no less scrupulous than its predecessor, this year’s report suffers in places from the very sort of scapegoating it claims to criticize.

Analysis:  The theme of responsibility underlies the entire report: Arab leaders should be responsible to their citizens, and citizens to themselves and one another.  As in last year’s report, the authors call for immediate, universal and active responsibility to close the gaps in personal freedom, women’s rights and proliferation of knowledge that retard growth in the region.

The report laments that Arab countries comprise the least free region in the world, according to Freedom House rankings.  Among the bottom ten states in the world, half are Arab.  On women’s empowerment, progress has been made in several states, though it “still has a long way to go.”  But, the bulk of the report focuses on “the knowledge gap.”

Progress toward a knowledge society is hindered by poor education, authoritarianism, censorship and the lowest rates of Internet access in the world.  Scientific research is growing at a much slower rate than in South Korea or China. Arab scholarship in the humanities is insular.  The authors conclude that “[k]nowledge in Arab countries today appears to be on the retreat.”

The otherwise exacting 176-page analysis is marred by an introduction that blames Israel for exacerbating these long-standing ills, running counter to the spirit and letter of the rest of the text.  While calling for “rigorous self-criticism,” the treatment of Israel allows for a favorite impediment to reform: deflection.

On the lack of Arab political and economic reform, the report states: “The threat of Israeli domination…creates a pretext for deferring political and economic reforms in Arab countries in the name of national solidarity against a formidably armed external aggressor.”  Similarly, Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories “distorts policy priorities, retards human development and freezes opportunity for growth, prosperity and freedom across the region, and not in the [Palestinian territories] alone.  The harsh indignities arising from occupation extend to all the Arab people…”

To suggest that Israel stands in the way of reform and development in the Arab world is to mute the call to individual and collective responsibility.  Still, on balance, the report continues the positive and pioneering project “by Arabs, for Arabs.”

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