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Some aspects of the Arab Human Development Report 2003 as read by a European scholar.

SINCE 1990, THE UNITED NATIONS Development Programme has published every year a World Report on Human Development. The UNDP is the UN's global development network, which advocates for changes and connects countries to help people build a better life. Considering that people are the true wealth of nations (F. Harbison, 1973), it maintains that human development is a process expanding human choices. Therefore it regards freedom as a requirement for human development since it is a condition for the exercise of choice (A. Sen, 1999).

As globalization, paradoxically requires us to put the emphasis on the territorial dimension of development, the UNDP has a growing number of regional, subregional, national and subnational reports. As 35 among those national and subnational reports were devoted to 17 Arab countries, it was due time to produce a report covering the 22 Arab countries and to discuss their specific development problems individually and as a group. The first issue of the Arab Human Development Report was published in 2002. It was co-sponsored by the UNDP, Regional Bureau for Arab States and the Arab Fund for Economic and Social Development. This inaugural AHDR subtitled "Creating Opportunities for future Generations" has been followed by a second issue. published in 2003, subtitled "Building a Knowledge Society."

As well as being a descriptive and analytical presentation of the Report, the aim of this paper is to place it in a wider context by encouraging a critical reflection on both the conceptual and methodological background.


The aim of the report

In a crucial second chapter, the AHDR 2002 identifies three deficits affecting the Arab world: a deficit of freedom, a deficit in women's empowerment and a deficit in knowledge. But, the Report 2002 not only delivers a clear diagnosis of the state of human development in the Arab region, it also makes recommendations and proposals to achieve a better level of development. For instance, in the field of knowledge, Chapter five deals with the reinforcement of human capacities through education while the aim of Chapter six is the enhancement of human development towards a society of knowledge. As the quality of the educational system and the importance given to research or the access to information technologies appear as important development challenges, it is not surprising that the AHDR 2003 focuses on the building of a knowledge society.

The authors of the report, a team of Arab intellectuals and development specialists, have chosen to examine in depth the status of knowledge in the Arab region. The choice of this theme is not only due to the fact that knowledge is the most instrumental of the three components of the original strategy, the two others being, as already said, women's empowerment and freedom advancement. In the foreword, the Regional Director of the UNDP for Arab States, Rima Khalaf Humaidi, emphasises that "Knowledge increasingly defines the line between wealth and poverty, between capability and powerlessness and between human fulfilment and frustration." The Report is also foreworded by the Director General and Chairman of the Arab Fund for Economic and Social Development, Abdel Latif Youssef El Hamed. On the subject of knowledge in the Arab world he speaks of "its organic relationship with human development, its pivotal role in promoting it and its significance as one of the essential pursuits of humanity."

The Contents Of The Report

The Report opens with a rich executive summary. Those first 16 pages of a more than 200 pages document allow us to have a comprehensive view of the contents of the Report, its main themes and conclusions. It also gives a clear idea of the strategy recommended by the report team. The Report itself. consisting of an introduction and nine chapters, seems at first glance organized in two disproportional parts. Part I (pages 17 to 31) gives an up to date state of human development in Arab countries. Part II (pages 33 to 176) deals with the "Knowledge Society."

Reading the Report reveals that Part I, entitled "Changes in Human Development in the Arab Countries during 2001-2002," is an introduction. The value and meaningfulness of an evaluation of changes, within only one year, in the field of human development is questionable considering the three deficits identified for the Arab world. To enlarge freedom, women's empowerment and knowledge is a long term process, going necessarily through political reforms together with the evolution of mentalities. The main interest of this preliminary part of the Report is elsewhere: the survey of the regional and international environment. It gives an Arab analysis of external factors (the impact of the Israeli occupation and the occupation of Iraq) and some developments on Arab integration, undoubtedly a key problem, which was the subject of the lucid conclusive chapter of the Report 2002.

Part II is divided into four sections, the last one being, in fact, a conclusion exposing, under a metaphoric title referring to the Arab-Islamic culture, a global strategic vision: "The five Pillars of a Knowledge Society." Section one gives the conceptual framework (Chapter 1). Section two is a diagnoses of the state of knowledge in Arab countries: knowledge dissemination (Chapter 2) and production (Chapter 3); measuring knowledge (Chapter 4); the organizational context of knowledge (Chapter 5). Section three analyzes the Arab cultural (Chapter 6), socio-economic (Chapter 7) and political (Chapter 8) context. Chapter nine, being the fourth section, is action oriented. It identifies five pillars: freedom through good governance; high quality education; coming to the "Information Age;" shifting towards knowledge based production, establishing an Arab general knowledge model.

