Wednesday, September 9, 2015

"Do it Yourself"

Towards a New Era in the Arab World

Not for the first time, The Economist picks a whopper of a headline. At once, the venerable British weekly ties up the era upon us Arabs with the one we’re staggering away from.

And it took the magazine’s Sarah Birke no more than a page to describe vistas of abject failure, all pregnant with consequence like this one:

Egypt is a glaring case. Take education: although public spending on schooling has risen in nominal terms, it dropped from 5.1% of GDP in 2003 to 3.6% in 2013, according to government figures. The World Economic Forum ranks Egypt’s primary schools as the third worst in the world. Too many students cram into dirty classrooms. Parents say teachers often do not bother to turn up, or demand bribes to give the children a passing grade when they do.

I would have chosen the even more evocative one of cats roaming public wards and feces everywhere in the bathrooms, but I like cats and the feces part has a way of laying siege to the imagination.

The short of this sordid tale is that the Arab state has become the plague: it still has enough strength to make life absolutely miserable for us in a rich variety of ways but little mind to deliver on the “bare necessities” and basic services that are essential benchmarks for its raison d’├Ętre. More than that, progressively it has all but thwarted the developmental struggles of its societies. When it comes to performing for the people, the Arab public sector creaks and leaks and spits out hooey; when it comes to smothering the fury borne out of chronic letdown, the state’s security apparatus snaps into attention, brandishes its tools of coercion and violence and proceeds to smother and silence.

But that the Arab public sector is at the end of its tether, and ipso facto so are we, is neither here nor there. For both fallen states and still intact ones, post-uprisings, the pressing question is to what end, because these breakdowns don’t just impact the quality of life, they actually dare to change the very fabric of it. If we were to take just those threads that bind people to polity, already the tears portend a demonstrably different relationship between rulers and subjects. Where the center has buckled, much authority and jurisdiction shall inevitably devolve to the limbs. Where the center holds, the trends, though quieter and shyer, point in the same direction. And as more responsibilities pass to regions and cities, the give and take between governors and governed necessarily becomes more organic, more direct, more fruitful.

Equally, the deepening inequities and multiplying service gaps have provoked a mixture of NGO interventions, civic activism and entrepreneurship (mostly youth inspired and social) whose responses cover the entire distance between band-aid relief and solution. The result is busy, freewheeling ecosystems, where old traditional setups (many donor led and far removed from supposed locales of interest) have had to give way to newer grassroots, community-based initiatives and high tech innovations that suggest a fundamental shift in expectation and prerogative.

There is nothing neat or synchronized or uniform about these multifarious challenges to business as usual. And, as street agitations by would be citizens in Lebanon and Iraq are showing, even in feckless systems the willingness to cede space is messy and painful. But such is the trajectory both in states made irreversibly feeble by civil war and those irretrievably spent by rapacious economic agendas, ineptitude and corruption.

It is far too early to weave an overarching narrative of this bottom-up action or envision the mechanics between rising city-states and contracting central governments, which, however weakened, can neither be neutralized nor circumvented. But as varied, scattered and disconnected as these shifts seem, there already is a continuum that, for example, connects youths fixing up neglected roads in fringe Jordanian towns with online educational tools like the Egyptian Nafham, with the composting innovations of Lebanese Cedar Environmental, with the Egyptian doctors who took and posted the pictures of their hospitals, with regional community development initiatives like Ruwwad al Tanmeya… An overriding approach to constituency advocacy is taking shape, enablement and facilitation are being tested as methods of slow disruption and change and technology is being deployed in the service of social ends. This at a time when the once omnipresent Arab governments are clearly unable to resist the pull of diffusion and decentralization.

Do it Yourself, in a sense, is graduating from motto to manifesto--one that is impatient with dogma, unimpressed with conventional wisdoms, solutions focused and inventive. It is true that the Arab world is upon a new era, many features of which have yet to take hold. It is true as well that to each country its priorities and pace. But of all the emerging realities that are proposing to define the new age, this is the one to watch.