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Youth and human development
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 05 - 12 - 2016

At first glance, the UNDP Human Development Report (HDR), when it first appeared in 1990, looked just like other UN reports: filled with numbers and statistics that were presumed to be of benefit to member states. The report analysed and ranked countries in terms of income, education and health, which was meant to help answer such questions as why some countries are more advanced in this realm or why other countries lagged behind. By means of these indexes, countries became able to look at themselves in a comparative context in accordance with a specific gauge. In a way, this was to encourage countries to contemplate possible means and promote efforts to improve themselves and elevate their international standing in the areas in which they were deficient. Then, in 2003, just over a decade after the first global Human Development Report, there appeared the first edition of the UNDP's Arab Human Development Report (AHDR). A number of Arab researchers and scholars participated in the production of that report which focused on Arab countries and the place of the Arab region in the world.
I do not know whether similar reports were produced for other regions of the world or whether the people of those other regions made do with their presence and rankings in the global HDR. But, amazingly, what never happened with regard to other regions was how the abovementioned report was used as an instrument of invasion. This even applied to Sub-Saharan Africa, which always ranks worse off than the Arab world. To my knowledge, only when it comes to the Arab world can US and many European leaders, in any official speech, point to a report as Arab testimony to Arab failure, which either makes it easier to justify intervention in Arab affairs, up to and including regime change (as occurred in Iraq), or serves as the basic charter for revolution against existing conditions.
Last week, AHDR 2016 appeared. This edition chose as its focal theme for study and analysis “Youth” (from 15 to 29 years old) on the grounds that they account for a third of the Arab population. Oddly, the remaining two-thirds have yet to receive such close attention. In its coverage of the new report, The Economist opened with the situation in Egypt as it stood at the end of 2010 when the National Youth Survey found that only 16 per cent of youth voted in elections and only two per cent registered to work with volunteer agencies. That recorded state of apathy culminated several weeks later with the overthrow of the Egyptian head of state while youth in other Arab countries rose up to topple other heads of state.
Whereas five Arab states were mired in conflict in 2002, today, five years into the second decade of the 21st century, 11 countries are gripped by domestic conflict of one sort or another. Now, the new AHDR report predicts that by 2020 three out of four Arabs could be “living in countries vulnerable to conflict”. The Economist article goes on to state that “although home to only five per cent of the world's population, in 2014 the Arab world accounted for 45 per cent of the world's terrorism, 68 per cent of its battle-related deaths, 47 per cent of its internally displaced and 58 per cent of its refugees.”
Disturbing figures follow one after the other and they also have ominous implications in the report's analysis. According to the AHDR, violence and revolution in the Arab region come in five-year cycles, as occurred in 2001, 2006 and 2011, “each time more turbulent than the last”. In other words, we should expect another revolution soon that will be more violent than anything that came before, as though the levels of violence we are already experiencing are not sufficient.
The AHDR contains more than facts and figures. But facts and figures are not things hanging in a void, especially when the focus is youth. The state of “youth” is not just determined by age bracket. It is influenced by nationality, faith, ethnicity, descent and other such affiliations, by gender, by whether they live in an urban or rural environment, and by where they are located on the social class scale. Societies are far more complex than the report portrays. They are also very difficult to predict, which the report seems to do with considerable ease. Analytically it is very arbitrary. This is readily apparent to anyone who has lived through and directly observed the revolutions that the West also refers to as the Arab Spring and that were totally different from how they were portrayed in Western reports. In Egypt, for example, the youth revolution lasted no longer than three days — from 25 go 28 January — after which it became a purely Muslim Brotherhood revolution in numerical weight, provisions, funding, organisation and foreign relations, while the youth reserved seats in television studios. During those first three days, it was the children of the middle class, including some who belonged to people in the Egyptian government at the time, who were present in the squares. These are the youth who had jobs and who did not suffer from want, lack of knowledge or even a lower life expectancy rate.
Different generations are not abstract social groups — they are authentic parts of the societies in which they live. At some times they behave as separate groups, as occurs among football fans for example. In such a case they display nothing that suggests that virtue of which the report speaks. They are not more democratic than their parents and certainly not wiser. In fact, in the Egyptian case they were more foolish and dictatorial than their parents.
What concerns us here is that, firstly, Arab states and societies have many shortcomings and, secondly, these shortcomings do not relate solely to the nature of the government in these countries, contrary to the opinion of the report which advises incorporating youth into political life in order to rectify the situation. But perhaps no less important than the foregoing is the foreign factor which remains crucial at all times. When George W Bush invaded Iraq, proclaiming his intention to reconstruct that state and alter its system of government, the result, as we are all aware now, hardly gave us cause to rejoice.
Therefore, the question is not just whether we should take stock of what appeared in the report and develop policies to overcome our shortcomings.
Rather, it is also whether it is not more important to keep track of international developments as they affect this region, and above all what Donald Trump has in store for the US and us, and how we are to respond to the anticipated US-Russian pact. Maybe Trump and Vladimir Putin will wring their hands and cry together over the state of the Arab world as appears in the AHDR.
The writer is chairman of the board, CEO and director of the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies.

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