Archive for the 'Middle East' Category

Bill Gates to Development Researchers: Create and Share Statistics

I was recently in Doha, Qatar, presenting my research on global communication technology use and democratic tendency at ICTD09. I spoke right before the keynote, Bill Gates, whose main point was that when you engage in a goal-oriented activity, such as development, progress can only be made when you measure the impact of your efforts.

Gates paints a positive picture, measured by deaths before age 5. In the 1880’s he says about 30% of children died before their 5th birthday in most countries, and this gradually moved to 20 million in 1960 and then 10 million in 2006. Gates postulates this is due to rising income levels (40% of decrease), and medical innovation such as vaccines (60% of decrease).

This is an example of Gates’ mantra: you can only improve what you can measure. For example, an outbreak of measles tells you your vaccine system isn’t functioning. In his example about childhood deaths, he says we are getting somewhere here because we are measuring the value for money spent on the problem.

Gates thinks the wealthy in the world need to be exposed to these problems ideally through intermingling, or since that is unlikely to happen, through statistics and data visualization. Collect data, then communicate it. In short, Gates advocates creating statistics through measuring development efforts, and changing the world by exposing people to these data.

Internet and Cell Phone Use in the Middle East

When people talk about the Internet and Democracy, especially in the context of the Middle East, I wonder just how pervasive the Internet really is in these countries. I made a quick plot of data for Middle Eastern countries from data I downloaded from the International Telecommunciation Union:

The US is the blue line on top, for reference. UAE is approaching American levels of internet use, and Iran has skyrocketed since 2001, and is now the 3rd or 4th most wired country. There seem to be a cluster of countries that, while adopting, are doing so slowly: Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Syria, Oman, the Sudan, and Yemen, although Saudi Arabia and Syria seem to be accelerating since 2005.

I made a comparable plot of cellphone use per 100 inhabitants for these same countries, also from data provided by the ITU:

In this graph the United States is in the middle of the pack and growing steadily, but definitely not matching the recent subscription growth rates in the UAE, Qatar, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and Oman (data for 2007 for Israel is not yet available). For most countries, cell phones subscriptions are more than three times as prevalent as Internet users. Interestingly, the group of countries with low internet use also have low cell phone use, but unlike for the internet their cell phone subscription rates all began accelerating in 2005.

So what does this mean? All countries in the Middle East are growing more quickly in adopting cell phones than the internet, with the interesting exception of Iran (I don’t know why the growth rate of internet use in Iran is so high, perhaps blogging has caught on more here. Although it doens’t address this question directly, the Iranian blogosphere itself is analyzed in the Berkman Internet & Democracy paper Mapping Iran’s Online Public: Politics and Culture in the Persian Blogosphere). Syria, the Sudan, Yemen, and Iran have grown most quickly in both internet use and cell phone subscription. In 6 countries there is more than one cell phone subscription per person – conversely, the highest rate for internet use (other than the US) is 50% in UAE with the other countries in approximately two clusters of about 30% and about 10% each. With the rates of growth on the side of the cell phones, I doubt we’ll see their pervasiveness relative to internet use change in the next few years, in fact the gap will probably widen.

Cross-posted at I&D Blog

Book Review: "What Went Wrong" by Bernard Lewis

When we were in Istanbul my mother picked up this book on a whim. It was published in 2002 and entirely written, excepting the preface, before 9/11. The subtitle of the book is “Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response” and Lewis’s goal is to explain thinking in the Islamic world as they confront, after several centuries of being at the forefront of civilization and progress, being in a position of declining power and achievement.

Lewis is a professor emeritus of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton and has specialized in medieval Islamic history. He’s written over 20 books and this one has created controversy (unsurprisingly, given the title) and made it to the New York Times bestseller list. For me, in my work with Berkman on technology and political structures in the Middle East, I was interested in his reasoning that focuses on democratic history and political change. Here are the most interesting points I noticed on these topics.

The Longstanding Attention to Political Science and Constitutional Law

Although they didn’t use those precise words, Lewis explains some contextual and cultural differences between how Westerners understand these concepts and how they appear in Middle Eastern history. For Muslims, Holy Law lays out the role of the ruler and his relationship to believers (his subjects). The typical Western metric for evaluating governments (on a scale from liberty to tyranny) is misplaced here since liberty is a legal term in the Middle Eastern context, not a political term as used in the West. The converse of tyranny is justice, not liberty, and justice meant that the ruler was there by right and not by usurpation and that he governs according to God’s law, which usually came down to a spectrum between arbitrary and consultative government. Lewis notes that this latter issue is not well defined in the Koran, and thus debate ensues, but authoritative non-consultative government is seen as undesirable, even from a ruler accepted as legitimate. But even in the Western context the problem of definition abounds, for example the liberty/tyranny scale is seductively simple. We have a well-accepted understanding of what constitutes tyranny but maximizing liberty can mean different things depending on whether you ascribe to Marxist, socialist, libertarian, anarchistic, or another ideology. So ongoing debate is not a difference, but for people thinking about political institutions in the Middle East like myself, the prominence of the notion of justice is an important correction to make to typical Western liberty-based thought.

Interpretations of Women’s Rights

Lewis points out that emancipation of women in the Middle East has been most pronounced in pre-2002 Iraq and the former South Yemen, which were both ruled by comparatively repressive regimes, and lags behind in Egypt, one of the most tolerant and open Arab societies. He cites this as evidence that a more liberal regime won’t necessarily lead to greater rights for women, and further notes that the more conservative and fundamental the regime, such as Iran and most of Afghanistan (before 2002), the less pronounced women’s rights are. Lewis thinks that while the need to modernize is accepted throughout the Middle East even among the most anti-Western fundamentalists, the emancipation of women is seen as Westernizing and a betrayal of true Islamic values. This is an area Wafa Sultan has talked about extensively, pointing out that even modernization accepts Western tenets and accomplishments, and she suggests that women’s rights can be accepted in the Middle East in the same way.

