Friday, June 20, 2008

A New Millennium of Knowledge? The Arab Human Development Report

On June 16, the Brookings Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World released “A New Millennium of Knowledge? The Arab Human Development Report on Building a Knowledge Society, Five Years On,” written by Saban Center Fellow Dr. Kristin Lord. This compelling report discusses 22 Arab nations, rich with a history of extraordinary intellectual accomplishment, that today continually fall behind in scientific initiative, technological advancement, and economic growth. The Brookings report, released five years after the UNDP’s 2003 Arab Human Development Report, discusses what has changed over the last five years including success in the Arab States towards building knowledge, as well as failed efforts, and what more needs to be done.

Dr. Lord conveyed the report’s intention to focus on progress and new initiatives that hint at a new willingness to address problems in the Arab World. While this ‘descriptive and prescriptive’ report conveys such successes, the threatening lack of knowledge plagues the Arab World’s next generation that is ill prepared for the future and full of disgruntled youth. After reviewing the 2003 UNDP study, she recognizes the dangerous decline in Arab governance over the last five years.

The Arab World has a weak public education system, civil society organizations, and lacks significant forms of community knowledge invested in public museums and libraries. While there has been success in the growing accessibility of education and an increase in educational spending, inadequate teacher training, a limited number of universities, and low adult literacy rates are prevalent. On a more promising note, Dr. Lord mentioned new promising initiatives for the education of the Arab World including the King Abdullah School in Saudi Arabia and the high science test scores in Jordan. Given that the Arab World has increased its scientific publications, the significance of its contribution to world scientific journals remains stagnant. Although this region continues to embrace new technology, its severe brain drain is an obstacle to innovation. Additionally, the higher number of women educated in the field of science is admirable; yet, the lack of career opportunities available to them prevents the contribution of their acquired knowledge.

Dr. Lord’s presentation expressed that as the Arab World looks toward the future, it should strive for free movement of people, ideas, and resources. The issue of quality, and not just quantity, of education should be addressed with better teacher training and more available schools. The advancement of the Arab World demands a culture that encourages and rewards the pursuit of knowledge.

Following Dr. Lord’s presentation, Rami Khouri, a Lebanese political commentator and director of the American University of Beirut's Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs, commented that the Brookings Report is a timely, accurate, and relevant analysis. While he had some comments about the tacits of the report, Rami Khouri’s mainly argued that reports should move beyond merely detailing the problems in the Arab World and should instead ask the question “WHY?”. He believes the Arab World to be “collectively and chronically the only non-democratic region” in the world and the reason for this should be explored. In discussing the rich histories of countries like Egypt and Syria, Rami Khouri begs the question: why has there been a decline in governance, freedom, economic growth, and knowledge in the Arab World? Given the growing polarization in the region, Rami Khouri communicated that people with the greatest impact are outside the government and that the ability of the central government to foster change is increasingly less. How then, does the Arab World bring about change? According to Rami Khouri, “small pockets of excellence are already in place” in the region and change will come when the Arab World expands upon these initiatives.

Amr Gohar, CEO and managing director of Egypt’s National Telecom Card Company and an expert advisor for the report, stressed the importance of entrepreneurial development in the Arab World to both generate new job opportunities and stimulate the pursuit of knowledge. The lack of accurate, updated information in the Arab World hinders growth; therefore, Amr Gohar suggests the adoption of global and economic indicators to counter this setback.

In conclusion, panelists agreed that change must come from within the region with the help of both governments and non-governmental actors. The need for “more corporate social responsibility” is apparent. The new wealth and growing media industry can provide position images and incentives for success to foster a higher pursuit of learning in the Arab World. The region is in dire need of increased sovereignty, security, free expression of identity, and government legitimacy. These overriding political restraints result in economic and social disparities.

To combat these challenges the Arab World must empower its citizens to affect change.

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Sponsor: The Brookings Institution
Date: June 16, 2008
Time: 2:00-3:30 pm
Representative Attending: Jessica Walker

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