x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Grading places

World The fifth Arab Human Development Report is a bold intellectual contribution to the Arab world's deadlocked reform debate. But will anyone read it?

The fifth Arab Human Development Report is a bold intellectual contribution to the Arab world's deadlocked reform debate. Marc Lynch wonders whether anyone will read it and, if they do, whether its conceptual insights will translate into change. In 2002, the United Nations Development Programme released the first Arab Human Development Report (AHDR), which ruthlessly enumerated a host of problems afflicting the Arab world - and galvanised debate over the urgency of political, economic, social and cultural reforms. Arabs and westerners alike were transfixed by the team of dedicated, intelligent, and fiercely independent Arab scholars and analysts, and by the candour with which they criticised their own societies.

Seven years later, a fifth AHDR has been released. But it suggests that despite all the public attention devoted to the question of reform since 2002, the deficiencies outlined in the original report have only become deeper and more complex. The 2002 report became a focal point for debate about Arab reform, widely quoted in both the United States and the Arab world - but for very different reasons. Reading coverage of the report in the western media, one might have been forgiven for thinking that no Arab had ever before spoken or thought about the question of reform. Of course, these discussions had long been ongoing: an avalanche of taboo-shattering Al Jazeera talk shows in the late 1990s and early 2000s confronted issues like the justification for states of emergency, the failures of democratisation and the plague of endemic corruption. Arabs welcomed the 2002 report not because it broke new ground but because it gave substance and international recognition to their long-standing arguments about the need for reform.

The euphoric American reception of the 2002 report was driven in large part by the post-September 11 fixation on the pathologies of the Arab world - and the conviction that it was these woes, not American foreign policy, that were the primary cause of terrorism. The report was received enthusiastically across the political spectrum, but neoconservatives in particular seized upon the delicious spectacle of an Arab-authored report that appeared to endorse their own views. Its findings, one pundit crowed, "lend credence to almost everything brave scholars like Bernard Lewis and Daniel Pipes have been saying for years". The report was quickly appropriated to buttress the planks of the Bush administration's "Freedom Agenda", from aggressive "democracy promotion" to regime change in Iraq. American policymakers took little notice of the political orientation of the report's own authors, who shared a widespread Arab distaste for the intolerable status quo but were equally critical of Israel and sharply opposed to the invasion of Iraq and the war on terror.

From the start, the American embrace of the Human Development Report posed political dilemmas for Arab reformists; they argued openly and often about whether to accept American assistance in reform efforts. Sceptics contended that the United States could never be a reliable partner for true reform, because genuine democratisation would necessarily threaten American interests in the region. Others, such as the Egyptian dissident Saad Eddin Ibrahim, countered that only the United States had the power to force Arab regimes to change and that its help should therefore be welcomed.

The new AHDR offers a gloomy verdict: the American retreat from democracy promotion after the Hamas electoral victory in January 2006 "has confirmed the worst fears of Arab reformers... from the perspective of outside powers democracy in the region only matters to the extent that it achieves their own security and other goals". The new report has already generated a fierce controversy. Mustafa Kamal Sayed, the principal author, abruptly resigned his post and angrily denounced the document shortly before its release, claiming that United Nations officials imposed fundamental changes without consulting the authors. One contributor claims that the chapter on "identity" is devoted to Darfur alone because Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Kuwait objected to the report's treatment of Sunni-Shia conflict. Another complains that the chapter on foreign interventions was relegated to the penultimate spot at the insistence of the United States. Some commentators in the Arab press have further alleged that the report adopts a pro-Israeli perspective. The controversy is highly reminiscent of one which greeted the release of the third AHDR in 2004, when its lead author Nader Fergany blasted the UN for muting the report's criticisms of the United States in Iraq and Israel in Palestine.

But these criticisms appear overblown. While critics claim that the final version of the report minimises the importance of the American and Israeli occupations, in fact those concerns are clearly evident throughout the report. A long, detailed chapter lays out the devastating impact of occupations on Iraqi and Palestinian civilians, while other chapters brutally catalogue the contribution of the "war on terror" to legitimating and justifying abuses against human security. Few readers could fail to note that the report exposes the inconsistencies of American "democracy promotion", which combined bold talk about freedom with the continued toleration - even promotion - of human rights abuses in the name of counter-terrorism. It is a pity that the debate about the report has thus far revolved around whether the chapter on foreign occupations is at the beginning or the end.

