Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Deficits in the Arab World

In his February 23rd New York Times column, Thomas Friedman refers to a 2002 United Nations report about economic development in the Arab World. He says that the report cites three serious deficits that threaten human development in Arab countries. The deficits include: a deficit of freedom, a deficit of knowledge, and a deficit of women's empowerment. Anyone, as it turns out, can access this report. It is easily available on the Web. And, let me emphasize, that when you actually read this report it is obvious from the start that all three of these deficits are clearly identified by the authors as critical.

Yet, in an article by John Cassidy in this week's New Yorker, the same report is mentioned without reference to the third deficit - the stark absence of women's empowerment. Why do you suppose that is? Well, for one thing, to mention disempowered women might undermine his overall argument that Islam as a religion is not responsible for the underdevelopment of Arab economies. If you take female disempowerment seriously and consider its connection to economic development, you might conclude that excluding half of the population from most professions is a decided handicap. And it isn't hard to attribute the low status of women in these countries to the dictates of organized religion. To put it another way, to even mention the status of women in an article about the economic underdevelopment of Arab countries immediately casts suspicion on religion as one of the culprits.

But somehow I think there is something else going on and this something else may be the greatest threat of all to world-wide economic development. And that is simply that women still don't count. Many economists, like Mr. Cassidy, simply don't take them seriously when it comes to the interconnected issues of economic and human development. And yet can anyone really doubt that without women being granted full freedoms to express themselves, to get an education, and to pursue economic well-being that sustained progress is possible? Women are the key to the future and until they have the freedoms both Friedman and Cassidy talk about, the rest of us will suffer.

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