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The Primacy of Human Development in the Arab Spring

The Primacy of Human Development in the Arab Spring

By Dr. Yossef Ben-Meir
August 3, 2012

The durability of national governments in the Middle East and North Africa is now determined by the extent to which leaders can expeditiously and effectively address the primary cause of the Arab Spring: shameful levels of underdevelopment of the people in the context of abundant socio-economic potential. To be sure, this cause is significantly reinforced by grossly wealthy and exclusive political-corporate ruling cliques in a region where the less brutal of governments still seemingly lack the will needed to promote considerable social change.

A surge in human development – through grassroots democratic planning of projects in poverty alleviation, education, and health – requires that national governments decentralize administrative power. In this way, local communities – working with sub-national public and private agencies and with central level support – will have the decision-making authority over their own development, which is key to success. Transferring responsibility and capability to the local level liberates and mobilizes communities to create initiatives that improve their lives.

Evaluations of development projects by the World Bank, USAID, the UN, and countless others indicate that active engagement of project beneficiaries – as much as financing – is essential to achieving sustainability. This is because people’s participation generates incentives for them to maintain projects that meet their most acute needs, and fosters trust among partners, including government. The great challenge is to actually achieve people’s participation in development on a broad scale.

There are strategic development training programs and approaches to decentralized public administrations that directly catalyze interaction among people and social movements to satisfy local needs. National governments ought not to consider them a threat because they redistribute power (including fiscal), but rather a way to strengthen national unity and to avoid a hastened fall if they do not act in bold ways to create shared socio-economic and environmental benefits for the people in greatest need.

Based on this outlook, Morocco – a relatively stable country during the Arab Spring – is positioned for a development surge and to become a model for nations. King Mohammed VI’s long stated framework for promoting development and democracy was to bind the two processes together so that each is advanced by way of the other. Since his rise to the throne in 1999, he has driven this key principle in his public statements, national development programs, charters of elected bodies, and in his choice of destinations throughout the country (the far majority being new local projects). These efforts over time have created greater levels of public awareness of human development efforts, civil society action, and government support and flexibility.

The king’s first announcement in 2008 of Moroccan decentralization and in his statements since then, present a system (now embodied in the new constitution) for national to communal public administrative tiers to support local and regional development that is planned through participatory democratic approaches. However, the new Islamic government in Morocco has not noticeably advanced the implementation of decentralization, and the king this past week on Throne Day urged them to meet this now legal requirement.

In Egypt, the Local Administration Law – which transfers power to manage jurisdictions from governors to people’s representatives in the Local Popular Councils – was drafted but has not yet been passed. The Muslim Brotherhood should be amenable to this law, since its recent electoral success is in part due to their localized administration (out of necessity) for years prior, enabling close proximity to the people. Hamas in Gaza prior to its rise to power was also known for its decentralized management of human services. An Islamic rationale to elevate decentralization to a national system integrates the Islamic concepts of shura, ummah, baya, and tawhidi – together forming a system of local governing as part of a worldwide Muslim community that furthers social justice, accountability of leaders, and empowerment of mankind.

Fayyad’s plan in the West Bank embodies components of decentralization in order to build political and economic self-reliance by increasing local control. This suggests that in the Western Sahara conflict, Morocco’s proposal to enhance autonomy of that region so that people can manage their own affairs would be stabilizing.

Iraq, with again spiking sectarian violence, would have done well to adopt federalism – a formalized decentralized system – when the idea caught attention in 2006. Decentralization could decrease Shiite-Sunni violence and tension, and still remains the most viable constitutional option for long-term unity of Iraq. The King of Bahrain’s call for decentralization in 2011 rang insincere to the public, as his Arab Spring was already raging. Jordan has begun the process of decentralizing.

Government budgets in the region and international development assistance should more heavily fund building skills in managing local participatory development, and, vitally, the projects identified by local communities – which range depending on the opportunities they face. The support of these bottom-up democratic development processes is a powerful measure of public diplomacy.

A human development revolution can only save the day for governments in the Arab Spring, and time is not a friend. To survive, governments need to disperse to local levels the power for communities to create the development they seek.


Dr. Yossef Ben-Meir is a sociologist and president of the High Atlas Foundation, a US-Moroccan nonprofit organization founded by former Peace Corps volunteers and dedicated to community development in Morocco.

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