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In Iran, struggling for development

Published by Newsweek on 1997-10-01

When a senior international aid official met with President Mohammed Khatami in Teheran last week, the soft-spoken Iranian said to her: "I am hoping that Iran will be able to channel 10 percent of our arms expenditure into family planning and population projects." Ten percent? That could easily translate into $400 million annually. The visitor was startled because this wasn't just a newly elected political figure speaking; Khatami was, after all, a cleric, a representative of fundamentalist Shiite Islam, a religion widely perceived to have other priorities than birth control.

Last week, too, Vice President Masoumeh Ebtekar--the US-educated immunologist whom Khatami appointed as the highest woman office holder in this Middle East nation of 70 million--said struck a similar theme in an interview with Newsweek: "You must judge Iran by what we are accomplishing in social development--in education, in family planning, in dealing with the environment. What we're searching for is not ideology but sustainable solutions to social and economic problems. It's not enough to have laws--we've got to implement them better."

As Iranian politics go, Khatami and Ebtekar are considered moderates. Both are undoubtedly sincere in their desire to improve the lot of everyday Iranians who gave Khatami a stunning 20 million of the 29 million votes cast in last May's presidential election. But "social development" is not what mostly springs to mind when one reflects on Iran. In the two decades since the frenzied revolution that deposed Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi in 1979, the Islamic militants who seized control of this oil-rich nation have been dismantling the ambitious Western-style development projects of the Shah. For many outsiders, Iran conjures up visions of a different kind of development--of weapons of mass destruction. What also comes to mind is Iran's undercutting of the Arab-Israeli peace process, and its support for extremist Islamic movements in the Middle East and elsewhere. Moreover, all revolutionaries initially promise social justice to their people; a reign of domestic terror is what they usually unleash.

But Iran is offering up some surprises. According to United Nations statistics, there is now 100 percent enrollment of primary-school-age students in the country's 25 provinces. Iran's theocracy has pushed family planning so extensively that the country's population-growth rate has been almost halved to under 2 percent annually. Condoms, birth-control pills and intra-uterine devices are freely available. With the blessings of the clergy, there are now pre-marriage counselling classes for both men and women--these, in fact, are compulsory before couples can be legally married. Isn't family planning against Islamic traditions? "We favor small families because we simply couldn't adequately educate large families," says Seyed Ali Fouladi, a mullah in Isfahan. "And our religion calls for an educated public." Certainly a practical approach in a country where the percapita income is still under $2,000 and the inflation rate is 30 percent.

In Teheran and elsewhere, physicians like Dr. Fereidoon Forouhary offer vasectomy services; clients include even the staunchest of Muslim men. Infant-mortality rates--usually a telling sign of the state of sustainable development--have also fallen dramatically, as have maternal-mortality rates. Basic health care is widely available because the number of physicians graduating from medical schools each year has increased from 667 in 1979--the year of the Revolution--to 4,500 now; in 1979, there were just 9 medical schools in Iran, and now there are 39. A vast network of community health workers, known as behvarz, has also been mobilized around the country.

Then there's the Literacy Movement Organization, aimed at adults and run largely by volunteers. Its campaign has been astonishingly successful, raising Iran's literacy rate to nearly 90 percent--certainly among the highest in the developing world. In Isfahan province, for instance, more than 70,000 adults--mostly women--are enrolled in free literacy classes in which they receive up to 500 hours of instruction from community volunteers. More than two million Iranians are signed up in such classes nationally. Barely 10 years ago, the literacy rate was under 40 percent.

At one literacy center in a small town called Shahin Shahr, about 500 miles south of Teheran,, an elderly woman named Fatemah Khousari was among two dozen women attending a class taught by Irandocht Sourani, a woman at least 40 years her junior. At her age, why did Fatemah bother with the literacy program? "This way I can finally read the Koran," Fatemah said, referring to Islam's Holy Book. "This way I don't need any mullah to interpret the Koran for me. I can also help my grandchildren with their homework. I feel much more useful this way."

The key to such strides in grassroots development is reaching out to ordinary people, a lesson often overlooked by the povertycrats who shape global development policies. "This is our 'other revolution,'" says Dr. Kamel Shadpour, a courtly Western-educated senior official of the Ministry of Health and Medical Education. But, he warns, the years ahead are likely to impose fresh pressures on the country's ability to cope with demands for jobs, housing and better health-care. That is because 50 percent of the country's population is under 15 years of age--which means that a huge cohort of men and women is about to enter the child-bearing age. In Iran, girls are legally permitted to marry at 15, and while the authorities are encouraging people to marry later, old customs aren't easily eradicated. The number of people being added to Iran's population each year will grow from 1 million today to nearly twice that figure in another five years. So no matter what President Khatami channels by way of additional resources for family planning and social development, population growth will almost surely render this formidable expenditure wholly inadequate.

"What happens in East is not well understood in the West," Vice President Ebtekar said in the interview. "Maybe the foreign media should take a more careful look at what we're trying to do in Iran in human development. Maybe the outside world is fixated on political developments, and doesn't care much about our efforts to promote human development. And we feel that it's time to change that."

She may have a point. Iran's development efforts are mostly funded by its own oil revenues; foreign aid is barely $50 million a year, most of it for refugees from Iraq and other neighboring trouble spots. Perhaps it's time for the international community to take a second look at this "other revolution" that's going on in Iran. Other developing countries may even learn a thing or two from what's going on here.

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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