The Road to Reform
The Arab world must look both east and west for lessons on effective reform.
What is the right approach to development in the 21st century? Does it take only one shape, or can real advances be made in different ways? Modern history provides many lessons, but one endures: Successful change comes from within. That was true for the West; it is proving true for the powerhouse developing nations; and it will be true for the Middle East as well.
In the Arab world, development policy is not an academic issue but an urgent need. Although the region does not suffer the desperate poverty seen in the least-developed countries, 1 of every 5 Arabs lives on less than $2 a day. Economic growth is essential to provide job opportunities, yet regional growth is far less than the average for developing countries (Middle East unemployment averages 15 percent, and some 6 million new job seekers enter the market each year). The region’s per capita income has actually declined during the past two decades.
All Arabs deserve better, not least the young — and more than half the region’s people are under 18. They see the world’s rich possibilities every day in the media and on their computer screens. They want access to that world as well as outlets for their own energy and creativity. Frustration can lead to dangerous apathy, or worse. Only a tiny minority may turn to extremism, but that is still too many in a region that has suffered bitter conflict and division for so long.
For those of us who believe in the future of the Middle East — and we are many — the alternative is progressive change: good governance, economic growth, and national development. Indeed, reforms in these areas are sweeping our region. Elections are part of political life for more Arabs than ever before; women’s participation in government is rising; a new generation is energized and globally aware. Creative thinkers drive this regional change through organizations such as the Arab Business Council, the Alexandria Arab Reform Conference, and the Sana’a meeting on democracy and human rights. In Tunis last May, the Arab League concurred in the need for reform.
Such success reflects three truths. First, there are no single-track solutions. Real change is comprehensive change. Second, change requires partnership. Government cannot substitute for a healthy private sector, and both need a strong civil society. Third, the process must be homegrown and inclusive. Success demands the energy and engagement of people across society, including teachers, entrepreneurs, community leaders, public servants, and others. Imposing a process from outside — one not rooted in people’s history, communities, and culture — cannot generate the commitment that progress requires
The Arab world is well positioned to make that commitment. Reform finds deep roots in our heritage. Islam’s golden age modeled a multiethnic civilization that made historic advances in scholarship and civic development. In the ninth century, the father of Islamic philosophy, al-Kindi, taught that "We should not shy away from welcoming and acquiring the truth regardless of where it came from, even if it came from distant races and nations that are different from us." No doors were closed.
Today, the humanistic traditions of Islam underlie the region’s core values: belief in the equal dignity of all people, reverence for the rule of law and pursuit of excellence, tolerance, and personal accountability. These values provide the foundation for thriving, innovative economies and certainly for democratic life.
Jordan has already instituted its own reforms, including elections, measures to entrench basic political and human rights such as freedom of assembly and the press, and initiatives to empower women and youth. Other programs help build an effective political party system and strengthen an independent judiciary. In economic affairs, we have learned from the dismal examples of the 20th century. Public-sector enterprise alone simply cannot provide adequate opportunities for growing populations. Nations must also look toward the private sector for job creation, innovation, and entrepreneurship.
Our development strategy also draws from the experience of other nations in both the East and West. High-performing economies in Asia and other regions provide lessons in growth and resiliency, demonstrating the importance of economic freedom, good governance, and social investments in public goods such as education. In Malaysia, we see a modern Islamic state that welcomes social and economic development. National growth is powered by modern ideas and knowledge, which Malaysia has made an integral part of a progressive Islamic identity.
In Ireland, we see a smaller country prospering when it focuses on human resources and export markets. By targeting export-oriented investment and responding to changing markets, Ireland’s growth rate in gross domestic product (GDP) per capita doubled between 1960 and 2000. Jordan has adopted some similar approaches, such as a one-stop shop for development and business similar to Ireland’s Forfás, a national board that advises the government on trade, science, and innovation.
Jordan’s reforms are paying off. External debt has fallen, exports are up significantly, and economic growth has risen over several years. Real GDP growth reached 6.9 percent in the first quarter of 2004.
Yes, challenges lie ahead. Structural change does not come easily, and domestic reform does not take place in a vacuum. Jordan, like the rest of the Middle East, bears the heavy burden of the Arab-Israeli conflict. This cycle of violence has threatened regional development and global stability for half a century. Reform in the Middle East will not be fully effective without the stability and resources that come with peace.
At Sea Island, Georgia, last June, the Group of Eight (G-8) countries reaffirmed their commitment to a lasting, comprehensive settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict, as well as a democratic and sovereign Iraq. The G-8 also strongly supported reform from within the Arab world and recognized the need to help reformist countries. These and other initiatives can help us achieve the result we all seek: a stable, liberalized, and prosperous Middle East.
Reform continues in the region. The Jordan model — successful development directed from within, rooted in the Arab-Islamic heritage yet open to global ideas and partners — suggests it can succeed. This approach to development can help transform our region from one of conflict and instability to one of opportunity and hope.