Marc Lynch on the new Arab Human Development Report

Marc Lynch gives his reaction to the United Nations Development Program’s new report on the Arab world.  He discusses some of the political controversies that surrounded its publication, which featured accusations of meddling by UN member states.  But he also believes that there is valuable information in the report as well:

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”.

Lynch doesn’t find much to praise in the rest of the report, and laments that does not provide a clear path toward reaching the goals of human development and security.


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