Because once these political tempests are set aside, the new report makes a bold intellectual and political contribution which could potentially offer a path out of the currently deadlocked Arab reform debate. The authors argue that the problems of human development in the Arab world can be traced to profound human insecurity - "pervasive, often intense and with consequences affecting large numbers of people". The report casts a wide net, with chapters devoted to seven areas where threats to human security are prevalent: the environment, the authoritarian state, vulnerable populations such as women and refugees, unemployment and poverty, hunger and food shortages, health, and occupation and military intervention.

Authoritarian states are not the cause of all of these problems. But, the report suggests, the obsessive focus on state security and regime maintenance in Arab countries systematically distorts all efforts to address the myriad threats to individual well-being. It therefore calls for moving away from a "state-centric conception of security" to one which focuses on "the security of individuals". Such a move allows for a clear vision of the direct and indirect linkages between political dysfunction and the other dimensions of human development. And it throws into sharp relief how unlikely it is that the current authoritarian states will, of their own volition, reform in any meaningful way, or create the conditions in which moderate alternatives might emerge.

The litany of abuses and failings detailed in the report could easily have led to a fundamental rejection of state institutions themselves. But the authors recognise that only a state can provide for the security which allows human beings to thrive and prosper, and they pointedly insist that human security and an appropriately conceived state security should be mutually reinforcing. The task is not the abolition of the state but rather its reform into an institution that protects rather than crushes human dignity and opportunity. The report refers infrequently to democracy, focusing instead on the need for a fundamental transformation in the conception of citizenship and the obligations of states to their citizens. Given the limited results of nearly a decade of western efforts to promote democracy in the Arab world, this is a useful paradigm shift.

What emerges is a coherent narrative that links the authoritarianism of Arab states - and the chaos produced by international military interventions - to the failure to achieve acceptable levels of human development. Rather than an abstract discussion of democracy, the report opts for a detailed analysis of the many ways in which security-oriented states violate the security of their citizens. It criticises the abuse of states of emergency and martial law, the violation of the right to life by torture and mistreatment, and the practice of illegal detentions. The report gives particular attention to the problem of executive-branch infringement on judicial independence, and to the threat posed by "security and armed forces that are not subject to public oversight".

The report is scathing about the corrosive effects of the "war on terror" - showing clearly how Arab authoritarian regimes reconfigured and expanded their repressive power at precisely the time when the Bush administration spoke the loudest about its "Freedom Agenda". The authors do not need to resort to discussing Guantanamo to make this point brutally clear. They describe the anti-terror laws passed in many Arab countries, in which "imprecision and ambiguity form a threat to basic freedoms", and note that states have clearly "failed to find the required balance between the security of society and the preservation of individual rights and freedoms". It is this legacy that Arab reformists - and those in the West who wish to help them - now must confront. The "global war on terror" will not fade so easily away.

The greatest problem with the report, however, is the rather fuzzy, overly broad conception of human security that it employs. Chapters on the environment, the economy, and food are rich with statistical analysis and offer a compelling case for the multifaceted nature of the threats to human security faced by Arab citizens. But such a broad case offers few guideposts for action. The authors seem unable or unwilling to identify which challenges are primary and which are secondary. Why, for instance does the first substantive chapter focus on the environment? Is it because this is the most pressing threat, or simply because this is a way to avoid having the political threats appear first? How can the conflict in Darfur stand alone as the only example of identity conflict? Why, if the Arab region is home to 46.8 per cent of global refugees who live with a sense of "omnipresent danger", is their plight relegated to the second half of a chapter on "vulnerable groups"?

Unfortunately, the controversies engulfing the report may doom it to irrelevance. Americans may tune out a document that they see as still too critical of their policies or as blaming outsiders for Arab problems, while the Arab reception may be dominated by the allegations that western states intervened to suppress discussion of their role in the region (despite the fact that a full chapter is devoted to such issues). This would be a shame: the report serves a valuable purpose by identifying the tension between state security and human security in the Arab world, and it eviscerates the claims of authoritarian states who propose to provide security in exchange for freedom. For the Obama administration, the report could provide a path toward effective reform strategies that suffer neither the rhetorical fog of the "Freedom Agenda" nor the corrosive underpinning of the "war on terror".

It is far too late, alas, to take any comfort in the simple fact that these issues are being discussed in reports like this one. There have already been far too many international conferences on Arab reform - and far too little actual reform. Airing the problems facing the Arab world, it is now clear, is a necessary but not sufficient condition for solving them - and the AHDR offers precious little guidance about how that might be done, at a time when it is badly needed.

Marc Lynch is associate professor at the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University. He writes a blog on Arab politics and media for Foreign Policy.