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

January 30, 2013
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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’.


  1. Sounds very similar to historical analyses of what drove the Russian revolution – not a lack of progress, but progress that wasn’t keeping up with other nations or with people’s expectations. Be interesting to see comparisons with East Asia/Latin America (or at least common perceptions of the comparison). Interesting stuff.

  2. Egypt problems are more chronic , poverty is intergenerational . it’s not a matter of HDI but the was it enough to stabilization ? the soaring of GDI was due to the prices of infrastructure sector and telecommunication , which both not productive .Never forget the agriculture sectore(13% of GDP)but recieve only 1% of investments .. progress not only indicators but also more analysing and more understanding the people’s needs.

  3. Sorry, it’s “another one of those” flawed arguments of the mainstream academics that economic progress leads to rising expectations and that leads to social and political unrest and upheaval (culminating in the Arab Spring). This is a false argument intended to rationalize “economic development” (read: accumulation of wealth by the propertied classes). In fact, there has been NO economic development that has impacted the vast majority of the population across the Arab countries: poverty and unemployment is rampant among the masses (up to 70%), especially the youth who account for a rising majority of the population. At the same time, vast fortunes have been made by the wealthy and their corrupt politicians, generals, and the dominant party bosses (as in Tunisia and Egypt), while millions are oppressed and terrorized in a state of fear with dire consequences by the police and the military if they dared to rebell. Thus, what motivated the Egyptian masses to rise up in the Arab Spring is not because of a simple neoliberal theory of “rising expectations” but of severe oppression and the overcoming of fear that liberated them to pour into the streets and challenge the powers that be (this is true in the rebellion against the dictator Mubarak backed by his military backers as it is now against the dictatorship imposed by the Muslim Brotherhood, whose days are also numbered). So, yes, the views expressed in this article are formulated within the same flawed western liberal tradition; instead, one needs to look at the empirical reality of the daily oppression suffered by the people who have said “enough!” that should be the basis of political analysis that explains the sin qua non of the uprisings across North Africa and the Middle East. Please quit looking at these events through western lenses using flawed mainstream academic theories and ask the people in the streets as to why they rose up to gain their freedom. Will they tell you it’s because of their “rising expectations”? or because they are fed up by being oppressed all their lives, while the wealth leave off of their exploited labor that leaves them with very little to live on? This latter approach would actually be real “interesting” to investigate!

  4. Interesting points on the ‘waithood’ period for youth, highlighting a period of time in which young people basically wait for their lives to begin. For additional reading on this topic, the Egypt National Human Development Report 2010 provides some further insights. According to the report this ‘waithood’ period is marked by increasing frustrations, as this young generation in Egypt is the best educated ever, which did however not translate into more and better job opportunities. For Egypt the report actually states that, still, 70% of females in the age group 15-21 are married by age 18 and their labour force participation has been declining in recent years. It further stresses that this frustration is often borne out of perceptions of opportunities being unequally distributed. Youth feel that they are less valued, that the state has been failing them in meeting their needs and aspirations and that in general their voice and concerns are not reflected in society or policy-making.
    For some interesting findings and recommendations, you can find the report here:

  5. As I remember there are about the same number of university graduates in Egypt as the UK , but the economy is ten times smaller. I think the Arab spring will be in for bumpy ride untilunless the economy catches up with the education system.

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