In this part of the world, 2009 should be remembered as the “year of knowledge.” In January, the Beirut-based Arab Thought Foundation released its first Arab Cultural Development Report, followed in February by the Arab Knowledge Society Report from the Brookings Institution in Washington. And last week, a report was released in Dubai at the Arab Strategy Forum of the Mohamed bin Rashid Foundation in a high-profile gathering of policy makers, media leaders, educators, and economic experts.
Entitled “Arab Knowledge Report 2009: Towards Productive Intercommunication for Knowledge,” the document is a collaborative endeavor between MBRF and the United Nations Development Program’s (UNDP) Regional Bureau for Arab States. While the coverage afforded the two-day ASF event was vital for focusing the public on knowledge as the engine of sustainable change, the media’s attention failed to match what the document deserved.
Compared to other reports of its kind, including the 2003 UNDP Arab Human Development Report, this document is a gold-mine not only because of its abundant data, but also because of the insight it gleans from the information. With a strong sense of realism, the report foresees a bumpy road ahead but asserts that the mission of developing knowledge societies in this region is not impossible.
The report conceives of knowledge as something that is not simply technological but involves social and cultural aspects as well. This is a clear departure from the traditional “information society” paradigm. What the report labels as a triadic relationship between knowledge, development and freedom introduces the view that knowledge is an ingredient in protecting human rights and a tool of social emancipation.
In the spirit of a 2005 UNESCO report on knowledge societies, the Dubai document advances a humanized approach to development where technology is no longer viewed as a magic wand to redress the region’s socio-economic woes. What makes it unique is its emphasis on knowledge as an instrument of human empowerment. If knowledge is to be such a tool this is contingent not only on financial investment, but also on social and cultural fulfillment.
The highly scientific rather than rhetorical treatment of knowledge is an outstanding facet of the recent report. Its presentation of diverse and authenticated data on the region’s educational development and economic performance indicators reveals that its authors are indeed in command of the often dismal reality.
Their approach to education was particularly instructive. According to the World Bank, the Arab states have demonstrated some readiness for developing a knowledge society, which is evident in adult literacy rates and levels of enrolment in secondary and higher education. For example, in 1980 the average adult literacy rate in Arab countries was estimated at 55 per cent for males and 25 per cent for females. This had risen to 82 per cent and 62 per cent for males and females respectively by 2005. In the information and communications technology (ICT) sector, four Arab countries came within the top 50 states most ready to harness ICT in socio-economic development while 11 others showed improvement on the ICT index.
But the report urges that we not let these achievements block our view of the region’s knowledge failures. This deserves much praise. Key problems endure because of high illiteracy rates and poor ICT infrastructures. Underdeveloped legal and institutional frameworks continue to militate against the establishment of a genuine knowledge society.
With some 60 million illiterate people in the region – two-thirds of them women – and with almost nine million children with no access to elementary education, the prospects for a knowledge society in the short run look somewhat bleak. But the report advocates the creation of enabling environments and the transfer, indigenization, and deployment of knowledge, which reflects the report’s wise realism. The authors advocate incremental change rather than leapfrogging to the knowledge era. Through communicating with themselves and with the world, Arabs would be better positioned to diagnose existing flaws in their experiences and constructively engage others in the global pursuit of knowledge.
In many ways, the launch of the Dubai report has come at a critical time for the region, eager to join a fast-moving and global economy. There are serious challenges ahead; but the somehow optimistic tone set by the report should moderate the rather cynical view of knowledge society in the region as a bridge too far. Making this dream come true, of course, is a function of neither an overnight decision nor of a one-man show. It is a long-term process in which all stakeholders do have something to offer.
*Published by the UAE-based THE NATIONAL on Oct. 05. Muhammad Ayish is professor of communications at the University of Sharjah.