The Politics of the UNDP Arab Human Development Report


On Tuesday, July 21st, the United Nations Development Program launched its 5th Arab Human Development Report (AHDR).  The independently prepared report was not presented to the public prior to its publication, but criticism began to surface even before it was released, both from researchers involved in the report and from observers.

Wujohat Nazar (Perspectives) magazine organized a two-day discussion session titled “Beirut Dialogue” to examine the flaws in the AHDR report after it was officially released at a ceremony at the Lebanese government’s headquarters.  The AHDR’s main researcher, Dr. Mustafa Kamel al-Sayyed, publicly washed his hands of the report in protest of what he called “UN staff interferences and alterations to the AHDR.”

The AHDR states: “In Arab countries, a widespread lack of human security undermines human development.”  The report admits the absence of security and its consequences, but its approach to the security issue has angered some researchers, which writer and publisher Samah Idriss called “the use of expressions that betray their belief in the foreign occupation’s claims,” referring to the American occupation of Iraq.

Written by about 90 scholars and researchers, and commissioned by the UNDP, the report took around two years to complete.  But it seems two years was not enough time for them to reach common conclusions.

A spokesperson for the UNDP in Beirut, Mona El-Yassir said, “The report does not reflect the UNDP’s views or the program’s officials’ views” — a statement they might discover to be of great use amidst harsh criticism the AHDR is receiving.  Even before it was published, the lead consultant of the ADHP, Dr. Sayyed, withdrew his responsibility “in protest to the changes made by UNDP staff” which he described as fundamentally changing the intellectual structure of the report.

To better clarify his point, Idriss chose a phrase from page 167 in the English version which reads: “In conditions of increasing chaos, the US-led multinational coalition was unable to discharge its obligations to insure the security of Iraqi citizens, many of whom disbelieved in the legitimacy, authority and mission of the foreign forces in their midst.”  This language, unfortunately, ignores the fact that the occupation is responsible for the death of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and the massive destruction of a nation, as seen by the vast majority of the Iraqi and Arab public.

Dr. Sayyed, a political science professor at Cairo University and at the American University of Cairo, as well as the lead consultant and writer of the report, accused the UNDP staff of manipulating the report, at a separate press conference he held in Cairo to explain his absence at the AHDR launch.  Another contributor to the report, Dr. George Abi Saab, an Egyptian professor and international judge, also boycotted the launch.  Dr. Sayyed stated: “Changing the order of the chapters and moving the one on occupation, military intervention, and human insecurity from second to ninth, to follow environmental threats, marginalizes the dangers of occupation.”  He also said that he informed the director of the program of his rejection of these changes and refused to take credit or responsibility for the report.

Dr. Sayyed’s accusations are colossal for a study posing as objective, in a highly critical region.  “The UNDP’s report adopts the position that the American occupation is less significant than providing food,” Sayyed stated, in reference to Iraq.

Reports Differ

Samah Idriss also addressed the biased approach of the report when it comes to Israel.  The AHDP insists on presenting the conflict with Israel as a strictly Israeli-Palestinian issue, neglecting other major factors threatening Arab security such as “Israeli racial discrimination, displacing Palestinian refugees, the Israeli occupation of Shebaa farms, Ghajar village and Kfarshouba and the Golan, as well as imprisoning Arabs and refusing to discuss any reparations.”

Regarding occupied Palestine, specifically the living conditions of the Arabs within Israel, Dr. Sayyed revealed that, when writing the report, “He first addressed the conditions of Arabs in Israel but was told that Israel is not part of the Arab world and that Israel would object if the chapter were published.  So he decided to discuss the threat Israel poses to the surrounding Arab countries, but the chapter was dropped from the AHDR.”

And when it came to Israel and the Arab world, that was only the beginning.  Participants in the “Beirut Dialogue” mostly agreed that the AHDR is clearly biased.  It names Iraqi and Palestinian resistance movements “militias,” but when talking about the American occupation for example, the report uses ambiguous terms such as “policies of foreign forces.”

Professor of Modern Arab Politics and Intellectual History at Columbia University, Dr. Joseph Massad, also spoke at the “Beirut Dialogue,” bringing up the question of why the AHDR excludes the Golan Heights from lands under occupation, and said he hopes whoever wrote that in the report does not accept the Israeli Golan Annexation law passed in 1981 by the Israeli Knesset.

“The AHDR adopts the rhetoric and terminology used by the United States and Israel.  The report did not mention American military intervention in the West Bank and Gaza by General Dayton gangs,” he said.  Dayton’s role was explicitly brought into light when the head of Hamas’ political bureau Khaled Mashaal openly called on US President Barack Obama to pull him out of West Bank.

