U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell recently said, “Communism is gone. Fascism is gone. There are other systems out there that are being tried, but what really works is democracy. Democracy puts [countries] into the globalized system of trade and economic development that will bring the wealth needed to bring all people up.” This is especially relevant for the countries of the Middle East.
The first Arab Human Development Report was released in July of this year by the United Nations Development Program and the Arab Fund for Social and Economic Development. With contributions from dozens of Arab scholars, the report concluded, “The wave of democracy that has transformed governance in most of the world has barely reached the Arab states. The freedom deficit undermines human development.”
According to the U-N report, Arab societies are paralyzed because of the lack of basic freedoms, oppression of women, and isolation from new ideas. Individual income in the Arab world is lower than anywhere else except perhaps for sub-Saharan Africa. Arab productivity is decreasing, scientific research is almost nonexistent, and almost half of Arab women are illiterate.
The biggest obstacle to change is the lack of open and accountable governance in the region. The U-N report pointed out that Arab rulers tend to remain in office for life and establish autocratic dynasties to carry on after they die. The best way for Arab countries to halt their economic decline is to adopt a democratic form of government. As the U-N report observed, “advancing human development requires governance that is democratic in both form and substance.” This means fair elections, checks and balances between branches of government, and freedom of expression.
There are Arab countries that are opening their political systems, realizing that democratic practices contribute to economic and social development. Over the past year, Bahrain has embarked on a series of political reforms that promise a more representative government and protect the rights of citizens and workers. Oman and Morocco have also taken steps to expand political participation and to give elected representatives -- including women -- a greater voice in national and local affairs. Qatar is expected to do the same. These are steps that the U.S. applauds and encourages.
President George W. Bush has made it clear that the right to democracy is not bound by geography, race, culture, or belief. As he said, “The requirements of freedom apply fully to Africa and Latin America and the entire Islamic world. The peoples of the Islamic nations want and deserve the same freedoms and opportunities as people in every nation.”
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