Arab intellectuals risked the wrath of their rulers last year by pointing out the poor education, roadblocks to women's rights and lack of scientific inquiry that cause a "freedom deficit" in the region. Now, their second annual scorecard is equally depressing.
The inaugural Arab Human Development Report resounded across Middle Eastern nations in 2002: More than 1 million people downloaded its 168 pages from the Web site of the United Nations Development Program. This year's report already has received an endorsement from President Bush, who quoted from it two weeks ago in his proclamation on the need for democracy in the Middle East.
If the leaders of Arab nations would listen to their own people, next year's report could be brighter. The latest critique emphasizes the "growing knowledge gap" between the Arab world and other regions. Many women are illiterate, many children have no access to basic education, few Arabs pursue higher education and public spending on education has declined since 1985. There are fewer than 18 computers per 1,000 Arab citizens, compared with 78 computers per 1,000 people in developed countries.
The report makes the valid criticism that post-9/11 anti-terrorism laws in the United States and other countries have given Arab countries another excuse to restrict their political liberties. The Bush administration should more strongly protest those moves, which have not been confined to the Mideast; these erosions of civil liberties are designed more to keep existing rulers in power than to really protect their people.
U.S. curbs on visas after 9/11 also have stopped many Arabs from studying in this country, another setback for their education.
Venerating education and its role in improving society "closely approaches a religious obligation that Arabs ought to honor and exercise," the report says. Becoming a "knowledge society" will require laws to guarantee freedom of expression, quality education for all and an emphasis on basic scientific research.
Rima Khalaf Hunaidi, a former deputy prime minister of Jordan and now a top U.N. official, said this year's report was intended to provoke debate and prompt reforms in the Arab world. She rightly noted that genuine change must come from within, not from outside these societies.
There have been examples of progress in the last year, including legislative elections in Morocco and Bahrain. But too many Arab governments impose obstacles, especially by curtailing civil rights. To lift their countries to the level of nations elsewhere, Arab leaders will have to devote resources to educating those they rule and provide them with the opportunity for greater liberty.