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UN Arab development closing the ‘knowledge gap’

UN Arab development report focuses on closing growing ‘knowledge gap’

Arabs, coming from a knowledge-rich past, must urgently close a “growing knowledge gap” in the present by investing heavily in high-quality, analytical education, promoting open intellectual enquiry and developing an authentic Arab knowledge model, a new United Nations report says.

The report is the second Arab Human Development Report (AHDR 2003), launched in Amman today, at the invitation of the Jordanian Government.

It has been prepared by 40 distinguished Arab scholars, along with 30 advisers and peer reviewers, and co-sponsored by the UN Development Programme (UNDP) and the Arab Fund for Economic and Social Development.

The report proposes building a new knowledge society on “five pillars.”

“A climate of freedom is an essential prerequisite of the knowledge society,” it says. “It is also imperative to end the era of administrative control and the grip of security agencies over the production and dissemination of knowledge and the various forms of creative activity that are foundations for the knowledge society in Arab countries.”

Basic education should become universal and last 10 years in an educational system that should be radically improved, the report says of the second pillar. An independent Arab organization should be established for the accreditation of all higher education programmes.

Appropriate institutions, with appropriate funding, are needed to encourage basic research that will meet regional demand, especially in science and technology, which is the third pillar. “A starting point for this is to overcome the illusion that importing technology, as embodied in products, machinery and services, is equivalent to acquiring knowledge.”

The report recommends “shifting rapidly towards knowledge-based and value-added production,” thereby diversifying economic structures and markets, as the fourth pillar.

Creating the Arab knowledge model, the fifth pillar, will involve “delivering pure religion from political exploitation and respecting independent scholarship,” undertaking serious linguistic research into and reform of the Arabic language and “promoting cultural diversity in the region and opening up to other cultures abroad.”

The report estimates that there were 371 research scientists and engineers per million citizens in Arab countries, compared to a global rate of 979 per million. Only 1.6 per cent of the Arab population has Internet access, compared to 68 per cent in Britain and 79 per cent in the United States, it says.

It also notes rising anxieties about cultural dissolution in an emerging global culture, but says, “The Arab-Islamic culture at its zenith was a role model for borrowing and assimilation, followed by generous giving when it established its distinguished knowledge edifice.”

Recent advances, such as more women elected to political office and the expansion of satellite news broadcasting, have been partly eclipsed by tightened security in several countries following the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001.

“These measures and policies exceeded their original goals and led to the erosion of civil and political liberties in many countries in the world, notably the United States, often diminishing the welfare of Arabs and Muslims living, studying, or travelling abroad, interrupting cultural exchanges between the Arab world and the West and cutting off knowledge acquisition opportunities for young Arabs,” the report says.

“The intensity of Arab opposition to the US-led invasion of Iraq and to the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza have heightened political tensions within Arab states and have become in themselves obstacles to open interchange with the United States and its allies,” it adds.

The Arab Charter against Terrorism was another negative. “It allows censorship, restricts access to the Internet and restricts printing and publication” and does not prohibit detention and torture, the report says.

In accompanying opinion polls, interviewees in the Arab world are the strongest supporters of democracy and the most determined opponents of authoritarian governments in the world. Their answers are compared with polls taken in Western Europe, Eastern Europe, other Islamic countries, Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa, North America – together with Australia and New Zealand, South Asia and East Asia.

The polls also show support for overall male-female equality in education, but not in the workplace.

“In human development terms, Arabs expressed support for building the human capabilities of women, but not for their utilization,” the authors say.

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