The Jordan Times
Democracy and good governance are finding a growing resonance among
broadening segments of the Arab populace, occasionally even finding a
faint echo and response among those in power in the form of cautious
and selective opening of their national political and social systems.
Some in the Arab world view this as a sign of hope, an inching towards democratic reforms and good governance. Most, including those who participated in writing a recently released international report on freedom in the Arab world, however, consider the steps taken so far by most Arab governments in the direction of freedom and good governance mere palliatives, too much fanfare signifying virtually nothing.
"Unquestionably, incipient reforms are taking place in more than one of the priority areas of governance and freedom," according to the Arab Human Development Report 2004 titled "Towards Freedom in the Arab World", "but for the most part these reforms have been embryonic and fragmentary ? they do not add up to a serious effort to dispel the prevailing environment of repression."
The report, sponsored by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), has been put together by a team of internationally acknowledged independent Arab scholars. Amman was courageous to host the launch of the report in early April. It is the third in a series of such reports. The first AHDR, titled "Creating Opportunities for Future Generations", was issued in 2002, and the second, on "Building Knowledge Societies", in 2003.
Widely acclaimed internationally, as well as in the Arab world, the AHDRs provide a fresh perspective on the Arab world ? fresh but steeped in and fully cognisant of Arab traditions, culture, history, economy and polity, highlighting and identifying targets and strategies dictated by the imperatives of modernisation and globalisation.
A deepening sense of crisis and malaise envelops the Arab world today. Frustration and disappointment are widespread, as is the sense of helplessness and perceived failure. To alleviate this, there is urgent need for political reforms, for a review and restructuring of political institutions and their architecture in the Arab region. The agreement, however, stops here. Diagnosis is accepted, but on the source of the illness, the prognosis and curative prescriptions, differences emerge.
Continued Israeli occupation of Palestine and suppression of the Palestinian people has continued to provide, although to a lesser degree than in the past, Arab regimes with a pretext for postponing internal reforms in the face of an external threat. US-led occupation in Iraq and the escalating war on terrorism have also adversely affected human development in the Arab region. Post-Sept. 11 anti-terrorist measures taken by some Western countries were perceived to be anti-Arab and anti-Muslim throughout the Arab world, thereby weakening the hands of Arab reformers who had held the same Western countries as models of freedom and democracy. Anti-terrorism strategy, adopted by the Arab governments, has resulted in additional restrictions on human rights in the Arab region.
Among the Arab people, there is near consensus about the collective failure of Arab governments to deal with several major issues which affect their lives and psyche ? the Palestinian issue, Arab cooperation, foreign interference, human development, modernisation and stability. The sense of collective failure becomes deeper because of the absence of basic means of decent living and lack of human rights.
That the Arab regimes have not been able to harness and nurture a united Arab will remains uncontested. What is also incontrovertible is that in the absence of the support of a united Arab will, Arab governments have been unable to speak and negotiate in international fora from a position of strength to protect Arab rights and secure a decent life for the Arab people. Arab disunity has become synonymous with weakness and insignificance, leaving the region and its people vulnerable to exploitation in this world order.
In the Arab world, the masses remain disenfranchised and excluded from the decision-making processes.
"The executive apparatus in the modern Arab state, in the political sense, resembles a 'black hole' which converts the surrounding social environment into a setting in which nothing moves, from which nothing escapes," according to AHDR 2004.
Parliaments, where they exist, serve as the bureaucratic adjuncts of the executive.
The Arab region, by and large, remains unaffected by democratic movements that have taken roots and flourished in other regions of the world in recent years. Some Arab countries have made a few liberal moves towards democracy, but for these moves to become norms rather than exceptions, the governing elite in these countries would have to accept the principle of peaceful alteration of power.
The situation in the Arab region remains explosive, social tinderboxes ready to explode. Unless peaceful countermeasures are taken to alleviate the endemic social and economic injustices, and given continued development failure, internal repression and foreign appropriation, intensified, even violent, social conflict is more than likely to erupt. It is not a matter of if but when.
What can be done to reverse this nightmarish scenario? Good governance provides the most appropriate answer. Good governance, if ushered in and instituted peacefully, would lay a solid foundation for an Arab renaissance, undoing social injustice through effective policies and measures.
The path to the establishment of good governance lies in negotiated and peaceful redistribution and alternation of power in the Arab countries.
Good governance and democracy are not synonymous, but a democratic environment is a prerequisite for initiating and nurturing good governance institutions, conventions and practices in a society. Political structures which limit people's sovereignty and rights are not likely to facilitate democratic institutions necessary for economic reforms and modernisation.
Arab renaissance, globalised society
In the past four decades, Arab countries have taken significant steps towards modernisation of their economies by investing heavily in infrastructure, industrialisation, agriculture, education and public health. Many of them have also instituted policies and measures for the expansion of the private sector. However, they have failed to meet their people's aspirations for development, security and liberation. Poor governance in most, if not all, social and economic institutions has aggravated the economic and social situation, as reflected in growing unemployment, increased poverty and the widening gap between the poor and the rich, resulting from unbalanced distribution of income and wealth in the Arab region.
Freedom is pivotal to human development. The concept of Arab renaissance combines the principles of freedom and justice with the principles of social and economic development, emphasising equally human rights and human development which have human freedom as the common denominator. Without concerted action for comprehensive structural socio-economic and political reforms at national and regional levels, essential for spearheading a human renaissance in the Arab world, Arab countries and the Arab people may find themselves unprepared and incapable of meeting the twin challenges of modernisation and development in a highly competitive, knowledge-based globalised society.
The writer is senior regional programme adviser at the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), and professor (at large) of public policy at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. He contributed this article to The Jordan Times.
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