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As a contribution to the preparatory activities for the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS), this report presents the current profile of ESCWA member countries (EMCs) in this regard. The profile is mainly based on detailed information provided in 13 country profiles, including indicators, of the Information Society commissioned by ESCWA. It incorporates a relative ranking and comparative analysis of the EMCs among themselves, and with respect to other regions of the world.
The profile covers different areas related to the information society, starting with the components of the enabling environment such as policies, strategies, legal environment and infrastructure, all the way through assessment of the process of capacity building and strengthening of the Information and Communications Technology sector, and ending with a detailed review of the most important ICT applications across various sectors.
This regional profile gives an overview of the current status of ICT in the region. Regarded as an initial snapshot, it is crucial for the purposes of monitoring progress and benchmarking, especially when performed on periodical basis.
INFORMATION AND COMMUNICATION TECHNOLOGY POLICIES AND STRATEGIES
Recommendations for improving the status of ICT policies and strategies across the 13 ESCWA member countries include:
- For countries at maturity level 1: This level includes countries with no or unclear ICT strategic plans and policies. These countries should extend the effort to assess the most relevant priorities in their national economic development, and analyse whether ICT has a role 17 to play in their future economic development, and if so, how will ICT contribute to national growth in the future. This requires assessment of capabilities, and clearly targeted objectives that are within reach, in light of other priorities the country has.
- For countries at maturity level 2: Countries where ICT has been deemed important for national growth, and where plans have been set forth, should focus on the operational means to achieve critical mass in investments and ICT uptake. These countries could move more rapidly in adapting the legal and investment environment, to create confidence in these measures as sustainable and long-term commitments. Areas of improvement could include focusing on creating a stronger human resources base, by developing ICT education in line with their needs and capabilities.
- For countries at maturity level 3: In the case of the most developed EMCs, Jordan and the UAE, dissemination of national centres of excellence and increase in mass will be key to ensure the wide spread benefit from the ICT sector through “spill over” effects to other industries and services. In the case of the UAE, it is important to ensure that the entire country benefits from ICT growth, and not only the Emirates of Dubai and Abu Dhabi. This requires building a common vision for the country, and creating centres of excellence in other Emirates. As for Jordan, more ICT firms and businesses need to be launched ensuring proper transformation of the ICT strategy into reality.
- For the 13 ESCWA member countries: Regional or sub-regional dimensions are almost absent, despite the multitude of common characteristics and needs in the entire region. Cooperative strategies always yield more benefit for all players.
LEGAL AND REGULATORY ENVIRONMENT FOR ICT
Most of the EMCs are new entrants into, or in the process of joining, the World Trade Organisation (WTO). Since WIPO and WTO joined requirements in IPRs, EMCs should focus on updating their external and internal ICT protection levels to global standards, by joining multilateral arrangements, and adapting national IPR laws. EMCs are required to enforce such arrangements, and act to settle rampant copyright and patent infringements, by showing the lead within large national corporations and administrations. Large ICT corporations and local small and medium ICT enterprises need to rely on adequate enforcement of the legal and regulatory system. By taking the lead, governments can credibly build an environment appropriate for promoting technology transfer to the country. Furthermore, EMCs should recognise the importance of consumer protection for ensuring uptake of ICT applications and services such as e-commerce and transactions. The following are specific recommendations for improving the status of legal and regulatory frameworks addressing the different levels of maturity of the 13 ESCWA member countries:
- For countries at maturity level 1: To become credible partners with the global ICT movements, initiatives aiming at fighting piracy should be conducted. These countries should focus first on implementing appropriate national IPR framework, and on updating and rethinking their future legal and regulatory systems while combating software piracy. Also, they need to assess priorities in building the legal and regulatory framework, and compare with some global best practices to effectively create the necessary environment.
- For countries at maturity level 2: It is important to ensure that proper decisions are taken while drafting the ICT laws to incorporate all aspects of consumers’ and corporations’ needs. These countries could benefit from best practices in Western Europe and North America to better define these laws, in a comprehensive manner. Any proposed regulations should be examined carefully, to ensure that adequate legislation is passed, without the need for extensive future review.
- For countries at maturity level 3: It is essential to provide effective operational models for the region, in promoting e-commerce and e-transactions, while further focusing on implementing laws and regulations pertaining to ICT applications.
Recommendations for improving the status of ICT infrastructure across the 13 member countries are:
- For countries at maturity level 1: Although the plans being devised are expected to improve ICT infrastructure, it could be very beneficial for these countries to consider alternative and more rapidly deployable technical solutions such as Wireless Local Loops (WLL). In addition, subsidising PC equipment to certain segments of the society, such as students, may be a good solution to focus efforts and increase dissemination. It would also be advisable to review the deregulation programme, ensuring the private sector is more closely engaged in the development strategies of ICT infrastructure.
- For countries at maturity level 2: These countries need to focus on means for achieving critical mass in PC dissemination and ICT backbones. They may consider setting up some consumer finance solutions to further increase PC dissemination, in parallel with the teledensity improvement efforts underway. Also, as ICT infrastructure is costly, rigorous planning could help in certain cases improve speed and efficiency of deployment to those user segments that most require ICT infrastructure.
