[Vol. I No. 11] 16 - 30 November 2006
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IOS Minaret Vol-1, No.1 (March 2007)
Bill Gate
Single Parent Family

 The Arab Human Development Report 2003


The first Arab Human Development Report addressed the most important development challenges facing the Arab world at the beginning of the third millennium. The second Report continues the process by examining in depth one of these challenges: the building of a knowledge society in Arab countries.

The present report is a close study of one of the three cardinal challenges facing the region: its growing knowledge gap. It starts by outlining the conceptual basis of an Arab knowledge society and moves on to evaluate the status of the demand for, and the diffusion and production of knowledge in Arab countries at the beginning of the 21st century. It then analyses the cultural, economic, societal and political context influencing knowledge acquisition in the region at this critical junction in its history. The last section of this analysis culminates in a strategic vision that delineates the landmarks of a deep social reform process for establishing a knowledge-based society in the Arab countries.


A review of global and regional developments since the publication of AHDR 2002 underlines that the development challenges represented by the three deficits in knowledge, freedom and women's empowerment remain serious. Those challenges may have become even graver in the area of freedoms, as a result of these developments.

Following the bloody events of September 11, 2001 and the loss of innocent lives in violation of all man-made and divine laws, a number of countries have adopted extreme security measures and policies as part of the "war on terror". These measures and policies, however, 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 traveling abroad, interrupting cultural exchanges between the Arab world and the West and cutting off knowledge acquisition opportunities for young Arabs.

Among the first effects of these measures was the significant drop in the number of Arab students studying in the United States. Figures available from a number of Arab missions indicate that Arab student numbers in America dropped between 1999 and 2002 by an average of 30 per cent.

One of the worst consequences of freedom-constraining measures in developed countries is that they gave authorities in some Arab countries another excuse to enact new laws limiting civil and political freedoms. The Arab countries as a group adopted an expanded definition of terrorism, which assumed institutional expression at the regional level in "The Arab Charter against Terrorism". This charter was criticised in Arab and international human rights circles, because its expanded definition opens the door to abuse. It allows censorship, restricts access to the Internet, and restricts printing and publication. Moreover, the Charter neither explicitly prohibits detention or torture, nor provides for questioning the legality of detentions. Furthermore, it does not protect personal freedom, since it does not require a prior judicial order authorising the wire-tapping of individuals or groups (Amnesty International).

Israel reoccupied Palestinian territories, inflicting horrifying human casualties and material destruction, thereby committing what one well-respected human rights organization called "war crimes" (Human Rights Watch, 2002). From September 2000 to April 2003, Israeli occupation forces killed 2,405 Palestinian citizens and injured 41,000 others. Most of those killed (85%) were civilians. A large proportion (20%) of them were children. UNICEF estimates that 7,000 children were injured and that 2,500 persons, of whom 500 were children, suffered permanent handicaps.

A coalition led by the United States and Britain invaded and occupied Iraq, introducing a new challenge to the people of Iraq and the region. The only way to meet that challenge is to enable the Iraqi people to exercise their basic rights in accordance with international law, free themselves from occupation, recover their wealth, under a system of good governance representing the Iraqi people and take charge of rebuilding their country from a human development perspective.

In contrast to efforts to restructure the region from outside, the AHDR series aims to crystallise a strategic vision by Arab elites through a societal innovation process that envisages the restructuring of the region from within, and in service to Arab human development. Such reform from within, based on rigorous self-criticism, is a far more proper and sustainable alternative.

On the level of internal development in the Arab countries, progress was achieved in the advancement of women and in some aspects of popular participation. Women's representation in some parliaments and in senior positions in Executive Authorities increased. A number of Arab countries witnessed parliamentary elections, some of them for the first time in decades. Yet these bright spots, accompanied briefly by dawning awareness of the need for reform, were partly eclipsed by new setbacks in the areas of freedom of opinion, expression and association.

Assessing the present state of regional cooperation, the Report finds that Arab integration continues to fall far behind in achieving what the first Arab Human Development Report called "An Arab Free Citizenship Zone".



A knowledge-based society is one where knowledge diffusion, production and application become the organising principle in all aspects of human activity: culture, society, the economy, politics, and private life. Knowledge nowadays can provide the means to expand the scope of human freedoms, enhance the capacity to guarantee those freedoms through good governance and achieve the higher moral human goals of justice and human dignity Contrasting this type of society with the state of knowledge in Arab countries, the Report looks carefully at the characteristics of the two main components of the knowledge acquisition system: diffusion and production.


