Open up for a better future

THE ARAB report on Human Development 2003, published by the United Nations, looks at the relationship between poor education, access to knowledge and democracy (on one hand) and the low economic growth (on the other).

There are three basic messages in this report. First, the situation in Arab countries is seriously inadequate. In the other Asian tigers, the average number of years of school attendance is between five and 10. In some Arab countries, it is only two. The percentage of the population with internet access in Iraq, Sudan, Syria, Libya, Algeria, Morocco, Palestine or Saudi Arabia is close to zero. The best countries for online access are the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, with 30 per cent and 18 per cent respectively. The global average is 1.6 per cent (!). Only 53 newspapers are sold per 1,000 inhabitants in the Arab countries, against 285 in the more developed countries.

This absence of knowledge is joined by the lack of openness in Arab countries. This can be social (low social status of women and low acceptance of diversity), political (authoritarian regimes in some cases, totalitarian in others, but always anti-democratic) and economic (frequently state-ruled regimes).

The result is that the GDP per capita in purchasing power parities of the Arab countries is only 20 per cent (five times less) than the average of the OECD countries. And even lower than the average level of Latin America, the Caribbean, Central and Eastern Europe. The only places worse than this are the Far East and Black Africa.

In order to solve this situation, the study proposes deep social reforms based on five foundations – freedom of expression, acceptance of political and cultural diversity, quality of education, research and interaction between society and university. That is, to free society from the current “oppressive alliance between authoritarian regimes and conservative religious leaders”. This will “give back the prestige of the time when the translations of the Greek classics of science and philosophy preserved them for posterity” (quote) – a time when the Arab countries were ahead and led the world.

Underlying this objective, there are, according to the United Nations Arab report, two theses: Firstly, “Western and Muslim values are not incompatible”. Secondly, “the Arab world has no alternative but to accept globalisation”.

How does one summarise all this? In a word: openness. The absence of this is, according to David Landes of Harvard (The wealth and poverty of nations, 1999), the great cause of the backwardness of the Muslim world and, in general, of any country. Openness leads to progress. Closed-mindedness leads to backwardness – because diversity is a source of wealth.