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Post The Arab World's Toughest Challenge
Created by John Eipper on 03/21/11 2:57 AM

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The Arab World's Toughest Challenge (William Ratliff, USA, 03/21/11 2:57 am)

Popular demands for freedom, democracy, and better lives for poor and often repressed peoples in Arab and other countries are compelling, but these outcomes are unlikely unless basic challenges are honestly and adequately confronted before inevitable opposition and frustration set in. These matters are seldom even mentioned in news and other commentaries I have seen on the Arab world's current turmoil. I do so in a recent oped (see below) and welcome WAISer reactions.


Cultural values, not dictators like Libya's Qaddafi, are chief obstacle to Arab progress

By William Ratliff

The Christian Science Monitor--CSMonitor.com

March 18, 2011
Palo Alto, Calif.


Relentless revolt against repression has been upending much of the Arab world. Tunisia is already into its second new leader in two months. Egypt's Hosni Mubarak has fled, Libya's Muammar Qaddafi is killing for his life, and often bloody protests have hit Yemen, Bahrain, Algeria, Jordan, and other countries. The speed, intensity, and effectiveness of the demonstrations have authoritarian leaders scrambling as far away as China.

The demands for freedom, democracy, and better lives for poor and often repressed peoples are compelling, but these outcomes are unlikely unless basic challenges are clearly recognized before inevitable frustration settles in. Real progressive change requires time and patient commitment.

To be sure, a rapid transition to some form of democracy would be a source of pride and accomplishment. But would it aid Arabs in confronting the deeper obstacles that have for so long prevented their political and economic development? The fever of revolution has not encouraged enough sober thought about the morning (and the decades) after.

However bad an individual dictator or self-serving elite may be in Africa, the Middle East, or elsewhere, rulers there are much more symptoms than primary causes of national woes. It was not decades of Mubarak, Qaddafi, or others that created so many systems that historically failed to serve the basic needs of the majority of their people.

Culture matters

Some dismiss these criticisms as cultural condescension or even bigotry. But look again at the 2002 Arab Human Development Report. Its sobering assessments of life in Arab countries weren't the result of Western observers but distinguished Arab intellectuals. They argued clearly and correctly that "culture and values" are the "soul" and "wellspring" of development and went on to warn that "traditional culture and values, including traditional Arab culture and values, can be at odds with those of the globalizing world."

In a foreword to the report, the Jordanian director of the Regional Bureau for Arab States at the United Nations Development Program concluded that "the predominant characteristic of the current Arab reality seems to be the existence of deeply rooted shortcomings [that] ... pose serious obstacles to human development."

The first question is what the varied Arab peoples really want. Freedom, equality before the law, jobs, food, housing and human dignity? Or perhaps, as frustrations set in, some form of Islamic extremism? If the former, do they want these changes enough to work together patiently over many years--and make significant adjustments in culture, values and institutions when necessary--to achieve them?

But are major changes or "revolutions" really possible anywhere? The Asian or Sinic "Tiger" countries (Japan, Taiwan, Singapore, and South Korea) offer impressive evidence that in significant degree they are. These countries share a profound, centuries-old link to traditional Chinese culture that has been adapted to the goals of individual nations.

The tigers are the nations that during the past half century leaped over the rest of the so-called developing countries to join the already developed world, a process they began under wise authoritarian leadership. Even Sinic China and Vietnam have not made that leap despite extraordinary economic growth, in large part because of lingering negative cultural values.

Nor has any country in Africa or the Middle East made the leap, excepting Israel. Nor has any country in Latin America, as Costa Rican Nobel Peace Laureate Oscar Arias explains in the January/February issue of Foreign Affairs.

Lessons from South Korea

Take just one of dozens of possible illustrations of the differences; In 1960, Egypt had almost exactly the same per-capita GDP as Nicaragua and South Korea. Fifty years later, according to International Monetary Fund figures, South Korea's per-capita GDP is 5 times Egypt's and almost 10 times Nicaragua's. Why?

Many factors are at play, but the chief differences between those who made it to the developed world in the past half century, and those who didn't, are getting the economics right==other nations could have made similar choices to the Sinics, but for their own reasons did not --and, as the AHDR report says, culture and values, critical factors in economic decision-making and implementation.

Among the key Sinic cultural factors are the conviction that: (1) education is an expressway to success for individuals and nations; (2) goals should be far higher than mere survival and pursued over the long haul with single-minded diligence and a demanding work ethic; (3) merit should be sought out and rewarded; and (4) frugality and focus must guide the expenditures of funds and energies.

