Wednesday, January 26, 2005
Intimidation damages UN's latest report on Arabs
"The U.N. Development Programme (UNDP) will lend its name to a controversial report on freedom and governance in the Arab world despite U.S. objections to parts of the text".In other words, the US is displeased that the latest UNDP Arab Human Development Report lays the blame for Arab problems on the US and Israel.
"The dispute reflects differences between the U.S. view that the Arab world's problems are mainly internal and the Arab consensus that external factors such as foreign intervention and Israel's treatment of the Palestinians have contributed significantly to oppression and poor governance in the region".
The 2002 UNDP report on Arab Development was harshly critical of Arab under-development and was indirectly mentioned by me recently and summarised in Self-Doomed to Failure by The Economist which said:
One in five Arabs still live on less than $2 a day. And, over the past 20 years, growth in income per head, at an annual rate of 0.5%, was lower than anywhere else in the world except sub-Saharan Africa. At this rate, says the report, it will take the average Arab 140 years to double his income, a target that some regions are set to reach in less than ten years. Stagnant growth, together with a fast-rising population, means vanishing jobs. Around 12m people, or 15% of the labour force, are already unemployed, and on present trends the number could rise to 25m by 2010.The Report's Chief Author: Nader Fergany, an Egyptian sociologist.
The barrier to better Arab performance is not a lack of resources, concludes the report, but the lamentable shortage of three essentials: freedom, knowledge and womanpower. Not having enough of these amounts to what the authors call the region's three "deficits". It is these deficits, they argue, that hold the frustrated Arabs back from reaching their potential—and allow the rest of the world both to despise and to fear a deadly combination of wealth and backwardness.
Disclosure: I am not a big fan of the UN lately. I also know the UN hasn't been very positive toward the US lately (or Israel at all since 1948).
This latest issue, and the UN's need for a distraction after their post-Tsunami failures and US pressure over oil-for-food got me thinking.
Why apparently all of a sudden, are the US and Israel responsible for Arab problems they weren't blamed for in the 2002 report.
Especially when the author of this latest report is..... Nader Fergany, the author of the previous one.
Due to the nature of this site, I've been hanging around Indymedia a whole lot, so perhaps some of the conspiracy theorist lunacy has rubbed off on me.
But here's my 'crazy' thought: Is it possible that Fergany has been subject to considerable 'persuasion' by Arab or UN sources to modify the report's findings all of a sudden?
We can be certain the Arab world would have been none too pleased by their previous scorecard. We also know that many Arabs take a shall-we-say 'dim' view of ideas they disapprove of.
Could a bit of UN or Arab 'per$ua$ion' have helped change Fergany's mind or that of his working group?
Worse, could Fergany possibly have been intimidated into 'revising' this latest report?
This is entirely my own theory but it certainly wouldn't be the first case of massive corruption at the UN.
Nahid Fergany has some animosity towards the US and Egypt as indicated when he was interviewed by the Arabist Network here concerning their use of the previous report.
Interviewer: For the past few years, you’ve had the Bush administration and many American and European newspaper columnists rely a lot on the first two reports to advance their beliefs on the need for reform in the Arab world or the idea that the region needs to be shaken up for democracy to grow. Do you think their interpretation is valid?I can't say for certain what the reports' "vision" was beyond "celebration of the cause of human development" and improving the Arab World. When launching the earlier report however, Fergany did say:
Fergany: The only flagrant misuse of the report was by the American administration in basing their Greater Middle East Initiative, [which was based] especially on the first draft on the report, which I think was a form of misuse of the report. It's only because the American administration has no credibility in the region whatsoever that it wanted something that is credible to propose its own version of reform, which is not consistent with the report's vision anyway.
Arab countries have surely made significant strides in more than one area of human development in the last three decades. Nevertheless, these achievements are marred by deeply rooted shortcomings that represent serious obstacle to building human development in the Arab countries. We summarised them in the three deficits of freedom, empowerment of women and knowledge. As such, the challenge of building human development remains a very serious one for the vast majority of Arabs.(PDF version or Google's HTML cache). On that basis, I think the US and Economist interpretation was fair (refer the quote earlier) and even some Arab media has run with similar commentary of the previous reports. Fergany may just be upset the US made too big a deal of it.
This is also not the first time the report has been controversial according to this AP article.
The annual UNDP report has elicited passionate responses since first appearing in 2002 because of its frankness and willingness to challenge the status quo.Am I the only one who sees the irony of Arab countries commenting on US Democracy and freedom of speech?
Fergany, who turned down repeated requests for an interview by The Associated Press, wrote in Al Arabi that the United States tried to block or tone down this year's version.
Mustafa Kamel el-Seyed, a Cairo University professor who wrote a chapter on political participation and the role of minorities, told the AP: "No government has any right to express any reservations on the report. This is censorship." [ed - I agree and hope the idea takes off in the Arab World one day.]
James Bullock, a U.S. Embassy official in Cairo, disputed those allegations Tuesday, saying the State Department first issued a denial Dec. 16.
The U.N. body also denied any government tried to suppress the report.
"It is untrue that UNDP is suppressing the report. It is untrue that either the government of the United States or the government of Egypt has asked us to block the report. As we said before, the report is still in the final editing process and we expect it to be published within the next couple of months," UNDP spokesman Bill Orme said.
But the agency has hinted at problems, saying any document coming out under its name "must meet the high standards of impartiality expected of a U.N. agency."
In a letter published in the pan-Arab daily Al Hayat last month, Egyptian Foreign Ministry official Dawlat Hassan said the report's authors failed to take the government's views into account, which is "unacceptable belittling of these states and it does not express a real readiness for cooperation to create a partnership for the development of this area."
Hassan did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
Fergany also worked on the two previous reports, which were warmly received by the United States, with President Bush saying they helped advance his drive for political reform in the Middle East.
Arab leaders were angered by those reports. Last year, Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa refused to host a ceremony to release the report because it criticized Arab governments. [ed- They should speak to George W. Bush about what happens when you have a free press!] Organizers moved the ceremony to Jordan.
This time, Moussa said reports the United States tried to block publication of the survey show Washington was not serious when it called for more democracy and freedom of speech in the Arab world.
Returning to my theory: Worst case, Fergany and his committee may have been manipulated. Best case, he may bear a new or increased grudge towards the US.
Either way, this does not augur well for the report's impartiality or whether the Arab countries are likely to derive benefit from any constructive criticism rather than continue down their current spiral while scapegoating others.
Arabs blaming the US and Israel for everything while absolving themselves of any responsibility is not a new thing.
Update: The House of Wheels has posted a concise chronology of the events.