Besides 40 figures, more than 30 boxes included in the Report are worth mention. They focus either on a specific concept or an acute methodological point. Some of the boxes give an abstract of a referential Arab author, for instance al-Kawakabi on "Despots and Knowledge." This reminds us of the existence of an Arab tradition of reflection on knowledge from Ibn Khaldoun to Edward Said. At the end of the document there are thirteen statistical tables on knowledge in Arab countries and a bibliography.

The Bibliography Of The Report And Some Variations Around It

Naturally, such a report is neither an academic publication nor a polemical pamphlet, but the bibliography still needs some comment. The names of respected experts on development questions from different parts of the world could have added a dimension of contrast, useful for understanding some specific problems of the Arab world. For instance, with respect on technological development as presented in Chapter three or innovation policies as evoked in Chapter five, a comparison with the Indian experience of developmental information (R.B. Heeks, 1996; S. Mahalingam & N.Vittal, 2001; B. Singh, 2000) would be interesting. On essential themes such as religious tradition and knowledge (pp.118-121) or religion and its political exploitation (pp. 172-174), which are not eluded to in the report, some arguments could be taken from Brazilian thought on development, even if elaborated in a different historical and theological context.

In Chapter six, concentrating on the Arab cultural context and subdivided into heritage, religion and language, the pages devoted to religion contains boxes on both erudition in the Qur'an and the Sunna (6.4) and learning and knowledge in the Holy Bible (6.5). While it is worth thinking on religion and knowledge, this line of thought reflection can be extended to the religious dimension of development. In Report 2002 there is a very interesting text on the eradication of poverty and development from an Islamic perspective (Box 6.3). This allows us to make a short digression on the subject of the relationship between religion and development through the case study of Latin America.

Latin America has a strong Catholic background and has faced the same kind of difficulties as the Arab world so far as development and democracy are concerned. The Catholic Church has been, on the one hand, a conservative oppressive force forming an alliance with the military U.S. backed dictatorships and, on the other hand, a progressive force demanding political freedom and social equality. The "Theology of Liberation," at the intersection of the Latin American context and the aggiornamento of Catholicism, has led archbishops like dom Helder Camara in Brazil or Oscar Romero y Galdames in Salvador to fight against extreme poverty and for human rights in the name of the Gospels. In the new context of globalization the theory and action are today centred on economics and humanism. Although the priority given to the poor conforms to the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church as expressed in Popularum Progressio, the referential encyclical letter on development written in 1967 by Pope Paul VII, the perception of underdevelopment and its factors together with the opinion on the means and tools of development draw a line between traditionalist and modernist.

We thus can see that our digression is not so far afield, because Islam is often described in Western writings as a obstacle to development and democracy. Therefore it is important to show that Islam has the same multidimensionality as Catholicism--and any other religion--concerning economic and political matters (B. Dumortier, 2002). Since Islam is "the major religion in most Arab countries" and "a major inspiration for Arab civilisation," the report underlines that "the approaches of Islamic thinkers and the various intellectual currents underlying Islamic religious experience vary greatly in both their nature and objectives." This truth should not be forgotten.

An outsider's opinion is often a good complement to an understanding from inside. The books of social scientists, who have studied the transmission of knowledge in the Arab-Islamic civilization (D.F. Eickelman, 1992) or the production of ideology in contemporary Muslim societies (G. Kepel & Y. Richard, 1990), could have given some relevant additional ideas to the fifth pillar of the Arab knowledge society, the establishment of an Arab model of knowledge using "the past as an inspiration for the future" (p. 175). They can also offer elements of explanation for information given in the Report. According to the UNESCO statistics, "Book production in Arab countries was just 1.1% of world production, although Arabs constitute 5% of the world population" (p.77) and religious books represent 17% of the literary Arab production compared to 5% in the world (Fig.3.4). While the number of publications (original writings and translation) per million people is around 0.6 in Europe, 0.3 in North America, it is far less than 0.1 in the Arab world (Fig.3.3).

The bibliography does not reflect the editorial importance of Europe, perhaps because Europe is a continent of linguistic diversity. This is by the way a great difference with the Arab world defined in the Report as a linguistic area: the main element of Arab identity is the Arabic language (see Chapter 6 of the Report). Report 2002 distinguished references in English and in Arabic. Report 2003 has a bibliography in Arabic and a bibliography in English and French, with three titles in French among fifty in English. The bibliography includes a complete range of reports issued by international (UNDP, UNESCO, World Bank) or U.S. (USAID) institutions, as well as from European governmental research centres, on development, for instance the French Institut de Recherche pour le Developpement, Other approaches are presented by European transnational institutions, such as the European Union or the Council of Europe that take an interest in development problems in the Arab world through Euro-Mediterranean or Euro-Arab development programs.