There have been historical figures in the Middle East who have fought for women’s rights. Shi’ite Persian Qurrat al-‘Ayn (1814-1852) became a follower of the Bab (forerunner of the founder of the Baha’i faith) and preached without a veil and denounced polygamy. Princess Taj es-Saltana was educated in French as well as Persian and denounced in her writings the bondage she saw her female compatriots subjected to. Apparently these writings, and women more generally, played a part in the Persian constitutional revolution of 1906-11, where there was a movement for the adoption of constitutional forms of government that would establish Western political mores, supported even by the Islamic leaders.

Modernization and the Internet

A Western eye might associate modernization with Western notions of liberty, but this is not always the way it has played out. Lewis explains that traditionally one way of expressing charity has been to create a waqf, an income-producing endowment dedicated to a pious purpose, such as a soup kitchen, water fountain, or school. Waqfs have predominantly been made by women, to whom Islamic law grants the right to own and dispose of property. In the effort to modernize in the 19th century, many of these waqfs came under state control. Lewis asserts that more recent efforts to modernize have followed this path of increasing state control rather than reducing it. He notes that many Middle Eastern states are evincing stronger control over schools, the media, and print. He feels that the internet, specifically the electronic media revolution, will “no doubt in time” undermine these controls and allow independent and self-supporting associations to emerge. Although he does not explain a mechanism, he suggests that perhaps this will spill into the existing state control over the economy where a large proportion of the population depends on the state for their income (this dependence bringing along with it the usual flourishing black market economy).

Political Change and Democracy

Lewis is careful to note that a view in which advancement assumes an increase in the Western understanding of freedom, such as in his words “freedom of the mind from constraint and indoctrination, to question and inquire and speak; freedom of the economy from corrupt and pervasive mismanagement; freedom of women from male oppression; freedom of citizens from tyranny” is simplistic and perhaps not even the right answer. He notes one need only look at the Western history with democracy to know how long and hard that road is. But he does in the end call for some adoption of certain values: abandonment of grievance and victimhood, reasonableness in settlement of differences, cooperation in creative endeavors. Lewis’s enumeration of a list of freedoms and his implicit suggestion that, at least according to Western observers, they are essential underpinnings of a modern society strikes me as similar to Amartya Sen’s thesis in “Development as Freedom” – that development occurs best in a country that endows its citizens with freedoms, specifically: political, economic, social opportunities, transparency, and protective security. Sen is very clear that these are important because they “help to advance the general capability of a person” and because they reinforce each other development is most successfully made when the freedoms are granted together. I’m not sure if he is right, but both Lewis and Sen seem to be suggesting roads for Middle Eastern societies that aren’t politically correct and advocate changes in local societal norms.

Crossposted on I&D Blog

Choosing not to Choose – Turkish Headscarves and Governance in Somalia

What happens when the results of democratic choice do not align with traditional democratic values, such as freedom and choice? A Feb 19 New York Times article discusses the proposed repeal of a ban on the wearing of headscarves at universities in Turkey. Those supporting the ban are concerned about the rise of Islam and their view of the modernization of Turkey. But perhaps the most democratic reaction is to let such choices be made locally, even if the appearance is to promote non-democratic ideals. This is a fascinating question and I’m not sure of right answer.

It seems like a similar dilemma to that faced by developing countries when they try and move to democratic regimes. In Singapore, Lee Kwan Yew’s move toward a more democratic system used massive non-democratic efforts to dismantle the communist opposition. His justification was that no democratic government would be brought to the fore if an open vote was held in such conditions – the risk of the communists gaining power was too great. So it seems to be the case in other countries where a move to a system of democratically elected representatives might result in the ascendancy of Shari’a law.

For example, as Ethan Zuckerman has discussed at length (here), the overthrow of the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC) in Somalia in 2006 by apparently US aided Ethiopian forces seems like an instance of the same underlying problem. The US’s involvement appears to be a policy of ‘not Islam’ rather than the traditionally articulated policy of pro-democracy/capitalism. The UIC regime, although Shari’a, brought enough stability to the region for Bakara Market to re-emerge as a functioning market in Mogadishu for the first time since Somalia descended into anarchy in 1991.

So what’s the policy goal? Is it, as Sen suggests in Development as Freedom, increasing choice so people can “exercise their reasoned agency,” or is it eradication of safety threats, perhaps perceived as associated with the rise of Islam, or something else?

Should we be willing to accept some Shari’a law in exchange for stability – the stability that might allow a market to develop, with the consequent increase in choice and the greater communication that comes with trade? Right now US policy seems not to accept any Shari’a law but perhaps that’s not the route that best promotes democracy, our traditional and explicit foreign policy goal.

It seems to be to be a cost benefit analysis where the costs and benefits are hard to measure: whether the costs of adhering to choice will undermine the value of choice itself. Is the right outcome to respect choices the citizens make, even if the choice is to dismantle the very freedoms typically undergird democracy, such as civil rights and political freedoms, or is there a mentality that must be in place before the citizenry can be “entrusted” with democratic institutions? And if democratic ideals are not present, what is the ideology? Nationalism? This seems to be counter to Fukuyama’s prediction of the universal adoption of Western liberal values.

As a Somali commented here, “any law is better than no laws.”

Crossposted in I&D Blog