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Thomas L. Friedman: 'Fayyadism' could do Arab world an enormous amount of good

Palestinian leader Salam Fayyad says an Arab leader should deliver transparent, accountable administration.
Palestinian leader Salam Fayyad says an Arab leader should deliver transparent, accountable administration.
Tara Todras-Whitehll, Associated Press

RAMALLAH, West Bank — In 2002, the U.N. Development Program released its first ever Arab Human Development Report, which bluntly detailed the deficits of freedom, women's empowerment and knowledge-creation holding back the Arab world.

It was buttressed with sobering statistics: Greece alone translated five times more books every year from English to Greek than the entire Arab world translated from English to Arabic; the GDP of Spain was greater than that of all 22 Arab states combined; 65 million Arab adults were illiterate. It was a disturbing picture, bravely produced by Arab academics.

Coming out so soon after 9/11, the report felt like a diagnosis of all the misgovernance bedeviling the Arab world, creating the pools of angry, unemployed youths, who become easy prey for extremists.

Well, the good news is that the U.N. Development Program and a new group of Arab scholars last week came out with a new Arab Human Development report. The bad news: Things have gotten worse — and many Arab governments don't want to hear about it.

This new report was triggered by a desire to find out why the obstacles to human development in the Arab world have "proved so stubborn." What the roughly 100 Arab authors of the 2009 study concluded was that too many Arab citizens today lack "human security — the kind of material and moral foundation that secures lives, livelihoods and an acceptable quality of life for the majority." A sense of personal security — economic, political and social — "is a prerequisite for human development, and its widespread absence in Arab countries has held back their progress."

The authors cite a variety of factors undermining human security in the Arab region today — beginning with environmental degradation — the toxic combination of rising desertification, water shortages and population explosion.

In 1980, the Arab region had 150 million people. In 2007, it was home to 317 million people, and by 2015 its population is projected to be 395 million. Some 60 percent of this population is under the age of 25, and they will need 51 million new jobs by 2020.

Another persistent source of Arab human insecurity is high unemployment. "For nearly 2 1/2 decades after 1980, the region witnessed hardly any economic growth," the report found. Despite the presence of oil money (or maybe because of it), there is a distinct lack of investment in scientific research, development, knowledge industries and innovation. Instead, government jobs and contracts dominate. Average unemployment in the Arab region in 2005 was 14.4 percent, compared with 6.3 percent for the rest of the world. A lot of this is because of a third source of human insecurity: autocratic and unrepresentative Arab governments, whose weaknesses "often combine to turn the state into a threat to human security, instead of its chief support."

The whole report would have left me feeling hopeless had I not come to Ramallah, the seat of Palestinian government in the West Bank, to find some good cheer. I'm serious.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is to the wider Middle East what off-Broadway is to Broadway. It is where all good and bad ideas get tested out first. Well, the Palestinian prime minister, Salam Fayyad, a former IMF economist, is testing out the most exciting new idea in Arab governance ever. I call it "Fayyadism."

Fayyadism is based on the simple but all-too-rare notion that an Arab leader's legitimacy should be based not on slogans or rejectionism or personality cults or security services but on delivering transparent, accountable administration and services.

Fayyad, a former finance minister who became prime minister after Hamas seized power in Gaza in June 2007, is unlike any other Arab leader today. He is an ardent Palestinian nationalist, but his whole strategy is to say: The more we build our state with quality institutions — finance, police, social services — the sooner we will secure our right to independence. I see this as a challenge to "Arafatism," which focused on Palestinian rights first, state institutions later, if ever, and produced neither.

Things are truly getting better in the West Bank, thanks to a combination of Fayyadism, improved Palestinian security and a lifting of checkpoints by Israel. In all of 2008, about 1,200 new companies registered for licenses here. In the first six months of this year, almost 900 have registered. According to the IMF, the West Bank economy should grow by 7 percent this year.

Fayyad, famous here for his incorruptibility, says his approach is "to tell people who you are, what you are about and what you intend to do and then actually do it." At a time when all the big ideologies have failed to deliver for Arabs, Fayyad says he wants a government based on "legitimacy by achievement."

Something quite new is happening here. And given the centrality of the Palestinian cause in Arab eyes, if Fayyadism works, maybe it could start a trend in this part of the world — one that would do the most to improve Arab human security — good, accountable government.

Thomas Friedman is a New York Times columnist.