Neo-liberal Development, Human Rights, and the Arab Uprisings
Rather than consider the state’s failure to empower, include, and provide, adherents of neoliberal development framed the Arab Uprisings as a revolt against government bureaucracy and rent-seeking. While there may be truth in that, by de-linking the gains of national economic and political elite from an international neoliberal development project, stakeholder states and IFI’s mistakenly exculpate themselves.
Fittingly, Robert Zoellick, President of the World Bank, attributed Bouazizi’s self-immolation to his frustration with “red tape.” Zoellick advised that Arab states should “quit harassing people and let them have a chance to start some small businesses.” (128) However, at the time of its Uprising, Egypt ranked as the eightieth easiest state in which to start a small business. Either the irony or the dispositive evidence was missed on Zoellick. Myopic focus on institutional governance fails to scrutinize the privileged access to economic opportunities in developing states that thwarts development, democracy, and human rights.
Over the course of three decades of authoritarian rule, the Mubarak regime, comprised of Mubarak himself together with its incumbent economic and political elite, amassed a tremendous amount of the country’s wealth for their personal benefit. The state has acquired thirty-five billion USD in loans, eighty-five percent of which is publicly guaranteed, and none of which benefits the general population. In the course of repaying its loans, more loans flow from Egypt to the West than the other way around. Since the ouster of Mubarak, no attention has been given to remedying this condition. To the contrary, from the democratically elected Muslim Brotherhood and now, within the military regime that has ousted it, these neoliberal policies have become further entrenched. States and IFI’s pledged 15 billion USD to post-Mubarak Egypt within three months of his ouster. However, according to Professor Adam Hanieh of SOAS University,
“This investment…is premised upon a profound liberalization of the Egyptian economy. They will only be undertaken concomitant with measures such as a deepening privatization (undoubtedly in the form of PPPs), deregulation (initially likely to be connected to the opening up of more sectors to foreign investment), the reduction of trade barriers (connected to access to US and European markets), and the expansion of the informal sector (under the banner of cutting ‘red tape’). They will necessarily involve, furthermore, a rapid expansion in Egypt’s overall indebtedness – tying the country ever more firmly to future structural adjustment packages.” (134)
Although its protests did not develop into sustained mass mobilization, in Jordan, the demand for human-centered development reverberated clearly. While Jordan’s economy ranks thirty-eighth freest in the world and the fourth freest in the Middle East, the majority of its citizens are poor and have weak purchasing power. Its most economically vulnerable population constitute the working poor and do not benefit from these trade privileges. The exclusive concern with growth rates is misplaced in Jordan where trickle-down effects have been dispositive and only a select economic and political elite has access to profitable investment arrangements.
Syria stands out as the exception among its Arab neighbors only for resisting a similar developmental shift until the late 1980s. In 1986, the Syrian regime shifted its social and political alliances from labor to business. In a context of economic stagnation, this shift also marked a slow but gradual reduction in state subsidies for basic goods upon which a significant cross-section of the Syrian population was reliant. By the 2000s, combined with the deleterious effect of policies driven by a new business class with ties to the government, this resulted in greater absolute poverty and social polarization as well as a dramatic increase of the informal sector. According to Professor Bassam Haddad, Director of the Middle East Studies Program at George Mason University,
“the most lucrative new economic opportunities were monopolized by regime loyalists, relatives, or partners…The striking proximity of policy makers to policy takers made rent-seeking and structural corruption extremely efficient, producing a plethora of tailored policies that weakened, fragmented, and taxed the national economy.”
All the while, the Syrian Regime steered this shift in the name of ‘investment,’ ‘growth,’ and ‘modernity.’ Together with the most severe drought that has caused the forced internal migration of more than 1.2 million Syrians since 2003, social polarization and discontent reached extraordinary levels by the late 2000s, tipping the balance in favor of a mass-based Uprising in rural areas. While this may explain the origins of the conflict, it hardly explains how the Uprising has turned into internal conflict and a regional proxy war, which I will not discuss here.
I do not mean to suggest that failure to adhere to the interdependent development approach has caused mass mobilization across the Arab world; that would be rather simplistic. The anecdotal case studies above do, however, illustrate the gravity and enduring relevance of human-centered development. They also show how other states and international institutions are implicated in national struggles. Both lessons are instructive for practitioners, organizations, and analysts concerned with development, democracy, and human rights in the Arab world.
On a national level, states must be able to subvert international economic prerogatives that conflict with their own national goals. By limiting democratization to unfettered markets, IFIs impede the ability of governments to freely determine the use and distribution of their own resources. Worse, they provide incentives for political-business elite networks to benefit from these exclusive arrangements while publicly-backing loans that avoid personal risk. The overlap of local interests and global neoliberal prescriptions has economic and political elite to benefit tremendously even as they professed a commitment to nationalist ideals. (i.e., Syria continued to boast its socialist constitution until 2005 while adopting state/crony capitalism in the best form.) Uncritical approaches to national sovereignty, self-determination, democratization, and participation that are not linked to equitable distribution fail to account for this deleterious pitfall. Equitable distribution must be part and parcel of any developmental formula in countries where inequity has become a recipe for either authoritarianism or chronic instability. Such reform must be internalized within national development agendas as well as within the IFIs themselves, which facilitate these hazardous arrangements.
Above all, the case studies are a stern reminder of the inextricability of civil, political, and social, economic rights. It is much easier and much simpler to attribute the upheaval in the Arab world to a lack of democratic governance, free and fair elections, an independent judiciary, and police accountability. However, it would be short-sighted to extricate these coercive measures from an international economic system that precludes democratic participation with equity and is contingent upon a truncated state. Under these terms, development must occur in spite of popular will rather than on its behalf. It is telling that after Ben Ali’s ouster from Tunisia, Tunisians opted to loot luxury villas, shops, and supermarkets identified as belonging to the family rather than attack police stations.Human rights practitioners and organizations should bear in mind that expansion of political and civil participation for individuals within government must be interlinked with more meaningful economic self-determination.
These prescriptions are not new. The UN Convention on the Right to Development captured them twenty-three years ago, the Vienna Convention on Human Rights reaffirmed them three years later. Self-determination of individuals, collectivities, and states cannot be overestimated in alleviating these conditions and making central the person and society, not just the person himself. Human rights advocacy should take its cue from those local and regional movements that are viscerally and daily affirming this principle.