- For countries at maturity level 3 and 4: These countries should move forward to ensure that ICT infrastructure becomes a central component of their economy. In the case of the Emirate of Dubai, diversification from the oil sector has led to this move. This is yet to be efficiently implemented in other countries at this level, with world class ICT infrastructure.
- For all 13 EMCs: Creation of a regional Internet backbone to:
- Reduce the expenditure of hard currency disbursed to attain multiple connectivity to the Internet cloud from several countries;
- Foster the establishment of data centres within the region to act as content reservoirs and magnets towards which regional traffic would be shaped;
- Improve efficiency of inter-Arab electronic commerce;
- Reduce the cost burden by sharing same common technological development and deployment costs;
A good example to follow is the GCC’s FOG network, the Arabsat and Althuraya.
ICT CAPACITY BUILDING
Recommendations for improving the status of ICT capacity building across the 13 regional countries are:
- For countries at maturity level 1 (Iraq): It may be the perfect opportunity to rebuild a proper ICT enabled public sector, by selecting “best in class” practices, and learning from the weaknesses of similar programmes in other countries.
- For countries at maturity level 2: Proper balance between conducting awareness campaigns and their effective results in bringing about a sustainable change in ICT capacity is recommended. Governments, IT associations, and the public education system must take the benefit of awareness campaigns to a deeper level, and focus on educating students in ICTspecific courses including computer science, hardware and software design and production. Partnering with global IT vendors, though useful, may render some countries over-dependant on these vendors, and should not be construed as effective delivery of ICT-related education. Care should be given to set up local research and development to foster the growth of national ICT firms, and promote exports.
- For countries at maturity level 3: It may be beneficial to use the present growth opportunity to increasingly focus on building local world-class ICT educational facilities, and transform the education into an effective RDI source, thus enhancing growth and exports. These countries should look at expanding their partnerships to include other universities and research institutes around the world.
BUILDING THE ICT SECTOR
It is recommended that all EMCs provide better funding, in the form of debt and equity, for local ICT firms. By taking the lead, governments and public agencies can help the area move from an ICT buyer to an ICT producer framework. Moreover, governmental incentives, such as the tax lever, should be part of an overall sector programme to develop local ICT firms. Finally, spreading corporate and research best practices across the area would allow for
the emergence of credible regional ICT players. Recommendations for improving the status of ICT sector building across the different maturity levels are:
- For countries at maturity level 1: Technology transfer between universities and ICT firms should be encouraged, in order to increase local firms’ ability to attract investment. It may also be beneficial to invite foreign IT vendors to invest in local production as a means of addressing local market demand.
- For countries at maturity level 2: Local ICT firms should be fostered with the help of governments and banks in collaboration with the investment community. This adoption would be in the form of grants, and subsidized loans against good results in production, sales and increased employment. Similar systems have proven successful as they were implemented in Western Europe to stimulate ICT small to medium size enterprises. It is important to accompany this provision with a transparent monitoring system through a PPP between government agencies and financers.
- For countries at maturity level 3: The challenge for governments is to maintain a distant attitude from the private sector, whilst ensuring that public administered programmes such as technology parks and incubators are implemented fully to fruition. It is also important to spread best practices within the country as well as to other EMCs.
ICT APPLICATIONS IN GOVERNMENT
Following are the main recommendations3 for improving the status of ICT applications in government establishments across the Western Asia.
- Exchange of expertise among ESCWA countries: National e-government programmes remain unsynchronised and experiences are hardly shared. Several times, similar projects were redone from scratch all over again;
- Introduce administrative reform: Governments need to consider redesigning existing business processes, maintaining quality, introducing audit control mechanism, implementing an e-procurement system, acquiring technical and project management skills, and increasing government transparency and accountability.
- Adopting an enabling fiscal and monetary regime: Governments need to provide an enabling environment to encourage Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) and thus provide an incentive for private investors to establish ICT firms in the region and participate in egovernment projects.
- Launching pilot projects: These projects could tackle selected key priority areas and adopt proper testing and monitoring mechanisms.
ICT APPLICATIONS IN EDUCATION
Recommendations for improving the status of applications in education across the 13 member countries include the following:
- Adopt a clear vision, elaborate an adequate strategy and its implementation plans: ICT offers the opportunity to revolutionize education and help eradicate illiteracy. To reap the benefits of ICT in education, a clear and focused vision is a must. All stakeholders, private and public, should share this vision. Strategies and their implementation plans should be designed adequately taking into consideration the rapid pace of change in technology. Cooperation should be encouraged on both the regional and international levels. Practical steps toward this goal could be:
- The creation of national committees mandated with the mission of elaborating strategies and execution plans for ICT-based education;
- Establishing pilot projects in the field of e-learning;
- Training teachers on the use of ICT, and authoring computer-based courses with all associated concepts of learner-centric education;
- Creating a suitable environment for a sustainable e-learning industry;
- Launching regional initiatives, mainly in the area of distance education.
