The unprecedented spread of pro-democracy protests across the Arab world in the past few weeks has taken almost everyone by surprise. As the protests have spread, pundits around the world are scrambling to make sense of them. Roughly speaking, the explanations for the protests can be summarized by discontent around three basic issues: a lack of accountability, a lack of democracy and a lack of jobs.
At one level, none of these explanations are satisfactory. The Middle East is not the only region of the world with authoritarian and unaccountable governments. It is certainly not the only place with a large population of young people who are having difficulties finding jobs. The fact that these grievances were serious enough to lead citizens to revolt against their leaders is only obvious on hindsight. Hardly anyone would have predicted these uprisings a year ago.
But if we take a deeper look, we find even more holes in these explanations. Many of the Arab countries that are now experiencing rebellions should not be considered development failures; in many ways, they are actually development successes. In last year’s UN Human Development Report’s assessment of progress, Arab countries do remarkably well. Five Middle Eastern countries are in the top 10 in terms of improvements in the Human Development Index. They include Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco, and Egypt is not far behind . The advances in this region are mainly due to significant improvements in health and education. Even Libya and Iran do well in this long-term assessment despite very low or even negative growth because they saw very rapid advances in life expectancy and school enrollments.
What is striking about the countries of the Middle East is how much they have changed in comparison to other countries that were similar to them 40 years ago. In 1970, Tunisia had lower life expectancy than Congo and Morocco had fewer children in school than Malawi. In fact, it is only over the past four decades that North Africa has become distinctly more developed than the rest of Africa.
Therefore, the democratization movement that is beginning to take shape in the Arab world is a result of development progress and not because it has failed at development. This imbalance between socioeconomic development and democratization is what the 2010 Human Development Report has referred to as the “democratic deficit” in the Arab world. This argument retakes the hypothesis put forward by American sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset more than 50 years ago that the demand for democracy is a result of broader processes of modernization and development. In the long run, it is very difficult for societies that have attained high living standards to tolerate living under autocratic regimes.
But in considering Lipset’s hypothesis, it is important to think carefully about what is meant by development. Much of the scholarship on development has uncritically adopted the view that development is the same as growth in per capita income. From this perspective, the “development causes democracy explanation” would not make sense for the Arab world because the Middle East is not a high growth region in terms of per capita income.
However, the Arab world has experienced very rapid improvements in health and education indicators, which is why a broader measure of development (like the Human Development Index) classifies them as success stories. Life expectancy in North Africa, for example, grew from 51 to 71 years between 1970 and 2010. In countries with similar starting points, life expectancy only grew by 8 years. The share of children in school expanded from 37 to 70 percent (33 percentage points) while in countries with similar starting points it grew by 23 percentage points. For these reasons, the Jasmine revolutions are unlikely to extend to authoritarian regimes in Sub-Saharan Africa, where the pace of improvements in health and education has been much slower. Furthermore, ethnic fractionalization in SSA makes it much more difficult to organize unified mass protests against autocratic regimes.
Access to health and education is arguably a much better measure of the development that is needed for the emergence of democracy. Health and education are often necessary preconditions for meaningful participation in public life. It is also the case that progress in health and education often occurs through the extension of services to disadvantaged and disenfranchised groups. Simply put, once education becomes accessible to a large fraction of the population, it is very hard for an elite group to continue to justify to the exclusion of resources and privileges to the general population.
Much of the Arab world has reached a level of development that is inconsistent with its political system. As citizens in Middle Eastern countries became richer, healthier and more educated, they became much less willing to tolerate being ruled by predatory elites. This interpretation broadly confirms what we are witnessing in the streets of the Middle East. These protests are an the expression of a pro-democracy movement that is often being led by university-educated youth who form part of an emerging middle class that is no longer willing to live under semi-feudal autocrats. While the political systems that emerge from these regime transitions will take time to consolidate, there is little chance that these countries will veer back toward authoritarian rule.
These conclusions are confirmed by existing data. According to the Human Development Report , of the 83 countries that have attained at least a high level of human development only 19 (less than a fourth) are non-democracies. Of these countries, more than half are in the Middle East – among them are Libya, Bahrain, Algeria and Tunisia . What was atypical about the Arab world up until now is that it was generally remarkably authoritarian, given its high level of development. Thus, the current day Jasmine revolutions are the result of this “Arab paradox” of development success without subsequent democratization.
Figures: Democracies and Non-democracies by Level of Development and Region
Notes: HDI refers to the year 2010; the democracy category refers to the year 2008; the definition of democracy applied includes only democracies which have had an alteration of ruling parties.
Source: Human Development Report 2010, and Cheibub, Gandhi, and Vreeland (2009).
The emergence of pro-democracy movements in North Africa prompts us to also carefully reconsider how we think about and measure governance. These countries in the Middle East have governance structures that have fallen out of sync with their socioeconomic development, causing a sea change in political movements. But often in public and policy discourse the concept and measurement of governance is confused with the measurement of quality of life. For example, the 2010 Ibrahim Index of African Governance placed Tunisia and Egypt in reasonably high positions – eighth and ninth respectively – but this was because human development was actually a component of the index. Once we disaggregate the measure, we find that these countries do very poorly in the dimensions of rule of law, accountability and corruption, participation and human rights.
Getting the explanation for the Arab transition to democracy right is extremely important to ensuring the future stability if the region. If one thinks that Arab political systems are in crisis because their development models failed, then one is likely to advocate for wholesale change in these models. While there are of course many legitimate reasons to consider significant changes to the way in which development and economic policies are framed in these countries, we should bear in mind that by and large their policies were successful in improving the health and education of their population and in some cases in generating sustained economic growth. Taking away these achievements would be the greatest threat to the prospects for Arab democracy.
 In this article, the terms “Arab states” and “Middle East” are used interchangeably, to refer broadly to the Middle East and North Africa region. This region includes some states that are not ethnically Arab, such as Morocco and Iran, and excludes Arab states in the Sub-Saharan Africa region.
 Of the rest, six are in Eastern Europe, where high levels of education are a legacy of the Soviet system.