Key knowledge dissemination processes in Arab countries, (socialisation and upbringing, education, the media and translation), face deep-seated social, institutional, economic and political impediments. Notable among these are the meagre resources available to individuals, families and institutions and the restrictions imposed upon them. As a result, these processes often falter and fall short of preparing the epistemological and societal environment necessary for knowledge production.

Studies indicate that the most widespread style of child rearing in Arab families is the authoritarian mode accompanied by the overprotective. This reduces children's independence, self-confidence and social efficiency, and fosters passive attitudes and hesitant decision-making skills. Most of all, it affects how the child thinks by suppressing questioning, exploration and initiative.

Impressive gains in the quantitative expansion of education in Arab countries in the last half of the 20th century are still modest in comparison with other developing countries or with the requirements of human development. High rates of illiteracy among women persist, particularly in some of the less developed Arab countries. Many children still do not have access to basic education. Higher education is characterized by decreasing enrolment, and public spending on education has actually declined since 1985. In all cases, nevertheless, the most important challenge facing Arab education is its declining quality.

The mass media are the most important agents for the public diffusion of knowledge yet Arab countries have lower information media to population ratios (number of newspapers, radio and televisions per 1000 people) compared to the world average. There are less than 53 newspapers per 1000 Arab citizens, compared to 285 papers per 1000 people in developed countries.

In most Arab countries, the media operate in an environment that sharply restricts freedom of the press and freedom of expression and opinion. Journalists face illegal harassment, intimidation and even physical threats, censorship is rife and newspapers and television channels are sometimes arbitrarily closed down. Most media institutions are state-owned, particularly radio and television.

The last two years, however, have seen some improvements in the Arab information environment, brought about by dawning competition. More independent-minded newspapers have appeared, challenging the iron grip of the older, state-supported press on political opinion, news and information. With bases abroad, these papers can escape state censorship. Some private satellite channels have started to contest the monopoly of state channels over the broadcast media. The most important characteristic of this new information movement is that it broadcasts in Arabic, thereby addressing the largest segment of the Arab audience.

In terms of infrastructure, the newer information channels benefit from the considerable groundwork that a number of Arab countries have laid. However, the general trend gravitates towards the lowest indicators in world standards. The number of telephone lines in the Arab countries is barely one fifth of that in developed countries. Access to digital media is also among the lowest in the world. There are just 18 computers per 1000 people in the region, compared to the global average of 78.3 percent per 1000 persons and only 1.6 per cent of the population has Internet access. These indicators scarcely reflect a sufficient level of preparedness for applying information technology for knowledge diffusion.

Translation is one of the important channels for the dissemination of information and communication with the rest of the world. The translation movement in the Arab world, however, remains static and chaotic. On average, only 4.4 translated books per million people were published in the first five years of the 1980s (less than one book per million people per year), while the corresponding rate in Hungary was 519 books per one million people and in Spain 920 books.


Turning knowledge assets into knowledge capital requires the production of new knowledge in all areas: in the physical and social sciences, arts, humanities and all other forms of social activity.

Data in the Report tell a story of stagnation in certain areas of knowledge production, especially in the field of scientific research. In addition to thin production, scientific research in Arab countries is held back by weak basic research and the almost total absence of advanced research in fields such as information technology and molecular biology. It also suffers from miserly R&D expenditure (currently state spending on R&D does not exceed 0.2 percent of GNP, most of which pays only for salaries), poor institutional support and a political and social context inimical to the development and promotion of science. The region's corps of qualified knowledge workers is relatively small. The number of scientists and engineers working in R&D in Arab countries is not more than 371 per million citizens. This is much lower that the global rate of 979 per million. The number of students enrolling in scientific disciplines in higher education in all Arab countries is also generally low, in comparison to countries that have used knowledge to take off, such as Korea, although among Arab countries, Jordan, followed by Algeria have distinguished themselves in this field.

Literary production too faces some major challenges. These include the small number of readers owing to high rates of illiteracy in some Arab countries and the weak purchasing power of the Arab reader. This limited readership is clearly reflected in the number of books published in the Arab world, which does not exceed 1.1% of world production, although Arabs constitute 5% of the world population. The production of literary and artistic books in Arab countries is lower than the general level. In 1996 it did not exceed 1,945 books, representing only 0.8% of world production, i.e., less than the production of a country such as Turkey, with a population one quarter of that of Arab countries. An abundance of religious books and a relative paucity of books in other fields characterize the Arab book market. Religious books account for 17% of the total number of books published in Arab countries, compared to 5% of the total number of books produced in other parts of the world.