- Build a regional e-learning portal: Such a portal could be used for exchanging experiences and views on e-learning and success stories of applying ICT applications to education. It could encourage joint programmes across EMCs and increase the level of crosscountry co-operation. Also, a regional portal could act as a marketplace where private businesses could register their services.
- Establish links with international e-learning standards committees to represent the regional point of view: There are a number of international standards committees who are actively working to define standards for e-learning technologies. One area that needs to be considered in such standards is the area of Arabic content for online courses.
ICT APPLICATIONS IN BUSINESS AND COMMERCE
Developed nations are moving towards an e-economy which consists of a dynamic system of interactions between citizens, businesses, and governments, utilizing ICT to achieve social and economic progress. The successful adoption of ICT in commerce and business requires significant changes in various directions and at a number of levels of intervention, in policies, legislative frameworks, and regulatory instruments. Main recommendations for
improving the status of ICT applications in commerce and business enterprises across the ESCWA region are the following:
- On the national level: There is a need to encourage users to trade on-line. The most commonly traded products or services are food, art, clothes, flowers, travel/leisure services, technology, and entertainment products.
- On the regional level: Launching regional initiatives aimed at the formation of clusters of countries with common goals and synergy of operations. Regional initiatives aim at establishing B2B solutions among EMCs. The formation of these clusters will pave the way for future regional trade agreements. Suggested initiatives are:
- Clustering of Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon and the Syrian Arab Republic to develop an e-tourism solution. Also the clustering of Syrian Arab Republic and Egypt to develop a B2B agricultural and textile e-commerce initiative.
- Developing a regional mechanism to identify best practices in EMCs and encourage their dissemination across the region. The successes must to be well publicised across the region. EMCs need to actively seek to learn from these successes and consider cooperation with the achievers.
- Increasing regional participation at international e-commerce, e-business, and ebanking standards committees to represent the regional and local points of view. There are a number of committees and consortia that are actively developing standards and protocols that will enable e-payment, e-signature, privacy issues, and secure payments architectures. EMCs should participate in these fora to learn, to contribute, and to ensure the region’s special characteristics and demands are taken into consideration in any future set of standards.
- Promoting public private partnership in order to foster innovation and realise gains in productivity and competitiveness.
ICT APPLICATIONS IN HEALTHCARE
Initiatives in this area should be planned and implemented at the levels of individual countries as well as country clusters, such as the Gulf states, always keeping in mind the benefits expected at the regional level. Recommended initiatives9 for improving the status of ICT applications in healthcare across Western Asia include:
- Establishment and development of partnerships in selected area of ICT that are capital intensive: This initiative could lead to co-ordinated national healthcare initiatives across EMCs. It would develop regional models and closely cooperate with similar multinational and local healthcare institutions from both the public and private sectors.
- Standardization in e-health: Standardizing Arabic terminology and data convention used in healthcare systems as well as standardizing electronic medical records.
- Development of an e-health backbone network: Such a network should connect several healthcare institutions and medical educational universities in different ESCWA countries. This regional e-health backbone network would provide the mechanism to identify best practices in the EMCs and encourage their dissemination across the region.
- Building awareness about the benefits of e-health. Clearing common misconceptions about privacy and security related to ICT tools.
DIGITAL ARABIC CONTENT
It should be stated at the outset that due to the shared nature of the issue under consideration, any efforts towards supporting Arabic digital content should be coordinated across the region. Main recommendations for improving Arabic Digital Content across the ESCWA region are:
- Creation of Arabic content industry: As it was stated repeatedly in this report, ICT could be a very strong enabler towards real and sustainable development, which places content on top of the issues to be developed. For this to be achieved, EMC governments should create a healthy environment to promote the establishment of an Arab content industry.
- Strengthen scientific research and development: Mainly in Natural Language processing, which should be supported by national governments through a framework of regional cooperation. Processing Arabic language needs to be seriously addressed by universities in the Arab countries. With the emerging of the semantic Web languageprocessing tools will be a necessity to reap full advantage of the Internet. Cooperation with international research centers will be certainly valuable in this regard.
- Increase the number of Arabic Internet users: By making ICT tools affordable to all income levels of the population, and encouraging tele-centers and Internet cafés.
- Quality of data published: More focus should be placed on gathering and publishing economic and social information on the Web. More emphasis on developing Web applications to serve the public, such as e-Health, e-Learning and Distance Learning.
- Facilitate access to everyone: Facilitate Internet access to all citizens of both Arabic and English sites by using techniques such as Arabized domain names.
- Encourage online learning in Arabic: This can be achieved by encouraging both students and teachers in the primary, secondary and higher education levels to use ICT and Internet technology in teaching and learning,
- Legislation: Formulation and issuing of legislation and laws for all relevant areas including: IPR protection, data privacy and security, and digital signature regulations.
- Develop applications for automatic translation: Developing free of charge and downloadable applications (free-ware) for translating into Arabic, and encouraging national initiatives that aim to electronically document the national heritage in Arabic.
- Develop Arabic standards: To further increase Arabic content and therefore motivate more Arabic language users to go online, standards should be developed for the Arabic language use in areas such as transfer of information over networks, display and print character sets, page formatting, software and the various ICT applications (e-commerce, epublish, etc.).