Transforming the Arab world

Category: Middle East, World Affairs Topics: Arab World, Muslim World, United Nations Views: 5108

The UNDP has recently published its second Arab Human Development Report (AHDP). An interesting document, it focuses on three fundamental pillars: freedom, women's rights and knowledge dissemination. The Report analyses the cultural, economic, societal and political contexts that influence knowledge acquisition within the Arab region. The UNDP has prepared the Report with the assistance of local authorities and universities. This has been done to enhance UNDP's assessment capabilities as a first step towards the implementation of reforms in primary and university education in the Arab world. The Report is being considered as important because some of the assumptions apply to most Muslim countries.

Great interest has been generated in the western world and elsewhere after 9/11 about the type of education that is being provided in the Muslim world in general and the Arab world in particular. Many in the recent past have indicated reservations about the nature and direction of the learning process itself and suggested that this factor has generally impeded growth of democratic institutions in the Muslim world.

The Report has already generated controversy among the intellectuals and educationists within the Arab region and also in some Muslim countries. Some have protested that the Report does not take into consideration the closed nature of the Arabic speaking society and also is hasty in its quest to achieve democratic reforms. It is also being argued by some that economic reforms and poverty alleviation have to come first and then be followed by societal reforms. Others are also suggesting that despite some good elements, the Report has refrained from dealing with demands for equality and women's rights.

These observations are significant and deserve attention. They indicate the awareness of not only existing social inequality but also the need for better educational opportunities.

It may be recalled that the first Report was launched almost two years ago and had been a real wake-up call to many in the region and elsewhere around the world. The second Report focuses on two key questions related to the Arab world: Why are they lagging  behind and what is the way out? Some of the findings are relevant for other Muslim countries.

Both Reports have acknowledged progress in the past three decades in the Arab world with particular reference to the health sector: life expectancy has risen by 15 years and infant mortality has decreased by two-third. They have also referred to various shortcomings. I have found some of these elements to be common with our country and other Muslim countries in our region.

The Report also make significant critical observations pertaining to freedom of speech, women's empowerment and accessing to external knowledge. It is fortunate that in Bangladesh, Indonesia and Malaysia, such draw-backs are not that serious. We have progressed in these areas.

The second Report centers primarily on knowledge dissemination and knowledge production. It suggests that education is currently the biggest problem, particularly the quality of teaching. This is a concern which is having a clear impact on students and stifling their natural inquisitiveness. It is also implied that the public at large is not receiving adequate education through the press. In this context, criticism is also made that freedom of the press is very restricted in most Arab countries.

Censorship has had a large impact on dissemination of literature across the whole region, and censors in different Arab countries continue to use individual standards for trimming texts. An analyst has reported that publishers end up with the lowest common denominator after the 22 censors in the different Arab countries have cut the text back.

The Report also underlines another interesting imbalance. It points out that countries in the region have shown considerable absence of advanced research in the sciences, such as molecular biology and high-tech, but have had an abundance of leading cultural and literary figures. In this regard, it draws attention to the fact that many scientific researchers do not stay in the area due to lack of R&D funding and less emphasis on scientific research in the society. I find great similarity in this assessment of Arab countries with that of other Muslim countries. This opinion is also consistent with a recent survey that indicates that Muslim countries provide only one-third of the global average in the numbers of scientists and engineers.

I am referring to this Report today because it has made some bold suggestions that are critical for Muslim countries anywhere. It demands freedom of expression, broadening of the quality of education (as opposed to the insular Madrassa format of theocratic learning only), giving necessary importance to scientific research in society and moving towards a new knowledge-based economy that celebrates diversity, inquisitiveness and creativity.

UNDP has claimed that the goal of the Report is to produce operational results and highlight issues often ignored by the donor community. They have also stated that concrete efforts will be made on the basis of this Report to assess the quality of existing educational measures and curricula in the Middle East. The UNDP feels there is urgency to act. There goal is now to help countries assess their work in basic education, particularly in science and mathematics and help them to improve. The UNDP is absolutely right. They should follow through on this exercise also in other Muslim countries of Asia.

One way to approach these common problems in the Muslim world might be to take a "bottom-up" reform effort.