Massad also brought to light some facts that the AHDR failed to mention altogether, such as the “U.S. military training offered to the armies in Egypt, Jordan, and some Gulf countries, in addition to American military bases in these countries, as well as in Morocco and elsewhere.”

Even more importantly, Massad noticed a variation between the English and the Arabic versions of the report, regarding the reasons of the recent attack on Gaza.  The English version is much harsher on Hamas, holding the organization responsible for Israel’s brutal 22-day attack on Gaza; the Arabic one implies a similar conclusion, though a bit softer.  Massad also rebutted a journalistic source the AHDR used to say that Hamas used children as human shields — a source he found to be invalid.  In fact it is Israeli soldiers who are giving statements these days testifying to orders they received to use Palestinian civilians as human shields.

The 288-page report is based on the assumption that “no human security indicators can be credible” without polls and research on the local and regional levels, as stated in its 2002 version.  But these local polls were in turn subject to governmental conditions.  The Lebanese will be delighted to know that the AHDR was launched under the patronage of PM Fouad Siniora, largely responsible of the up to 50 billion dollars’ debt burdening the country, along with his former employer the late Rafik Hariri.  Moreover, the Egyptian Al-Dostoor newspaper reported: “Morocco agreed to conduct the surveys, but requested the omission of questions about people’s opinion about security forces; Kuwait in turn demanded it not include interviews with migrant workers and only interview Kuwaiti citizens; as for Egypt, they (research teams) never received a reply to their request, even after the report was concluded.”

The Original Sin

The AHDR defines human security as “the liberation of human beings from those intense, extensive, prolonged, and comprehensive threats to which to which their lives and freedoms are vulnerable.”  If this is the case, why are the risks of foreign occupation downplayed and placed at the bottom of the list of threats undermining the development of Arabs?

In fact, people in Iraq, Lebanon, Sudan, Palestine, and Syria would probably burst out laughing to hear that occupation is in 8th place of risks endangering them.

The threat of occupation, which Dr. Sayyed tried to examine analytically, was downgraded by a small group of employees within the Advisory Board of the UNDP, who apparently decided on and enforced crucial modifications in the report, the most fundamental probably being placing the risks of occupation in 8th place.

They also completely dropped a chapter on identity conflicts in countries like Lebanon, Iraq, Sudan, Algeria, and Egypt.  The chapter was titled “Ticking Bomb in the Arab World” and explains that the number of victims of identity conflicts exceeds those of foreign aggressions, by far.  This fact was also omitted from the final conclusions of the report.

A very important remark made by Dr. Mustafa Kamel Al-Sayyed is useful for understanding what is happening with this report, and with the previous one in 2002.  “The United Nations Development Program reflects the point of view of the least democratic countries in the Arab world,” he said.

Interesting, don’t you think?

Let’s look at, for example, what Khalid Saghiyeh from Al-Akhbar wrote about the origin of these reports:

To understand the buzz around the report today, we have to return to the original sin, the 2002 report, issued one year in the wake of the September 11th attacks, the first of its kind.  The United Nations had never before issued development reports on specific regions.  The intention of the report was clear: there’s no political problem behind the World Trade Center in New York.  Something else must be found.  The philosophy of the report was clear also: there’s a deficiency in the Arab world.  It has to do with development.  The deficiency must be repaired so the evil Arabs are turned into good Arabs.

From a chronological point of view, the first AHDR did come out in the wake of September 11th, so, to remain objective, let us phrase it as such: the AHDR was meant to provide scientific studies and research on the realities on the ground, in order to build development policies for the world where the alleged 11 suicide bombers came from.

Let’s give the floor to Saghiyeh again for a second.  He continues:

Days go by, the report stops being issued when the political justification is gone (by 2005).  Suddenly, out of nowhere, it appears again this year to lecture us about security, but foreign military occupations and interferences and their catastrophic consequences on the region are at the bottom of its concerns.  The evil Arabs once again.  Those who use their children in wars.  What dream will save them this time round?

As a Lebanese citizen, and as an Arab, I have always felt the two major threats to my own direct and strategic security: weighing on all levels are the public debt of more than 50 billion dollars, because of which my great grand children will live in poverty, and the Israeli aggressions that have never stopped, since before I was born.

But, hey, the AHDR 2009 “cover page is printed on 350 GSM coated-one-side paper that is chlorine-free and meets the Sustainable Forest Initiative guidelines.  Text pages are printed on 100 GSM uncoated white opaque, wood-free paper.  Both cover and text papers are printed with vegetable-based inks and produced by means of environmentally-compatible technology.”  This should make us all feel sustainable, and safer.

Saseen Kawzally is a writer based in Beirut, Lebanon.  This article (originally titled “UNDP Arab Human Development Report: Security First, Occupation Last”) was published by Menassat on 24 July 2009 under a Creative Commons 3.0 license.