The Technical Conception Of Knowledge Developed In The Report

The lack of bibliographical pluralism is in contradiction with the very interesting reflection conducted in the Report 2003 on the crisis of the Arabic language and the linguistic aspect of the access to technological knowledge explosion (pages 120 to 126). The Report expresses awareness of the importance of linguistic diversity at the world scale. It is noted that the Internet, which has help to spread English "could become a platform for promoting the use of Arabic" (p.123).

It is clear that the Knowledge Society is here more or less implicitly assimilated to a technical Information Society. The diffusion of knowledge is examined in detail in Chapter two. We learn that there are less than 18 computers per 1,000 persons in the region compared with the global average of 78.3. People with an access to Internet represent 1.6% of the population (79% in the U.S.). But, the Internet penetration (Fig.2.8) in Arab countries shows great differences from one country to another, reflecting not only the economic level, but also political and societal factors.

The Report recommends "keeping abreast with the Information Age," but does not express concern about the territorial (M. Castells, 1999), economic (D. Schiller, 1999), social (P. Norris, 2001) and political (R.W. McChesney, 1999) implications of the technologies of information. In Western countries, where the rate of personal computer or of private Internet access is much higher than in the most advanced Arab countries with regard to information technologies (UAE, Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait, followed by Lebanon and Jordan), we experience how the Information Society leads to "dual cities" and "digital gap." We can also not affirm that information equals democratization.

Through the brief description of the Report, it can be seen that its rigorous and courageous analysis could be conducted, mutatis mutandis, for other countries or groups of countries. One can find in the recommendations the expected key-measures (empowerment of women, good governance, knowledge society....) of a Western, liberal, democratic model in a version adapted to a specific socio-economic and politico-cultural Arab context.


Development As A Comprehensive Social Change Process

Development has not only been a persistent term in the institutional vocabulary at the international level for the last half a century. Development is also a concept of the economic sciences necessitating an interdisciplinary thought process in association with sociology, political science, and geography. This concept appears in the middle of the 20th century to express the growing gap in wealth and standards of living of world's population. It includes the idea of growth, supplemented by a social and cultural dimension. It has been turned into a more humanist approach founded, among others, on the works of the winner of a Nobel Prize for economics, Amartya Sen. A general definition of development, which is not a situation but a process, can be given as "increasing wealth associated to better life conditions of people on a territory" (P. Cadene, p. 2003).

The Arab Human Development Report reflects a conception of development prevailing for over fifteen years and implemented world-wide by the Reports and Programs of the large international institutions, where development and globalization are considered as intrinsically linked. Those institutions feel responsible and able to manage the consequences of globalization and development through a sub-national empowerment (local development) and a long-term environmental preoccupation (sustainable development). But a growing number of more and more organized movements and networks see the end of development coming with the advancement of globalization.

The more virulent attacks come from Western intellectuals. One explains that development is just an alibi for the different powers which benefit from it (S. Latouche, 1986). Another contests the universal values of development and regards it as a Western belief (G. Rist, 2001). Yet another (the U.S. sociologist S. Felman), speaks of human global development as the devilish underground of ultra-liberalism. It is not pertinent here to take up these arguments, but they cannot be ignored. Anyway, despite the many critics it is facing, the conception of development as a comprehensive social transformation process is now receiving a large consensus and it is adopted by national institutions all over the world and is a condition to secure international aid and subsidies. Although the core of the ideological debate has moved to the positive or negative link between globalization and development, former categories of thinking on development, mainly expressed during the period 1950-1970, are hypotheses still worth being tested, with possible necessary adaptations so as not to neglect the technological changes, the extended mobility of persons and goods, and increasing capital and information flows.

Are Former Underdevelopment Processes Still Operating In The Arab World?

Are former analyses on underdevelopment still valid? Can they help to understand and to find proper solutions regarding Arab development problems identified in the first Report? We are making allusion to the link between the fluctuation of Arab economic growth and oil prices, the heterogeneous level of development among Arab countries, the fact that the Arab world is rather rich than developed and that many Arabs suffer from poverty or even extreme poverty. Everyone can agree that development priorities expressed more than thirty years ago remain priorities. In many Arab countries the increase of agricultural production remains at least as urgent as access to Internet. The difficulties of the Arab region in participating actively in a global world (M. Lavergne, 2001) are less the explanation than the sign of the stagnation or the regression of Arab countries in the field of Human Development. Many other factors than the three deficits identified by the UNDP are to be taken into consideration as demonstrated by Marc Lavergne.