The Report Team polled a sample of Arab university faculty members about knowledge acquisition in the region. Respondents expressed dissatisfaction in general with the status of knowledge acquisition in their countries (the average degree of satisfaction was 38%). Their satisfaction with the extent to which Arab knowledge serves human development was slightly less (the average rating was 35%). The survey confirmed that incentives for knowledge acquisition in Arab countries need to be much stronger, while freedom to acquire knowledge is subject to many constraints. Rating the various aspects of the knowledge system, respondents argued that the lack of a reasonable measure of freedom in radio and television (30%) was one of the largest disincentives to knowledge acquisition. The same assessment applied to research and development in the public sector although, in the view of respondents, the latter area enjoys a higher level of freedom, thus suggesting that its problems have more to do with matters of organisation and financing.

In order to compare the knowledge capital of Arab countries with that of other countries, the Report explores a new composite index constructed from 10 indicators relating to different dimensions of knowledge capital. This attempt at measurement faced several limitations in data and methodology yet indicated that the Arab countries are far behind the leading developing countries, let alone the advanced industrialised countries, in the quality and quantity of their knowledge capital.


Arab countries' experiments with the transfer and adoption of technology have neither achieved the desired technological advancement nor yielded attractive returns on investments. Importing technology has not led to its adoption and internalisation in the host country, let alone to its diffusion and production.

The two biggest gaps accounting for this failure have been the absence of effective innovation and knowledge production systems in Arab countries, and the lack of rational policies that ingrain those essential values and institutional frameworks that support a knowledge society. These problems have been aggravated by the mistaken belief that a knowledge society can be built through the importation of scientific products without investing in the local production of knowledge, and through depending on cooperation with universities and research centres in advanced countries for training Arab scientific cadres without creating the local scientific traditions conducive to knowledge acquisition in the region.

The lack of national innovation systems in Arab countries represented, in effect, a waste of investment in industrial infrastructure and fixed capital (buildings, factories, machinery and equipment). Such investments did not bring the wealth that Arab societies had sought through means other than the depletion of raw materials, nor expected social returns. Investment in the means of production does not lead to the real transfer and ownership of technology but rather to an increase in production capacity. Moreover, this is a time-bound gain, one that starts to erode as the acquired technology becomes obsolete. The products and services generated by imported technology become economically unfeasible and uncompetitive in local markets, while at the same time technology and production in the advanced countries are perpetually renewed by their own renovation and innovation systems. This does not take place in Arab countries which, with their aging technologies, are stuck at the wrong end of the technology ladder. They must keep purchasing new production capabilities as and when the technologies of the capabilities they own become outmoded.

At the same time, Arab countries have not succeeded in becoming important poles of attraction for foreign direct investment (FDI). None of them figures among the top ten FDI attracting countries in the developing world.

The transfer, embedding and production of knowledge that can generate new technologies require an organisational context that provides incentives for knowledge production. Such a context would consolidate linkages between R&D institutions and the production and service sectors and promote national capabilities for innovation.



The knowledge system is influenced by societal, cultural, economic and political determinants. Among the most important of these determinants is culture in both of its aspects: the scholarly culture and the popular culture. Within Arabic culture, intellectual heritage constitutes an essential component. Language is the instrumental carrier of this culture and religion is the main and comprehensive belief system that guides its life. Moral, social and political values govern and direct action in the Arabic cultural system.

Religion urges people to seek knowledge, despite some anti-development interpretations:

Undoubtedly, the relationship between religion and knowledge and its production is organically associated with concepts determined by the nature of religion and its overall position towards worldly life. Islamic religious texts uphold a balance between religion and worldly life, or between temporal life and the hereafter. The predominant tendency in Arab-Islamic civilization is a robust interest in worldly life and its sciences and in encouraging knowledge and sciences of various forms.

Developments in the contemporary Arab world and the national political, social and economic problems that appeared following the years of independence did, however, leave deep impacts on the intellectual, scholarly and cultural life of Arab countries. Religion - and its associated concepts and teleology - were among the basic aspects influenced by these developments. An alliance between some oppressive regimes and certain types of conservative religious scholars led to interpretations of Islam, which serve the government, but are inimical to human development, particularly with respect to freedom of thought, the interpretation of judgments, the accountability of regimes to the people and women's participation in public life. Constraints on political action in many Arab countries pushed some movements with an Islamic mark underground while causing others to don Islamic garb. Without peaceful and effective political channels for dealing with injustices in the Arab world, at the country, regional and global levels, some political movements identifying themselves as Islamic have resorted to restrictive interpretations and violence as means of political activism.

