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The Arab Spring, Democracy and Well-Being

1 Apr 2011

The popular revolts in the Arab world underscore the importance of grounding governments in foundations of democracy, well-being and equity. When Mohamed Bouazizi, a street vendor in Tunisia, set himself ablaze after losing his livelihood to the police, no one predicted that the event would signal the beginning of a mass movement that would challenge long-standing dictatorships in the region.

Occurring in the midst of a food crisis that has brought hardship to millions, the Bouazizi tragedy caught the public imagination because it summed up deep-seated vulnerabilities that define the lives of many people: high rates of unemployment, precarious livelihoods, limited social protection, and lack of redress when governments ignore citizen demands.

The Arab region has of course made progress on a number of social indicators, such as literacy, life expectancy and access to basic services. One study1 even toasts North Africa as an unsung “miracle” because education and health components of its human development index grew faster over a 40-year period than the world average. However, the uprisings have exposed the limitations of such indexes, which ignore asset and income inequalities, as well as basic freedoms, in measuring well-being.

The outcome of the revolts is far from clear. Basic freedoms and credible elections may take root in some countries, but incumbents may use repression and oil wealth to stifle opposition in others. Armed external intervention may be necessary in situations where leaders vow to unleash mass terror on populations. However, such interventions may distort the democratization process, especially when civic activism takes a back seat and authoritarian governments seeking to maintain their own rule join the interventions. Furthermore, as experiences elsewhere suggest, even credible elections may not translate into improved well-being for all if governments’ agendas are not developmental and redistributive.

Three issues need to be addressed if the Arab spring is to have a lasting and positive impact for the poor. These are equity-based growth strategies, social protection for all, and inclusive politics.

In many countries, dependence on oil rents has fuelled corruption, conspicuous consumption and overvalued exchange rates. This has affected sectors of the economy where the majority earns its living. However, with the right policies, institutions and practices, this resource-endowed region with a population of more than 300 million can become an industrial powerhouse, provide decent jobs (especially for its rapidly growing youth population) and feed everyone. There are resource-dependent countries, such as Malaysia, that avoided the resource curse and climbed up the global industrial ladder within a generation.

Social policies are also needed that protect all citizens from basic risks of unemployment, underemployment and ill health, and assist with the care of children and the elderly. Such policies should depart from the region’s fragmented and patronage-based systems of social protection, as well as the practice of distributing money to citizens when leaders are under siege. Instead, governments should treat social policies as acquired rights. Arguments of affordability are untenable in a region where six countries are classified as high income, three as upper middle income and eight as lower middle income.

Inclusive politics is also important. Governments are unlikely to pursue redistributive policies if political parties are disconnected from people’s aspirations. Thus the quality of emerging parties in the region will have to be nurtured, and gendered in terms of membership, participation and policies. Gendering the democratic process is particularly important because of the region’s historically sharp gender disparities and exclusions, and considering women’s active participation in the protests.

Finally, even though the region has one overwhelmingly dominant language and religion, it is far from homogeneous. The transition is likely to be more complicated in countries such as Bahrain, Libya and Yemen that are fractionalized along dimensions of “tribe”, clan and religious denomination. If such cleavages polarize into a few clusters, organizing elections without building institutions that can moderate these cleavages could produce outcomes in which incumbents with flawed mandates cling to power, reopening a new round of instability, as has happened in Côte d’Ivoire.

The Arab spring holds promise, but it has to be democratically anchored in the right institutions and made to serve the interests of the broad mass of the people.

1. F. Rodriguez and E. Samman, “The North African Miracle”, Let’s Talk Human Development, UNDP, 2010.



This article reflects the views of the author(s) and does not necessarily represent those of the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development.