Arab Spring spawns some hope, progress, prof says
By Clay Evans
A quarter of a century ago, most of the world’s “underachievers” in terms of human development—measured by such things as life expectancy, education, guaranteed human rights and political freedom—were Muslim countries.
Human development might be considered a way to gauge how “rich” or “poor” a country is beyond traditional measures like wealth and income, says Randall Kuhn, associate professor and director of the Global Health Affairs program at Denver University and a research associate at CU-Boulder’s Institute of Behavioral Science and Center for Asian Studies.
And by such measures, Muslim countries have done remarkably well in recent decades.
“Twenty-five years down the line, not only has almost every Muslim country moved off the list of ‘underachievers,’ but a number of countries that are not oil states, including Syria and Morocco, are coming close to being ‘overachievers,’” says Kuhn, whose paper, “On the Role of Human Development in the Arab Spring” was published in the December issue of Population and Development Review.
“They’ve done better than expected, based on income alone.”
But that may be in part because authoritarian governments, like the regime of Bashar Assad in Syria, have calculated that providing benefits such as health care and other social services is an effective method of staying in power.
“Despots are fairly good at this,” Kuhn says.
Yet counter to the traditional notion—based on historical examples such as the French or Russian revolutions — that people rise up in response only to dissatisfaction, people may challenge their governments when they are improving in terms of human development. Likewise, people who are going nowhere are easier to suppress.
“Consider Kim Jong Il in North Korea. I don’t want to overstate the cause and effect, but everyone’s hungry and sick and those who do have food are completely dependent on the state,” he says.
When governments try to “buy off” their populations, they are creating the seeds of uprising rather than averting revolution. Kuhn points to Saudi Arabia, which threw money at several Gulf states (even as it suppressed unrest in others) in an effort to forestall an Arab Spring-style uprising in neighboring countries.
“But if you give $100 billion to buy off a revolution, you get $100 billion in new expectations,” Kuhn says.
He holds up the ongoing bloody conflict in Syria as an example of the phenomenon. The Assad government exploited ethnic and religious cleavages in society. The conflict is now couched as a brutal battle between a ruling Shia Alawite minority and an oppressed Sunni majority.
“But the reality is that to some extent dispossessed Sunni areas were in fact the biggest beneficiaries of health investment by the Assad regime,” Kuhn says. Poor urban and rural areas were likewise the beneficiaries of investment “because the government needed to bring them on board. … They had what looked like a fairly orderly society with a despotic regime.”
Kuhn is careful to note that, while on balance a positive development, the Arab Spring has brought great uncertainty, disruption and violence. In addition, limited participation by women, religious minorities and others remains troubling.
At a high level, the Arab Spring, which saw autocratic regimes overthrown in Egypt, Morocco and Libya, “Advances in human development contributed to a fundamental reordering of the relationship between citizen and state. Human development fostered a set of higher expectations,” Kuhn writes in the article.
That has resulted in “a collective sense (in) the Arab world, that citizens could expect more from their governments, including a right to self-determination. If human development does indeed shape the path to revolution, we may hope that it will also determine the ultimate success of the Arab Spring, which remains a work in progress.”