Arab Human Development Report

The release last year of the Arab Human Development Report by the United Nations Development Program created a flurry of attention, especially the part about translation numbers in the Arab world. (The entire Arab world translates only about 330 books annually, fewer than Greece. A Harper’s reader later pointed out that the U.S., which boasts one of the biggest publishing industries in the world, translates roughly 330 books a year as well. Insularity is apparently alive and well everywhere.) At any rate, this year, a new AHDR is out. You can read an executive summary here.
The report focuses on three areas that are significant for development: freedom, women’s empowerment, and knowledge. The AHDR finds that civil and political freedoms have been curtailed in the last year, in part as a consequence of the September 11 attacks and the war on terror. In contrast, there was some progress for women’s empowerment, illustrated by greater participation in politics, among other things. But the largest portion of the report was devoted to the third area: building a knowledge society. While the output in the sciences (which require a greater amount of funding) is staggeringly low, in the arts there is a “wealth of distinguished literary and artistic work.” But writers and publishers must face censors, a low readership rate, and low purchasing power of potential readers.
The report summary makes for very interesting reading, though the language can get unnecessarily flowery:

The outcome of this encounter was a renovation and modernization of the Arab cultural heritage, descending from the past, opening wide to the future and drawing abundantly on the sinews of modernization and the rich crop of Western production in all fields of knowledge, science, the arts, literature and technology.

In addition, the numbers cited in the summary are often not put in context:

There are less than 53 newspapers per 1000 Arab citizens, compared to 285 papers per 1000 people in developing countries.

The figures are not followed by numbers on lower literacy rates, nor by any mention of the availability of foreign newspapers in Arab countries. Sometimes it’s difficult to make sense of the numbers cited:

There are just 18 computers per 1000 people in the region, compared to the global average of 78.3 percent per 1000 people and only 1.6 pecent of the population has Internet access.

Some proofreading would have been welcome here, as it’s difficult to understand what the 78.3 refers to. Is it 78.3 computers? Or 78.3 percent of people that have access to computers? It’s confusing at best. None of this is to say that the report doesn’t make some fair observations, of course.
In addition, the report talks about the Arabic language, its use in education, and the way it is taught. Report writers note that Classical Arabic has ceased to be a spoken language. I found the word “ceased” to be a bit amusing, considering that Arabic has been for a long, long time, in a state of diglossia (meaning that there are two language forms, one a Classical, written form used in formal situations, the other a spoken variety, used in every day speech. Greek used to be in diglossia, but eventually the spoken form was used in writing.) The report writers say that it’s become necessary to “strengthen the practical attributes of Arabic” but it’s unclear what, specifically, they mean by this. Lastly, the report mentions the Arab Brain Drain, whereby university graduates emigrate at a steady rate toward more developed countries, contributing to a “form of reverse development aid.” The report calls for the use of this Arab Diaspora by tapping its knowledge and expertise and by providing incentives for it to return, either temporarily or for good.
The AHDR report has already been picked up for comment by news outlets, for example by the Chicago Tribune. The Tribune talks mostly about the problems characterizing the Arab publishing world (poor output, larger focus on religious books than in other countries, etc.) although it doesn’t challenge the report in any way (e.g. comparisons with Greece are unwarranted when literacy rates are not comparable.)


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