The classical contradictory or complementary hypothesis on the roots of underdevelopment and the various analysis of the development process are well-known. They have been an aspect of economic choices and political protestation in many Arab countries. They consist in analyzing the concrete situations of the different developing countries as stages in a process of development (W.A. Lewis, 1955; W.W.Rostow, 1958), as the product of the exploitation of a periphery by a centre (S. Amin, 1970), as the result of colonialist or imperialist domination together with the control of national wealth by local oligarchies (Y. Lacoste, 1965) or as the consequence of the inequality in international exchanges. From an epistemological point of view, it is important to construct bridges between theory building and empirical observation. From an ethical point of view, it is important to link science to action. As a good diagnosis is an important step towards the resolution of a problem, measuring Human Development can be regarded as a crucial necessity.

Measuring Human Development and Evaluating Knowledge

It is necessary to make a selection among the numerous and varied measurable data, i.e., indicators, and to arrange them into the most adequate comprehensive measures, i.e. an index. To measure human development, the UNDP advanced the Human Development Index. Beside classical economic indicators, HDI includes social indicators mainly in the field of education and health. The introduction of the HDI had been an improvement compared with the Gross National Product or Gross Domestic Product per capita for the evaluation of the level of development in countries and territories. But, the HDI has been criticized by some. It has to be mentioned that the Arab Development Report 2002 contains an excellent Box (1.6) on the research of an adequate measure of Human Development and presents a Human Development Alternative Index. If measuring human development is not easy, attempting a quantitative measurement of knowledge faces many serious difficulties conceptually, methodologically or practically.

In Report 2003, Chapter four considers three main aspects with their corresponding basic elements. Knowledge dissemination is evaluated through education (years of schooling by gender, with a comparison with the Asian Tigers), translation of books, mass media and cinema houses and theatres. Knowledge production is measured with the dimension of inputs (knowledge workers, expenditure on R&D) and outputs (scientific publishing, patterns, publication of books, literary and artistic expression). Infrastructure for knowledge capital includes ICT infrastructures, R&D support institutions and professional organisations of knowledge workers. Such an approach requires available and credible compatible data for the twenty-two Arab countries. For the time being, only two Arab countries, Jordan and Kuwait, have measures of the quality of educational attainments.

To combine an initial approximate measurement of knowledge with qualitative subjective elements, the report team conducted a survey among Faculty members at Arab universities as a sample of Arab intellectuals. "Respondents generally expressed dissatisfaction with the status of knowledge acquisition in their countries" (p. 87) and considered that "Arab knowledge systems are neither sufficiently free nor adequately incentivised" (p. 88). The benefits of the exercise, as said in the Report, are reduced by a low answer rate: the total number of replies is only 383. The report team only succeeded in obtaining the results of the survey from 15 out of 22 Arab countries. Only three (Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia) succeeded in completing the survey. It is understandable that the report team had to select the most efficient solutions. But the assimilation between "highly qualified academics" and "intellectuals" is not completely satisfactory. Also the type of questionnaire designed in Annex 2 of the Report (circle the right answer, answer briefly, put the numbers in definite boxes ...) is adequate for computerizing, but perhaps may not be the most relevant for such a subject. The implementation of research programs on knowledge capital, making a large place to non-directive interviews and participation-observation, would probably give a better opportunity to express opinions with nuances of knowledge in countries with a long history and a rich culture.

The Report contains harsh criticism of Arab education (Chapter 2). "The curricula taught in Arab countries seem to encourage submission, obedience, subordination and compliance, rather than critical thinking" (p. 53). "Communication in education is didactic, supported by set books containing indisputable texts and by an examination process that only tests memorization" (p. 54). From our point of view, this severity should be qualified by the observation that the Arab educational system is at the same time very ancient and very young. The Arab Islamic world has a number of prestigious universities, while a mass education system is new in most Arab countries. There is still a discrepancy between quite low rates of literacy reflecting a recent past and increasing rates of schooling due to the efforts of the Arab countries, with very different financial resources from the Gulf countries to the Horn of Africa. In addition, the high access of girls to university should be noted as a trend often ignored or underestimated in the West.