Some other cultures in the past and present have similarly progress-prone qualities, ranging from Max Weber's much-remarked European Protestants to Jews, Basques, Scandinavians and Americans. African, Middle Eastern, and Latin American cultures largely do not.

If the Arab peoples want significantly greater freedom and economic development, they and their leaders must be fully committed to making it so. But frustration at not having a job or even a "high" from ousting a dictator won't suffice. Current explosive enthusiasm must become constructively focused and effectively pursued over the long term. This is what the Arab peoples need if they wish to significantly improve their living standards or perhaps even join the developed world.

[William Ratliff is a fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution and the Independent Institute. He has written extensively on the role of culture in political and economic development.]

JE comments:  Congratulations to WAIS President Emeritus William Ratliff for publishing the op-ed, and my thanks to him for forwarding it to WAISworld.  Bill invites us to consider the uncomfortable question of why certain societies are mired in the cycle of poverty and underdevelopment:  what do we mean when we say that cultural issues are at play?  What role do work ethic and education have in the formula?  Without offering easy answers, Bill sums up the situation bluntly:  the Asian Tigers have prospered; other regions which were equally poor fifty years ago have not.

I hope this essay will get a good discussion going.

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  • The Arab World's Toughest Challenge (John Heelan, -UK 03/21/11 4:58 PM)
    In his interesting op-ed of 21 March, Bill Ratliff writes: "(The 2002 Arab Human Development Report's) sobering assessments of life in Arab countries weren't the result of Western observers but distinguished Arab intellectuals. They argued clearly and correctly that 'culture and values' are the 'soul' and 'wellspring' of development and went on to warn that 'traditional culture and values, including traditional Arab culture and values, can be at odds with those of the globalizing world.'"

    Does the comment not contain an implied value judgment that the culture and values of the globalizing world are more important than traditional values? Bill asks a rhetorical question about what do Arab peoples really want and postulates freedom, equality before the law, jobs, food, housing and human dignity. The alternative appears to be some form of Muslim extremism. The first choice is based on implied values of a Western culture that has had varying degrees of success and failure in providing those attributes over the centuries. Is there not also an argument that traditional cultures based on a religion might wish to shun those attributes in pursuit of personal security and religious development? (It has long puzzled me why some nations look back with fond nostalgia at life under dictatorships. When I questioned Spanish people who supported Franco for most of their lives, the response often centred on the trade-off between the negative--an acknowledged diminution of personal freedom--and the positive: "We were secure. Crime was lower, jobs were available, we did not starve... and so on." Perhaps a similar opinion holds in countries where adherence to religion is just as important as economic development and people are willing to accept the negative attributes that go along with it.)

    One of today's dangers is that the Western world tends to believe its own propaganda that "greed is good" and that "globalisation" and "development" are the overarching objectives of life. Unless we seek to understand and attenuate the clash between that ethic and the traditional religious ethic that underpins much of the world's societies today--an alternative ethic that subordinates Western cultural ideals to religious ideals--it is likely that conflicts between the two cultures will continue.

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  • on the Asian "Tigers" (Charles Ridley, USA 03/21/11 5:06 PM)
    I wish to second Bill Ratliff's 21 March remarks on the Sinic "Tiger" countries. Every day for the past few years I have been documenting these cultural values of hard work and stress on education as I go through the textbooks of these nations. (I'm working on the Singapore textbooks at the moment.)

    While some scholars discount the importance of cultural values in the success of the East Asian nations in question, for me, it is clear that they are paramount in tipping the balance in favor of success.

    There is one other value of the Confucian ethic that is of equal importance and that is persistence, as well as education, as a fundamental basis for achievement. This is the value that has struck Western reporters in discussing the response of the Japanese people to the havoc of the tsunami.

    They have commented on the Japanese use of the word, "gambatte" as they confront the results of the tsunami. This is the imperative form of the verb "gambaru," meaning to persist in or stand firm. It's an expression one hears all the time in Japan, often used when people are parting from each other. And yet, it is an expression of a value that runs deep in the East Asian cultures that share the Confucian ethic.

    As our politicians attempt to decimate education in this country for economic reasons, we can see a fundamental difference between American culture and the Confucian ethic cultures of Asia, a difference that bodes ill for our future as a nation.

    JE comments: Gambatte, people of Japan.  We're all wishing you the best.

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