Officials and analysts denounce the Arab Human Development Report 2009, which presents a more critical view of the region than in years past.
Cold reception for rights report
MANAMA // A new United Nations development report on the Arab world that says the challenges facing the region have grown considerably has been questioned, and in some cases dismissed, by Arab officials and analysts who say it is biased and out of touch with local realities. The Arab Human Development Report (AHDR) 2009, Challenges to Human Security in the Arab Countries, the 5th AHDR released since 2002, lived up to its legacy of fuelling debate and attracting criticism when officials present at its Bahrain launch on Tuesday at the UN House in Manama took turns to question its validity.
The new report identifies seven challenges - up from three identified in 2002 - to the region's development: environmental resources, governance and political liberty, the security of vulnerable groups, poverty and unemployment, food security and nutrition, health and human security, and the insecurity of occupation and foreign military intervention. The United Nations development programme (UNDP) representative, Sayed Aqa, who along with Bahrain's minister of state for foreign affairs, Nizar al Baharna, introduced the report, said: "Human development and human security are two sides of the same coin. Human development is concerned with people's choices and options regarding their livelihood while human security is concerned with survival in their individual environment where issues such as climate, health, and unemployment issues affect them."
Mr Aqa said that while there had been progress in the Arab world in recent years, three factors continue to hinder progress: the first is the governmental failures to address basic political, social, economic and environmental issues; the second is the lack of people-centred development policies; and the third is vulnerability to outside intervention. However, shortly after the opening remarks, those present began to raise doubts about the report, especially after Mr Aqa said the report was almost entirely researched and authored by Arab experts.
The newly appointed under-secretary of foreign affairs, Karim Ebrahim al Shaker, dismissed Mr Aqa's claim. "This is a UN report, it carries the UN logo and it is presented by the UNDP," he said. "If there is any shortcoming in the report then it is the UN's responsibility." The Shura Council member Bahiya al Jishi questioned the report's creditability, arguing that it was merely a collection of the personal opinions of the experts who had worked on it and thus out of touch with realities on the ground.
"My earlier concerns that I had since the launch of the first report were re-enforced when this report was described as a podium for scholars to present their views on how to carry out development in the Arab world," she said. "If the report reflects the personal point of view of scholars, then how can we give credibility to the report and call for its wide application across the Arab world? "The problem is that the report is being presented as one that reflects on the problems facing the region without identifying it as one that reflects the personal point of view of scholars."
Even Mr al Baharna said the report was mainly about stimulating debate and promoting development. "There still remain some issues addressed by the report that are subject to differences in opinion, even among the scholars themselves, despite the fact that the report was presented under the umbrella of the United Nations," Mr al Baharna said. He said the report was not directed at governments alone but also at civil society and that it was the responsibility of everyone to attain the goal of further human development.
The AHDR has always been surrounded by controversy. When the first report was presented in July 2002, then US secretary of state Colin Powell used it as one of the justifications to invade Iraq and introduce the US- Middle East Partnership Initiative, which called for political, economic and educational reform throughout the Arab world, especially among youth and women. The initative, which is headquartered in the US state department with offices across the Middle East, and which continues to operate under the Obama administration, has injected more than US$530 million (Dh1.97 billion) into more than 600 projects across 17 countries and territories in the region since 2002.
The AHDR reports have been criticised in the Arab world - even by some of the reports' authors - as justification for foreign intervention and political gains by the US and some regional governments. But Mr Aqa defended the report as a UN document, saying the UN stood fully behind it. "The emphasis was on the fact that it is owned by Arab scholars not others from outside the region, but it's not based on just their views, it is based on facts and figures. There was a review board, an advisory board, and a final review board that looked at it before it was release," he said.
The methodology of the 2009 report, he said, adopted a new approach by carrying out opinion polls throughout the Middle East and holding two youth forums. The UNDP assistant resident representative, Mohamed al Sharif, said it was up to individual countries to determine which challenges outlined in the report most affected them. "Each country needs to set its priority to address these challenges, but across the Gulf the environmental challenge represents a priority because of the long coastline and the interdependency between livelihoods and the human security of people that depend on them," Mr al Sharif said in an interview.
"The second priority facing the Gulf states, in my opinion, is the economic infrastructure in the oil producing countries because the price fluctuations directly impact the economies of these countries and there is a need to diversify the sources of income and to build economies based on knowledge and research." He also said there was a need to empower women and youth in the region to grasp their full potential in the society.