The five Arab Human Development Reports (AHDRs) issued by the United Nations Development Programme since 2002 have met with a broad range of responses in  Arab countries. Government decision makers have almost totally ignored them; intellectuals either affiliated with the Arab governments or staunchly opposed to the UN and other international organizations as Western tools have issued scathing ideological critiques; and independent academics and journalists have praised the reports, seeing them as a perfect opportunity to reevaluate the Arab state of affairs and put the post-independence elite on trial. 

The Arab governments have adopted a strategy of almost completely ignoring the AHDRs, which hold them responsible for the deteriorating situation in the Arab countries, so as to avoid lending credence to the reports.  This is hardly a new approach; other reports discussing the challenges facing the Arab world (for example, studies by the Center for Arab Unity Studies in Beirut or the Cairo-based Ahram Center for Strategic Studies, as well as those by Arab and international human rights organizations) have also been met with the same stone-faced official reaction. Reports or sections of reports on education—one of the less controversial subjects treated by the AHDRs—have been somewhat of an exception, garnering some positive attention in Arab capitals interested in educational reform.

Nader Fergany, lead author of the first four AHDRs, acknowledged to al-Jazeera  television in a 2002 interview that Arab governments had reacted to the first report, with “disregard, evasion, negligence, and occasionally casting doubts.”   He said, however, that the intended audience was not only governments but “the Arab people in general, all the vital forces in Arab societies.” Fergany argued that it was only natural for “the report to be met with a measure of disregard and perhaps attack from the forces benefiting from the current power structure in the Arab countries.”

While governments have looked the other way, the AHDRs have made a contribution to Arab intellectual life by triggering debates between supporters and critics. Among the detractors, many intellectuals affiliated with the ruling Arab regimes claim that the reports are biased in favor of the political opposition’s agenda and do not present an objective picture. They note that most of the AHDR authors are affiliated with the opposition, particularly the left, and are inclined to overstate the problems facing Arab societies and downplay their accomplishments. 

Another set of critics, mostly Arab nationalists and Islamists, maintains that the AHDRs serve Western agendas and are exploited by the United States and its allies. These intellectuals see as evidence for this perspective the fact that some non-Arab authors (such as the American commentator Thomas Friedman and the Israeli writer Dani Rubinstein) hail the AHDRs as an Arab admission of responsibility for their grim reality. The AHDRs, these critics argue, work in favor of the neoconservative agenda by acquitting imperialism of having planted the seeds of underdevelopment and dependency in the Arab world, as well as acquitting Western governments of aborting Third World movements (especially Arab nationalism) for national liberation and independent development. Anti-Western Islamists and nationalists have also lambasted the reports as justifying Western and Arab government policies to uproot the “tree” of terrorism in Arab countries by wiping out the “forest” of intellectual extremism, which serves a Western agenda by distracting attention from the inhumane practices of the Western powers and their Israeli and Arab allies. 

In fact, U.S. officials’ interest in the AHDRs has caused discomfort for the Arab authors.  Some have said openly that they were mortified when Washington’s Greater Middle East Initiative working paper quoted figures from the 2002 AHDR, which they viewed as political exploitation of a report intended to document the Arab world’s suffering from gaps in freedom, knowledge, and gender equality. Whenever U.S. officials have quoted from the AHDRs, they have taken care to point out that the reports were written by highly competent Arab experts, causing more embarrassment for the authors and giving more ammunition to the reports’ critics.

At the other end of the spectrum, independent journalists and many Arab scholars have welcomed the AHDRs, pleased by their explicit condemnation of the post-independence elites’ performance in attaining development compared to other countries in the South. Proponents of the AHDRs argue that the reports are credible not because they were published by a UN organization – most Arab intellectuals view UNDP as a tool of the West employed against the South at large – but rather because they were not issued by radical anti-regime forces strongly critical of the existing regimes. Instead, the AHDRs came from within the elite; many of the authors hold institutional positions close to decision-makers and enjoy scholarly and literary prestige. 

Human rights organizations and non-governmental organizations concerned with development issues and the fight against poverty and illiteracy in the Arab societies have also hailed the AHDRs.  Many of these organizations have featured the AHDRs prominently in their publications and websites, for instance recently featuring quotes from the 2009 report (“Challenges to Human Security in the Arab Countries”) which says that “State-sponsored violations of citizens’ rights to life and freedom are committed through the practices of torture and illegal detention.” At the same time, these organizations have criticized the AHDRs for not being more specific in naming and condemning the governments that openly violate human rights on a regular basis. 

Thus, while largely ignored by Arab governments, the AHDRs have entered the fray of ideological battles among Islamist, Arab nationalist, leftist, and liberal Arab intellectuals.  

Moataz Abdel Fattah is an associate professor of Middle Eastern politics at Cairo University and Central Michigan University. Paul Wulfsberg translated this article from Arabic.