Far from being opposed to knowledge, pure religion unquestionably urges people to seek knowledge and to establish knowledge societies. Perhaps the best evidence of that is the era when Arab science flowered and prospered, a time that was characterised by a strong synergy between religion, represented by Islam, on the one hand and science, on the other.

The relation between the Arabic language and the transfer and absorption of technology involves many issues. Chief among them are two central and closely inter-related matters, namely, the arabicisation of university education and the teaching of the Arabic language. In addition, failure to arabicise science creates obstacles to communication between different scientific disciplines and slows knowledge exchange. The authors underline that language is one of the cornerstones in the human development system while emphasising that arabicisation efforts should be accompanied by greater efforts to teach foreign languages to all.

An analysis of the components of Arabic culture indicates that its essence, extending over three millennia, is capable of supporting the creation of a knowledge society in the third millennium as ably as it did towards the end of the first millennium and in the beginning of the second. Furthermore, the strength and richness of Arabic culture may reinforce the capacity of Arab societies to deal effectively with the torrential currents of globalisation.

The oil boom also played its role in eroding a number of values and societal incentives that would have been helpful in enhancing creativity and the acquisition and diffusion of knowledge. With the spread of negative values during that period, creative abilities were neglected, and knowledge lost its significance for human development. The social standing of scientists, educated people and intellectuals fell. Social value was measured by the criteria of money and fortune, regardless of how those fortunes were gained. Proprietorship and possession replaced knowledge and intellectualism. Perhaps worst of all, the values of independence, freedom and the importance of a critical mind were also buried.

Repression and marginalisation contributed to blunt the desire for achievement, happiness and commitment. As a result, indifference, political apathy and a sense of futility are becoming dangerously common among broad segments of the populace. Arab citizens are increasingly pushed away from effecting changes in their countries.

The Report calls on the state, civil society, cultural and mass media institutions, enlightened intellectuals and the public at large to plant those values that encourage action and innovation in the political, social and economic spheres. 'Reforming the mind' is indeed a significant requirement for Arab culture, yet 'reforming action' is equally urgent.

A centrifugal economic, social and political environment in the region, coupled with centripetal factors in other countries led to the growing phenomenon of an Arab brain drain. The emigration of qualified Arabs constitutes a form of reverse development aid since receiving countries evidently benefit from Arab investments in training and educating their citizens. More significant, however, is the opportunity cost of high levels of skilled outflows: the lost potential contribution of emigrants to knowledge and development in their countries of origin.

This double loss calls for serious action to minimise its dangers:

firstly by tapping the expertise and knowledge of the Arab Diaspora abroad, and secondly by providing Arab expatriates with incentives to return, either on temporary assignments or for good, to their countries of origin, carrying a human capital much larger than that they had migrated with. This can be achieved only by launching a serious project for human development that would attract highly qualified migrants back temporarily or permanently on productive and personally fulfilling assignments to serve their countries.

Unlike the case of Arab culture, the analysis of Arab social and economic structures reveals ingrained obstacles to knowledge acquisition in the Arab world. Only by overcoming those obstacles through reform can a knowledge society be developed.


Oppression, Knowledge and Development Political obstacles to knowledge acquisition, as the Report argues, are even more severe in Arab countries than those posed by their socio-economic structures, which are in turn seen to be more obstructive than any features of culture.

Political power plays a key role in directing knowledge and influencing its development. It fosters knowledge that is favourable to its goals and suppresses opposing patterns. Political instability and fierce struggles for access to political positions in the absence of an established rule for the peaceful rotation of power - in short, democracy - impede the growth of knowledge in Arab soil. One of the main results of that unstable political situation has been the subjection of scientific institutions to political strategies and power conflicts. In managing these institutions, political loyalties take precedence over efficiency and knowledge. Power shackles active minds, extinguishes the flame of learning and kills the drive for innovation.

The Report calls for the establishment of an independent knowledge sphere that produces and promotes knowledge free from political coercion. This is possible only by democratising political life and knowledge and ensuring that knowledge can be freely acquired and produced.

Laws are needed to guarantee Arab citizens the essential rights of knowledge - the freedom of thought and expression that are a precondition for knowledge to flourish. The international human rights conventions have been signed by most Arab states, but they have neither entered the legal culture nor been incorporated into substantive domestic legislation. Yet the problem of freedom in the Arab world is not related to the implementation of laws as much as to the violation of these laws. Oppression, the arbitrary application of laws, selective censorship and other politically motivated restrictions are widespread. They often take the form of legal constraints on publications, associations, general assemblies and electronic media, which prevent these from carrying out their communication and cultural roles. Such restrictions also obstruct the diffusion of knowledge and the education of public opinion.