The Core of the Concept of Progress

On a surface level, even with the conviction that qualitative characteristics can be quantified and an experience in mathematics applied to social sciences, a European researcher may be disturbed by the gap between the measurement ambition expressed in the Report and the paucity of national data in Arab countries together with the scarcity of data on the Arab world in international databases. At a deeper level, the importance given to concretization and measurability is usually regarded as a fundamental aspect of the U.S. view of progress (E.C.Steward, M.J.Bennett, 1991) more than an Arab conception of human achievement. This remark leads to another one on the view of progress reflected by the Report.

The idea of progress is a humanistic concept of the Western Age of Enlightenment and may be seen as universal. Nobody will disagree that to reduce food shortage, poverty, disease, death rates, illiteracy, etc. is a duty. But, in the United States progress has become a powerful social norm intertwined with the values of material properties and material well-being. In the perspective of Arab human development it has to be noted that the performance of science and technology in economic development is uncertain. To neglect political and social factors in favor of technology is the main explanation of many unsuccessful development projects in recent times. It is even incriminated as the cause of a kind of social retrogression in developed countries, including new poverty and a growing number of homeless.

Adverse reaction to the U.S. view of progress, which receives mixed responses in Europe, can engender an identity crisis leading to sectarian violence in Arab-Islamic countries, where imposed progress is experienced as a danger for traditional values and lifestyles. It is a reason why inter-Arab collaboration and integration together with the real building of a model taking into account the Arab-Islamic intellectual, social and political heritage are important conditions to improve the level of development and in the end to bring benefits to all Arab men and women.

We have discussed here the conceptual and methodological background of the Report. But, the territorial frame retained is also questionable as pointed out in Marc Lavergne's paper. We would like to make a remark founded on a comparison with Europe. Despite its natural and cultural diversity, despite its history made of wars between neighbors, despite its ideological tradition identifying Nation and State, Europe has succeeded in growing gradually from six to twenty-five and to turn step by step from a Common Market to a European Union. We are always surprised that our Arab friends perceive their identity as a brilliant common past to celebrate rather than an acceptable future to build together. For a European scholar, it is typical of the Arab self-image, reflected in the Report with the classical description of the Arab world between a reality of diversity and an aspiration to unity.


The Report, which we have had the great privilege to be invited to comment upon, as European scholars, in an Arab American academic publication, contrasts with many records of achievement issued by Arab governmental bodies or official facts and figures; these have often been criticized by researchers as unreliable The enumeration of the many problems of Arab societies is probably quite painful or irritating for an Arab reader. In any case, the Report paradoxically does not damage the Arab image in Western countries. The Report team has made a beneficial exercise of self-criticism. This unusual ability to put the stress on internal rather than external factors to explain development problems in Arab countries improves the credibility of the Report outside the Arab world. The Report has for instance a severe appreciation of Arab mass media and the constraints imposed on them. "Media in most Arab countries lack multiple, independent sources of information" (p. 60), and "The harassment of the press under the law is an all too frequent violation of freedom of expression" (p. 63).

As far as Western media are concerned, the image of the Arab they diffuse is not a new problem. It has not improved in the recent times. The western media continues to confuse between Arabs and Muslims, and between Islam and Islamism. It is then very important that such a Report delivers a message of adaptability and diversity about religious matters. It affirms that "The interpretation of the religious text did not stop at one approach; on the contrary it initiated diverse methods of thought" (p. 117). It also underlines the multiplicity of schools of jurisprudence and examines the Christian-Islamic coexistence in the Arab world. The coverage of the Report in Europe, not only in the specialized press, but also in weekly or daily newspapers, has been rather positive (i.e., Le Monde or Le Nouvel Observateur in France).

The Arab Human Development Report is a serious well-informed and strong argued work. This rich document cannot be taken as an exhaustive or definitive analysis of the state of human development in the Arab world. Nevertheless it definitely offers a reasonable basis for further studies and discussion. Its recommendations, reflecting the ideology of an internationally respected and respectable global institution, should not be blindly followed, but certainly they must be examined with the greatest attention, even if they require some adaptation to concrete national and subnational situations. Finally, they necessitate some precautions in the manner in which they are implemented.


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Heeks, R.B. India's Software Industry: State policy, Liberalisation and Industrial Development. New-Delhi: Saje publications, 1996.

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Brigitte Dumortier is with the National Centre for Scientific Research, University Paris-Sorbonne.
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Author:Dumortier, Brigitte
Publication:Arab Studies Quarterly (ASQ)
Geographic Code:0DEVE
Date:Mar 22, 2004
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