Scholar Discusses Poverty in Arab States

Rima Khalaf, this semester’s visiting scholar at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Middle East Initiative, described poverty and human rights abuses as barriers to human development in the region during a lecture yesterday at HKS.

Khalaf, former United Nations assistant secretary-general and director of the Regional Bureau for Arab States at the U.N. Development Program, is also former deputy prime minister of Jordan.

Khalaf described increasing unemployment and poverty as a widespread problem confronting Arabs. Despite the booming economies of Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, Khalaf said, most Arab countries have actually seen an increase in unemployment statistics over the last decade.

“Wealth cannot be the sum total of human lives,” Khalaf said.

She described this trend of unemployment as “detrimental to people’s well-being and also to regional stability.”


Her lecture also addressed human rights and human freedoms in Arab states, focusing on women’s rights in the region.

Although Khalaf cited improvement in women’s rights in some countries during the last decade, she said that there is still room for improvement.

“Much more needs to be done to extend empowerment from the few to the many,” she said. “For this to happen, right-based legal and societal reforms need to be made.”

About 90 people, some from as far away as the American University of Beirut, attended the lecture in the Malkin Penthouse. Many attendees articulated the importance of Khalaf’s presence at the Kennedy School.

“We’re honored to have Dr. Khalaf at the Middle East Initiative,” said Hilary Rantisi, director of the Kennedy School initiative. “Her career represents the type of work that our students can aspire to.”

Lama Hassoun, a first-year Master of Science student at the Harvard School of Public Health, said that her Lebanese heritage prompted her to attend the lecture.

“I’m learning all those things that I might miss in my Harvard education that I might not have missed if I had gone to school in the region,” she said. “After I get my degree I want to go back.”

During the question-and-answer session after the lecture, Khalaf offered some hopeful comments about the future of human development in the Arab world.

“I think we can shape our future,” she said. “Each one of us can do something small, but when we put it together, it will affect the whole picture.”

—Staff writer Andrew Z. Lorey can be reached at


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