Yet the more dangerous restrictions are those imposed by security authorities when they confiscate publications or ban people from entering a country or prevent the sale of certain books during fairs while promoting other kinds of books. In committing these acts, these authorities reach above the constitutional institutions and the law, citing the pretext of 'national security' or public order.

A global context that poses a challenge:

Globalisation in its current form and existing institutions is often weighted towards securing the interests of the rich and powerful nations and their dominance over the world economy, knowledge flows and, by extension, opportunities for development. Without changes that tip the balance of global governance more towards the needs and aspirations of developing countries, including Arab countries, globalisation cannot help these nations to achieve human progress.


The Report pulls together the various threads of its analysis of the status of Arab knowledge in a concluding strategic vision of the Arab knowledge society, supported by five pillars:

  1. Guaranteeing the key freedoms of opinion, speech and assembly through good governance bounded by the law: A climate of freedom is an essential prerequisite for the knowledge society. These freedoms are the thresholds to knowledge production, to creativity and innovation, and to invigorating scientific research, technical development and artistic and literary expression. Constitutions, laws and administrative procedures need to be refined to remove all restrictions on essential freedoms, particularly administrative censorship, and regulatory restrictions by security apparatuses on the production and diffusion of knowledge and all kinds of creative expression.

  2. Disseminating high quality education for all: The detailed proposals for reform in education include: giving priority to early childhood learning; ensuring universal basic education for all and extending it to at least 10th grade; developing an adult education system for lifelong learning; improving the quality of education at all stages; giving particular attention to promoting higher education, and instituting independent periodic evaluations of quality at all stages of education.

  3. Embedding and ingraining science, and building and broadening the capacity for research and development in all societal activities.
    This can be achieved through promoting basic research, and establishing a centrally coordinated regional creativity and innovation network that permeates the entire fabric of society and enjoys supportive and complementary linkages in the regional and international spheres.

  4. Shifting rapidly towards knowledge-based production in Arab socioeconomic structures: This calls for a decisive move towards developing renewable resources through knowledge and technological capabilities and towards diversifying economic structures and markets. It also requires upgrading the Arab presence in the 'new economy' and the consolidation of a societal incentives system that upholds the acquisition and application of knowledge for human development in contrast to the current mode in which values are centred on material possessions and in seeking access and favour from the two sources of power: money and authority.

  5. Developing an authentic, broadminded and enlightened Arab knowledge model. This would entail:

    • Delivering true religion from political exploitation and respecting critical scholarship. The components of this reform include returning to the civilised, moral and humanitarian vision of pure religion; restoring to religious institutions their independence from political authorities, governments, states and radical religious-political movements; recognizing intellectual freedom; activating interpretative jurisprudence, preserving the right to differ in doctrines, religious schools and interpretations.

    • Advancing the Arabic language by undertaking serious research and linguistic reform for translating scientific terms and coining simple linguistic usages. This also includes compiling specialised, functional dictionaries and other reference works that monitor common classical-colloquial words for use in children's programmes and written and audio publications. This must be matched by other persistent efforts to facilitate the acquisition of Arabic through formal and informal learning channels, and to produce creative and innovative writing for young children.

    • Reclaiming some of the myriad bright spots in the Arab cultural heritage. These must be incorporated in the core of the Arab knowledge model in a manner far above and beyond the self-centered singing of one's own praises. This legacy must be assimilated and understood as part of the structure of motivation for developing and nurturing an Arab knowledge system in Arab minds and institutions.

    • Enriching, promoting and celebrating cultural diversity within Arab countries. This calls for providing safeguards for the protection of all sub-cultures and for encouraging them to interact, intermingle, grow and flourish.

    • Opening up to other cultures. Such interaction would be strengthened by translation into other languages; promoting an intelligent and generous exchange with non-Arab cultures and civilisations; maximising benefits from regional and international organisations and initiating reform in the world order through stronger inter-Arab cooperation.

As the Report affirms in closing, knowledge closely approaches a religious obligation that Arabs ought to honour and exercise. It points out the way on the Arab journey to a dignified and prosperous future. The pursuit of knowledge is prompted by religion, culture, history and the human will to succeed. Obstructions on the road are the work of mortals: the defective structures of the past and present - social, economic and, above all, political. Arabs must remove or reform these structures in order to take the place they deserve in the world of knowledge at the beginning of the knowledge millennium.

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