For obvious reasons, the first step should be the principle of good governance. This is crucial. Its absence impedes development and promotes the lack of fundamental freedoms. I believe that developed countries can play a moral authoritative role in this regard. The Arab countries have already started cooperation in an institutional manner with the EU and the UN to rectify the situation. This has been a good move forward. This prescription will definitely help the Arab bloc to find the necessary resources for bridging the digital divide and resolve the question of technology transfer. The UNDP of course has to be careful that it does not stress too much on the one-size-fits-all theory. The EU also has to work both as a partner and as an equal.

There is need for reform and less dogma. Restructuring, transformation and reorganization have to take place both in terms of approach as well as attitude. Countries with Muslim majority populations need to understand that reform should be on their agenda. Freedom of speech and assembly (for religious and political purposes) needs to be guaranteed. States in the Middle East, including Israel also need to ensure that international standards pertaining to human rights are met and discrimination not hinder progress. National action plans need to be put in pace with constructive participation of all stake-holders including civil society. These factors go hand in hand with basic freedoms, civil liberties, legal reform, economic modernization and the promotion of knowledge.

It has been reported that dissemination of the second Report has not been very easy within the Arab world. Copies have had to be brought in under the diplomatic license of the UNDP, as commercial distribution has proved too difficult. This is disappointing. We must be bold in accepting criticism and find the courage to move forward.

Both the Arab League and the Organization of the Islamic Conference can do sterling work in this regard. The Arab League, in particular, should not only discuss the recommendations of this Report but also study its implications. It should be on their Agenda. The Middle East is rich in natural resources. It can set the pace for the future if it widens its horizon.

Muhammad Zamir is a former Secretary and Ambassador of Bangladesh.


  Category: Middle East, World Affairs
  Topics: Arab World, Muslim World, United Nations
Views: 5108

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Older Comments:
This article lacks some depth in the matter. The issue is presented in a simplistic way. Is everything in life about the ecomnomy and technology? Are all our sisters in the Muslim world lacking freedom? I don't think so. If you really have some common sense, you'd realize that american women are not free. But that's their business. I am not here to criticize. What Muslims have to do is to free themselves from superstitions and local traditions that have nothing to do with Islam. our man should be educated about the rights of women in a correct islamic context: how to deal with them, love them, be responsible for them, etc. Plus, the economy and technology of our countries will go nowhere as long as there is no real political representation of the masses who are left on their own committing all kids of sins and crimes.

Quite a poor piece which appears to agree to all but some aspects of the rather narrow minded and condescending UNDP report.

The writer has also taken up the tired old argument of Madrassa bashing. Madrassa's only exist to fill a vacuum, i.e. people educated there would most probably otherwise receive no education at all, it seems that people like the writer would consider no education is better than Islamic education.

As for censorship, although it is used in the Middle East to silence political descent and help prop up corrupt regimes, this effect is largely prevalent in the media, and the implication that what is being taught in school needs to change too is quite appalling. Calling for a change to what is taught no doubt suggests replacing the material with that which holds up Western values and norms. Is the teaching of history in which the Arabs are evil aggressors and Israel is the shining beacon the UNDP's real aim? Seems so, and the writer appears to agree.

Unless I am mistaken the American currently run Iraq, and it is quite hypocritical for a 'Western' orientated report not to focus on how the Americans are going about implementing the agenda laid out in the UNDP report.

Salam. I agreed with most of the views the author has shared within this article.


America has become a nation of WAR-mongers.

Ameican has become a nation of building WALLs, and NOT tearing down the walls.

America has become a nation of crudasders.
(as everything used to be 50 years ago; Thanks to USSR for distracting America into space race for the last 50 years)

The U.S. currently has a theocratic gov't because it is run by Christian and Jews extremists and ,of course, by the Crusade-boy, Bush jr, who will be known as the most incompetent boy of 21st century.

Solution: Drop Nukes in Ameica and Isreal and their transformation talks in Middle East will be shoved down their _ _ _ _ _. & They know it; that's why all kinds of alerts are going up every day in America and Israel.

Don't blame it all on Al-Qaidya. It is time the Americans and the Isralis start blaming themseleves for their horror-filled everyday-life.

Summary: TRANSFORMATION STARTS AT HOME. LEARN TO SWALLOW THE TRUTHS (from H.A.). To know the mechanism of swallowing the truths, write to H.A.-
H.A. (the Camel and goat smelling TERRORIST from the desert)
Uncivilized Terror Camp, X-istan 00001

No, H.A. is NOT sick!!! and not anti-semeitic.