Knowledge Gap

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This week the United Nations Development Programme launched a new report on human development in the Arab world. The report, which doesn’t make happy reading, found a big “knowledge gap” between Arabs and the rest of the world. It also points out that the U.S. war on terror is making that gap even harder to bridge.

The report, titled “Arab Human Development Report 2003: Building a Knowledge Society,” was published by the UNDP and co-sponsored by the Arab Fund for Social Development and was released in a ceremony attended by leading Arab intellectuals and opinion leaders and hosted by Jordan. It’s the second of a series of four reports on Arab development. The first, released last year, found the region of 270 million inhabitants held back by three chief factors: a lack of freedom, a dearth of opportunities for women, and poor access to education and knowledge.

The new report focuses primarily on the third issue, knowledge; specifically, the current state of learning and intellectual inquiry in the Arab world. Among its bleak findings: only 53 newspapers are sold per 1,000 people in the Arab countries, compared with 285 in developed countries; only 1.6 percent of the Arab population has Internet access; and there are just 18 computers per 1,000 people compared with global average of 78.3; Just 4.4 translated books per 1 million people were published between 1980 and 1985. The corresponding rate for Hungary was 519 books per 1 million people, and in Spain, 920 books; The number of scientists and engineers working in research and development is 371 per 1 million people, compared with the global rate of 979.

And the consequences are far-reaching. “Knowledge increasingly defines the line between wealth and poverty, between capability and powerlessness and between human fulfilment and frustration,” said Dr. Rima Khalaf, U.N. Assistant Secretary-General and Director of the Regional Bureau for Arab States in UNDP. One of the most telling stats pointing to stagnation in the Arab world is that the combined G.D.P. of the 22 Arab states is less than that of a single country — Spain.

The authors of the report say thelessons of the U.N.’s first look at Arab development last year haven’t yet been heeded:

“AHDR 2002 challenged the Arab world to overcome three cardinal obstacles to human development posed by widening gaps in freedom, women’s empowerment and knowledge across the region. “Despite the presence of significant human capital in the region, AHDR 2003 concludes that disabling constraints hamper the acquisition, diffusion and production of knowledge in Arab societies. This human capital, under more promising conditions, could offer a substantial base for an Arab knowledge renaissance.”

Jordanian Foreign Minister Marwan Muasher said Arab countries should not respond defensively to the report’s findings. “We have to work courageously and with commitment to put right what is clearly wrong and build on our positive achievements,” he said.

It wasn’t always like this. In the Middle Ages, Arabs were at the forefront of intellectual discovery. One of the most widely cited reasons for the decline in knowledge is that the rigid structure of government in many Arab countries stifles independent thought and innovation. Thomas Friedman of the New York Times has this to say:

“[The report’s authors] are convinced that Islam has a long history of absorbing knowledge. But in the modern era an unholy alliance between repressive Arab regimes and certain conservative Muslim scholars has led to the domination of certain interpretations of Islam that serve the governments but are hostile to human development-particularly freedom of thought, women’s empowerment and the accountability of governments to their people.”

Some critics say the report is too timid in assigning blame for the state of Arab development. Chibli Mallat, professor of international law at St. Joseph University in Beirut says rulers deserve more criticism:

“Like the first report, it lacks the courage to question individual rulers and their apparatus of repression. The greatest change in the region, the collapse of Saddam Hussein, is not addressed even though it represents the first governmental change [in the Arab world] in 20 years.”

There have been some improvements showing that Arab countries are catching up with the modern era, at least as far as economic and political reforms are concerned. Lately Bahrain held its first elections in 30 years, while Saudi Arabia has made strides in divorcing its educational agenda from government and has just announced it will hold municipal elections for the first time.

But there’s more than enough blame to go around beyond the region. Part of the problem is that the Arab world needs to “connect” with other nations that are more socially and politically developed. The U.S. clampdown on visas to Arabs after 9/11 has prevented many Arabs from studying in U.S. universities. The report shows that the number of Arab students in the U.S. dropped by 30 percent between 1999 and 2002. In an interview with CNN, Thomas Friedman touches on this:

“Well, there’s no question that since 9-11 the United States has adopted a very Draconian approach to visas. If you’re a young Arab male, age 21, and your name is Mohammad, and you want to come study at the American University in Washington or UCLA in Los Angeles, you’re going to have a very hard time. You’re going to be very closely scrutinized.”

Not that all Arabs necessarilywant to be associated with the U.S. and other Western cultures. Dr. Rima Khalaf , who co-authored the report, suggests that the U.S. occupation of Iraq has only furthered Arab isolation from clusters of knowledge, because it has fostered rejection of the West.

So much for what’s wrong with the Arab world. What about constructive suggestions? The Christian Science Monitor says the report is “long on criticism but short on ideas to solve the woes besetting the Arab world.”

What the report’s authors do offer the region are five strategic steps, dubbed the “five pillars”:

1) Guaranteeing the key freedoms of opinion, speech and assembly through democratic governance, supported by a legal framework

2) Universal access to high quality education

3) Making science an integral part of Arab societies, encouraging research and development and joining the information revolution

4) Shifting rapidly towards knowledge-based and value-added production

5)Developing an authentic, broadminded and enlightened Arab knowledge model

This is Daily way too vague for some, as for this editorialist at Lebanon’s Daily Star:

“The foundation has been set for considerable progress on a wide variety of problems, but that work can only begin when the aforementioned analysis is accompanied by concrete suggestions on how to remedy the weaknesses it identifies. Those who know the Arab world know that the report is a faithful depiction of the situation in many areas…But such people also know that the documentÕs contents are nothing new: Generations of Arabs have complained about the same problems. The report and its predecessor have been abundantly helpful by quantifying a series of anecdotes, but the next step remains to be taken.”

And despite claims that U.S. forces in Iraq are “freeing” the Iraqi people, its not at all clear that American foreign policy is conducive to the kind of changes called for in the report. Friedman writes, “those who worked on this report do not believe in the Iraq-war model of political change. They prefer evolution from within.” The U.S. way, may not necessary be the best way to provoke change, writes Friedman:

“What should America’s response to all this be? We should stop talking about “terrorism” and W.M.D. and make clear that we’re in Iraq for one reason: to help Iraqis implement the Arab Human Development Reports, so the war of ideas can be fought from within. Then we should get out of the way.”


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