The Right to Development & The Arab Uprisings (Part I)

In mid-December 2010, a young street vendor set himself on fire after his ill-treatment by Tunisian police. Mohamed Bouazizi set himself ablaze in Sidi Bouzid and inspired an entire region to revolt against decades of authoritarianism. Mass protests in Tunisia led to the ouster of its autocratic head of state Zine Abidine Ben Ali. This revolutionary fervor then spread to neighboring Egypt, where eighteen days of protest removed Hosni Mubarak from the helm of power. Soon, these tectonic shifts inspired protestors in Yemen, Libya, Bahrain, and Syria to challenge their autocratic leaders who had, for decades on end, also denied them the right to freely determine their political, economic, and social conditions. The protests have since successfully led to the negotiated removal of Yemen’s Ali Abdullah Saleh from power. NATO military intervention, initially mandated by the UN Security Council to thwart a massacre in Benghazi expanded into a mission of regime change and ended the rule of Muammar Qaddafi in Libya. Today, protests continue in Syria, Bahrain and the transition processes have never ceased in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Bahrain, and Yemen.

The emergence of authoritarian regimes in the Arab world reflects a sordid history of colonial rule and post-colonial interventions that have created oppositional politics among states within the Middle East. The Middle East is rich in natural resources like gas and oil and has been one of the most penetrated regions by foreign interests. French and British intervention after the First World War derailed regional aspirations for unity and arbitrarily carved the Arab populations into several states. Each of these states later became independent from colonial rule and, ultimately, they became authoritarian.

Though devoid of political ideology, Arab regimes cultivated popular legitimacy by combining authoritarianism with a redistributive welfare state, in what political scientists refer to as “authoritarian populism.” Accordingly, states successfully “consolidated power by trading development for the political loyalty of key social forces, such as workers, peasants, and professionals, and others educated in the middle class.” Despite significant opposition, most Arab populations welcomed this social contract: in exchange for political and civil rights, the regimes would provide economic stability in the form of basic goods like subsidized housing and food as well as security to live free of internecine violence.

This contract, however, quickly began to unravel. GDP growth rates generally rose with the beginning of populist policies and public sector expansion only to begin falling in the 1980s as a result of a combination of repression, corruption, and mismanagement.  The contribution of human and physical capital dropped from 3.4% in the sixties to negative 1.5% in the 1980s and stagnated throughout the 1990s. As Arab authoritarian regimes have entered into the globalized economy through the neoliberal prescriptions window, they began to privatize public goods like water, electricity, housing, and education through Public-Private Partnerships (PPPs). By steadily retracting redistributive policies whilst maintaining authoritarian governance, Arab authoritarian populists breached their tenuous social contracts.  

By the 2000s, and as the gap between rich and poor expanded and as gender and other social-based disparities deepened within Arab countries, their aggregate economic figures oddly improved, but at the dire expense of equitable distribution. The IMF, for example, in 2010 praised Tunisia’s “‘sound policies and reforms’ for helping the country weather the global downturn.” The inverse relationship between aggregate and socio-economic development is not unique to the Arab world. In fact its ubiquitous nature among developing states, especially, reflects the principles first captured in the 1986 UN Declaration of the Right to Development and later reaffirmed in the 1993 Vienna World Conference on Human Rights. The missing ingredient was distributive equity.

Development as a Human Right

Drafters of the UN Declaration of the Right to Development were careful not to reduce development to purely economic aspirations. Instead, the document reflects a textured understanding of human and national development, which it defines as  

“a comprehensive economic, social, cultural and political process, which aims at the constant improvement of the well-being of the entire population and of all individuals on the basis of their active, free and meaningful participation in development and in the fair distribution of benefits resulting therefrom […]”.

The Declaration affirms the interdependence of development, democracy, and human rights. It suggests that in order to benefit from development, human persons must be free from structural abuse, so as to freely participate in their cultural, economic, social, and political development.

In practice, centering human persons in national development means, ensuring active and meaningful participation; securing non-discrimination; fairly distributing the benefits of development; respecting self-determination and sovereignty over natural resources; and allowing human development to inform all processes that advance other civil, political economic, social
and cultural rights.


In 1993, the Vienna Declaration reaffirmed development as a human right (para. 10) as well as the interconnectedness of development, democracy, and human rights. Like the UN Declaration of the Right to Development, the Vienna Declaration is clear that human persons, not national economies are central subjects of development. Paragraph 10 reads, “while development facilitates the enjoyment of all human rights, the lack of development may not be invoked to justify the abridgment of internationally recognized human rights,” thus capturing the tension between state and individual rights and prioritizing the latter.

The Vienna Declaration emphasizes that democratization in this context “is based on the freely expressed will of the people to determine their own political, economic, social, and cultural systems and their full participation in all aspects of their lives.” (para. 8) In marked contrast, neoliberal prescriptions define democratization in pursuit of development as opening up the market without regard to human rights or agency. Its overreliance on trickle-down effects casts the state as an obtrusion to prosperity. Worse, policymakers who aimed to dismantle state regulation and control of natural resources took for granted how neoliberal prescriptions globally overlapped with the interests of local and political elite. The effect was a redistribution of state wealth and opportunities to new a new elite class of public and private actors without regard for equitable distribution of opportunities and resources. “Democratization” and “participation” therefore remained exclusionary in content and structure. 

Since the 1990s, international financial institutions (IFI’s) have strategically linked the function of markets with their international governance. It is in this context that the

“World Bank and other institutions have emphasized notions such as the ‘rule of law,’ ‘decentralization,’ ‘good governance,’ ‘separation of the legislative and executive,’ and so forth, which supposedly aim at reducing the rent-seeking capabilities of state officials, and guarantee greater transparency in economic affairs.” (127).

This developmental program in the Middle East, characterized by autocratic governance and marked by economic stagnation, has been intensely undemocratic and brutally indifferent to the dignity of individual persons and their collective formations. 

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