The Arab Knowledge Report

Last week I noted the publication of the first Arab Knowledge Report and said I would come back with more comments after taking a closer look.

Sadly, my first reaction was one of disappointment. The Arabist blog is right to say the report contains “a lot of turgid language”, which makes the content less accessible than it might have been. The report also re-traces a lot of ground previously covered by the Arab Human Development Reports. That is probably unavoidable, but at least it provides more detail with more up-to-date information.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be too hard on it, though. It’s not meant to be the last word on the state of Arab knowledge but, rather, the first in a series of reports. And it does pinpoint a host of issues that merit further investigation, either in subsequent Arab Knowledge reports or by other researchers.

The knowledge project – a joint venture by the UNDP and the Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Foundation – is based on two premises. Firstly, that knowledge, development and freedom are inter-related. Secondly, that building a knowledge society “tends to engender social development, including economic, social, and cultural efforts to overcome the deficiencies that limit the expansion of human well-being” [p27]. This seems a reasonable starting point. 

The aim, the report says, is “to furnish the Arab decision-maker, specialist, and citizen with a reference study that includes reliable indicators by which to measure the condition of knowledge in the Arab countries and thus assist with the development of plans and the assessment of performance and to kindle the spirit of competitiveness in a field in which this is of the essence” [pII].

The report is clearly seeking to influence policy in a positive direction, but that is where things start to get tricky and political. It’s not just a matter of providing “better” education, more computers, and so on. You can’t build a knowledge society without also changing the nature of Arab society and the regimes that govern it. Nor can you build a knowledge society without challenging a lot of the current religious teaching.

Not surprisingly, the report doesn’t really get to grips with this fundamental problem, though it does hint at it here and there.
Despite all that, though, there’s still plenty of meat to chew on and over the next few days I hope to look in more detail at three of the key chapters – on education; information and communications technology; and research and innovation.