BEIRUT — Among the many reports and studies that emerge weekly on the dire conditions in our region and what must be done to repair them, I want to mention one report that merits much wider reading and appreciation — the Arab Human Development Report 2016 that was published a few months ago by the United Nations Development Programme’s Regional Bureau of Arab States. It is entitled “Youth and the Prospects for Human Development in a Changing Reality” (see its executive summary or full report on-line at http://www.arab-hdr.org/).
The report received a flurry of publicity for a few weeks, mostly due to some of its dramatic infographics that showed how the 5% Arab share of world population accounts for 45% of world terror attacks, 57% of refugees, 68% of battle-related deaths, 17.6% of conflicts, and 47% of internally displaced people. We know all this from many other sources. Anyone concerned about trends in the Arab region should read this report, though, because it captures the nuances, complexities, and interrelationships among many different sectors of life that together shape the tough conditions in which all Arabs live today, not just the young.
It avoids the trap of the easy answer or single magic bullet that repairs our damage. It tells us, in fact, the multiple angles of the deep mess we have created for ourselves. The report recalls that two-thirds of the roughly 400 million Arabs today are below the age of 30; that’s some 260 million young people, and about 100 million of them are in the 15-29-year-old age group.
This should force us to snap out of the mythology that most Arab elites peddle about youth representing our future, and that causes us twice a year to grab a bunch of young people and put them on television with a caring official or other adult in order to hear their views for 45 minutes — before we send them back to school, home, and work where they have no voice, no rights, no freedoms, and no real opportunity to develop their total human faculties in fields like rational and creative thinking, cultural diversity, artistic talent, political and civic engagement, community development, economic growth, social justice, and the other dimensions of life that most young Arabs are denied.
Well, not really just young Arabs. In fact all Arabs to some extent are not able to develop these fundamental faculties that differentiate us from sheep and snakes — even though most Arab citizens tend to act like sheep because that it what their political culture taught them to do, and many in the elite act like snakes because that is what their political culture allowed them to do.
This report forces us to see that there are few meaningful differences between young and adult Arabs. They share basically the same concerns, values, and aspirations. The young are the biggest group in our societies, and they have already revolted against their elites three times in the past few decades — first, by emigrating in the hundreds of thousands to lands of more opportunity and freedom; second, by creating their own parallel world on the web and in the mall, mosque and playground where they can do what they are not allowed to do in their actual everyday lives; and third, by launching the 2011 Arab uprisings that have rocked our region ever since. What will they do next, these feisty youngsters?
One thing is certain. Giving young people more basketball courts or cartoon channels on television is not going to solve our problems. Fixing our societies and offering 260 million young Arabs a serious chance at living a normal life requires serious policy reforms and power-sharing in a very wide range of fields. These include political power, social activism, economic development, cultural life, education and health services, environmental protection, accountability, and many others. This is how marginalized, pauperized, and militarized young people shed these burdens, and dare to live a normal life.
This is the moment — when we know from new research that 78% of Arabs live in ‘hardship’ or ‘in need’; that the 20% Arab unemployment rate is the highest in the world; that the 22% Arab female labor force participation rate is the lowest in the world; that about half of mid-primary and mid-secondary school Arab students do not meet basic learning levels, in rich as well as poor countries, that perhaps over half all Arab labor is in the informal sector — this is the moment when we have to ask a very basic question: Are launching new wars, imposing new emergency laws, sending people to prison for expressing their views on social media, or spending another several trillion dollars on foreign arms purchases the best way to move towards a decent future? Or are these actually the failed ways of our recent past that have brought us to our current calamity?
Our power elites may not wish to ponder this question. Someone should whisper in their ear that their own children are asking this, in those worlds they created in the malls, mosques, playgrounds, and websites, where they seek to enter the realm of total humanity, and forever leave behind the frightening landscape of sheep and snakes.
Rami G. Khouri is senior public policy fellow and professor of journalism at the American University of Beirut, and a non-resident senior fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School Middle East Initiative. He can be followed on Twitter @ramikhouri
Copyright ©2017 Rami G. Khouri — distributed by Agence Global
Released: 13 April 2017
Word Count: 863