Reforms key for Arab knowledge society: Report
Dubai, October 28, 2009
Arab societies need nurturing institutions and supportive policies to experience a significant boost in knowledge production and creation, according to The Arab Knowledge Report 2009.
The report, launched today, maintains that political, institutional, cultural and intellectual reforms, as well as reform of the media and information technologies are vital if Arab societies are to bridge the knowledge gap.
'The Arab Knowledge Report 2009: Towards Productive Intercommunication for Knowledge', emphasises two central and mutually dependent premises. The first is the connection between knowledge, development and freedom. The second is the close relationship between the demands of development and the building of the knowledge society.
“With solid commitment and long-term vision, the route to the knowledge society will not be impossible,” asserted Adel Al Shared, vice-chairman and managing director of the Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Foundation. “This is what we have sought to achieve over the past two years, emphasising our commitment to the purpose and objectives for which the Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Foundation was established – strengthening the knowledge economy in the Arab world, which can only be achieved through close cooperation with serious partners who share our vision and objectives. Today we are happy to launch the fruit of such a collaborative effort with UNDP: the Arab Knowledge Report 2009: Towards productive intercommunication for knowledge,” he elaborated.
The report addresses the factors that impede the establishment of a knowledge society in the Arab world and assesses the state of education, information and communication technologies, research and innovation in the region. It concludes with a roadmap for action so that the Arab world can integrate itself in a rapidly globalising knowledge society.
“Knowledge is a tool and a goal that influences all levels of society equally and involves all fields. It is a primary avenue for renaissance and human development in the region,” said Adel Abdellatif, chief of the Regional Programme Division at UNDP’s Regional Bureau for Arab States. “But for this to happen, the right policy, institutional and funding environment must be in place for a knowledge society to materialize.
The report is the first product of the strategic partnership between the Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Foundation and the United Nations Development Programme aimed at issuing a series of analytical reports addressing the state of knowledge, in all its dimensions, in the Arab region.
Freedom and knowledge
According to the report, knowledge and freedom cannot thrive without the other. Knowledge, in both its enlightenment and developmental aspects, is freedom itself. In return, freedom of thought, expression, and political participation are primary components of the enabling environments that contribute to the enhancement of knowledge performance.
The report highlights that progress has been achieved in areas of economic freedom in the Arab world, particularly in the Gulf, resulting in increased foreign investment, expansion in the role of the private sector in the production cycle and modernisation of the region’s infrastructure.
However, the discourse on democratic reform in most Arab countries has not yet filtered down to affect the life of the average person. Signs of a slight improvement in some Arab countries in the areas of political participation and democratic reform, and also in human rights and freedoms, are counterbalanced by a tangible retreat in others. The report argues that the knowledge revolution at the global level offers possible entry points for reform in the region as a whole and calls for the Arab world’s involvement in the global knowledge revolution.
The report expresses grave concerns over the state of education in the Arab world. Efforts undertaken in many Arab countries since the 1990s have fallen short of realising the goal of universal education and of meeting global standards with regard to occupational, technical and higher education.
The report 2009 observes that “the lights of knowledge” have not reached all adults in equal measures. Major discrepancies —such as between males and females and between younger and older adults— persist, not only between Arab countries, but also within individual countries.
Despite having spent five percent of its GDP and 20 percent of its general budgets on education over the past 40 years, over one third of the adult population in the Arab region is unable to read and write. Some 60 million Arabs remain illiterate, two thirds of them women. Furthermore, only a few Arab countries will be able to meet the universal primary education goal of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) by 2015. Close to nine million primary school-aged children in the Arab countries do not attend school, and among those who do, over a large number do not pursue education beyond the basic level, hampering economic growth and sustainable development in the region as a whole.
Moreover, the quality of university education is problematic, says the report. Often, it lacks emphasis in specialised science and modern techniques, including the most up-to-date communication technology. As a result, the region lacks a critical mass of highly skilled professionals equipped with the ability to innovate and capable of answering the needs of the marketplace.
ICT: digital divide persists
Arab countries have recorded an improvement in technological performance surpassing any other region of the world in 2008, according the report. Four Arab countries –the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain and Kuwait — are listed among the 50 countries in the world most ready for investment in this area. In addition, the increase in the number of Arabic users of the Internet is the highest among the top 10 languages used on the Internet, with almost 60 million Arabic-speakers today.
This exponential growth in Internet use promises greater potentials for success in promoting technological applications in various fields and for enhancing Arabic knowledge performance in general. However, rates of Internet use, in all but four Arab countries, remain below the prevailing global rates of 21 percent of the population.
The Arab Knowledge Report 2009 stresses the need for further research to understand the interaction of the Arabic language with technological developments in terms of recognition, voice reproduction and semantics. Additionally, the report reveals that the necessary investment in information and communication technology for the Arab region may surpass the resources of any one Arab country. As a result, cooperation between relevant institutions must be strengthened, along with partnerships between Arab countries and international organizations.
Research and innovation
Arab innovation performance remains by far the weakest point in the current Arab knowledge landscape, concludes the report. Despite the efforts of scientists and researchers in the region, the low levels of investment by Arab countries in research and development impacts negatively on Arab innovation performance in both quantitative and qualitative terms. Spending on scientific research does not exceed 0.3 percent of GDP in most Arab countries, 97 percent of which depends on government funding. Levels of annual expenditures on scientific research per capita in the Arab world do not exceed $10, compared to $33 in Malaysia, and $1,304 in Finland.
Moreover, unlike the industrialized world, Arab scientific research agencies are usually attached to higher education institutions rather than to production and service sectors. This situation, according to the report, is creating a wide gap between education and research on the one hand and economic and social needs on the other, and thus weakening the impact of innovation and research and limiting applicability of its outcomes. - TradeArabia News Service