Arab Spring v Muslim Tigers: what’s the connection between human development and revolution?

January 30, 2013

     By Duncan Green     

Just before the Arab Spring kicked off in early 2011, I was happily linking to some really interesting work by Dani Rodrik (one ofRandall - 2011 - Gazipur Village Matlab Bangladesh my development heroes) on ‘muslim tigers’, pointing out that in terms of human development, the top 10 performers since 1970 were not the usual suspects (East Asia, Nordics) but Muslim countries – Oman, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Morocco, and Algeria all featured.

So did the Arab Spring happen in spite of or because of such amazing progress? A new paper from Randall Kuhn of the University of Denver (right, without the hat) explores just that question and comes up with some intriguing hypotheses. Tigerishness in these countries is largely confined to childhood, which then gives way to:

‘“waithood” – the long and precarious path to adulthood facing Arab youth. Potential consequences of youth exclusion include lost productivity, social anomie, atrophying skills, and of course civil unrest. But these particular crises did not occur in a vacuum. While the Arab States experienced the same global economic recession as other nations, the specific crises were conditioned by decades of progress in basic human development.’

The most interesting aspect of this ‘waithood’ is the interaction between the labour market and the ‘marriage market’, which partly as a result of improved education has seen a ‘rapid transformation towards delayed marriage and high marriage costs.’ Female age at first marriage rose from 20.8 in 1966 to 29.2 in 2001 for Tunisia, and from 18.7 in 1973 to 31 in 2007 for Libya, and the changes have been similar for all women (rural and urban, more and less educated). In Egypt, the cost of marriage in 2005 was close to $7,000, or about 11 times annual household expenditure. As a result ‘an increasing number of women were accepting long engagements or delaying marriage in order to earn money to pay for the marriage or to wait for a better match.’ Oh, and by the way, ‘Unlike western countries, premarital sex does not have wide social acceptance.’

Arab spring 1The result is a pressure cooker of expectations and frustrations. Young educated people unable to find jobs, seeing the status and fulfilment of marriage and parenthood receding into the far horizons the other side of ‘waithood’. And sex, drugs and rock and roll, which at least provide a temporary outlet for my kids’ generation in the UK, were not really on the menu.

Final word to Randall Kuhn:

‘No developing region had seen such improvements in multiple indicators of human development, reflected in declining child mortality, increased schooling, and increased stature of women. This progress permeated widely throughout most populations and sub-populations. Advances in human development contributed to a fundamental reordering of the relationship between citizen and state. Human development fostered a set of higher expectations, both physiologically and socially determined, that placed considerable pressure on governments, particularly in the context of extended adolescence. As the bond between citizen and state frayed, a new generation of political protest movement emerged, facilitated by the rise of information technologies. In addition to material grievances, the wave of protest reflected a collective sense, emerging throughout the Arab world, that citizens could expect more from their governments, including a right to self-determination. If human development does indeed shape the path to revolution, we may hope that it will also determine the ultimate success of the Arab Spring, which remains a work in progress.’

I’m told that Oxfam’s Middle East and North Africa team are heartily sick of reading what they call ‘Western narratives’ about the Arab Spring. Is this just another one of those or something more interesting? For the moment (until someone puts me straight), I go with ‘interesting’.