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   Regional Profile 2005  

Global changes are taking place at the economic, social and cultural levels, with information and knowledge playing a major role in the move towards the information society. The accelerating development in knowledge during the past few decades has modified the principles of economic growth with the move towards knowledge-based economy affecting all sectors of the economy.

The information society is a society that processes information efficiently in its socio-economic development, including information production, exchange, adaptation and use for the purpose of development and enhancing the quality of life and work environment for all citizens. In order to realize the information society, modern information and communication technologies (ICTs) need to be used. While ICTs are necessary, they are not sufficient, given that capacity building must equally be developed in a number of areas, including economic, social, legal, educational and research.

This report aims to depict the status of information societies in the ESCWA region, measure the progress made in building these societies and evaluate the current status of member countries. With those objectives, comprehensive analyses are provided on the following: (a) ICT policies and strategies in chapter I; (b) legal and regulatory environment for ICTs in chapter II; (c) ICT infrastructure in chapter III; (d) ICT capacity building in chapter IV; (e) building the ICT sector in chapter V; (f) ICT applications in Government establishments, education, commerce and business, and health care in chapters VI, VII, VIII and IX, respectively; and (g) digital Arabic content in chapter X. Chapter XI presents the conclusions and recommendations.

RECOMMENDATIONS

ESCWA member countries need to exert further efforts aimed at producing a significant shift in establishing their information societies. With the sharp rise in oil revenues, countries of the GCC currently have a real opportunity to achieve this. To that end, some suggestions and recommendations to accelerate the creation of information societies are provided below.

ICT POLICIES AND STRATEGIES

While the majority of ESCWA member countries have established ICT policies and strategies, most of these suffer from the following challenges:

  • lack of a methodical analysis with regard to the state of the respective societies;
  • failure to delve deeply into the real needs of these societies;
  • absence of detailed plans aimed at executing such policies and strategies;
  • insufficient funds for the implementation and execution of such strategies; and
  • failure to establish necessary mechanisms aimed at monitoring progress and at seeking remedies.

The suggestions and recommendations in this regard are as follows:

  • To study present and future needs of the society, and establish new or correct existing policies and strategies in line with the results of such studies;
  • To increase the role of the private sector and civil society establishments in terms of planning, remedying and monitoring policies and strategies;
  • To allocate necessary financial resources to realize policies and strategies, in addition to allocating funds in the annual budget;
  • To establish mechanisms for monitoring and measuring the pace and progress of policies and strategies, and to issue related annual reports.

LEGAL AND REGULATORY ENVIRONMENT

ESCWA member countries suffer from a poor legal and regulatory environment. The following recommendations aim to remedy this limitation:

  • To promote and prioritize the formulation of laws and regulations that protect personal data and information privacy;
  • To protect Internet-related intellectual property and publishing rights, as well as software applications, by enacting a series of designated laws and their disassociation from other intellectual property rights;
  • To establish a special intellectual property and publishing rights regional committee under the umbrella of an international or Arab agency that could coordinate matters related to intellectual property and publishing rights among countries in the region;
  • To accelerate signing, ratification and joining of international agreements related to intellectual property rights, including PCT and PLT;
  • To finalize the regulation and liberalization of the telecommunications sector, particularly fixed line telecommunications, as well as legislating suitable laws to encourage investment in this vital sector.

ICT INFRASTRUCTURE

There is great disparity among ESCWA member countries regarding the status of their ICT infrastructures. Specifically, while Iraq and Yemen suffer from very low levels of deployment, the corresponding levels in Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates are close to those found in advanced countries. This disparity necessitates different recommendations, which are summarized as follows:

This dissociation could be initialized by an ad hoc committee, reporting directly to the ministries of information and
communication technology and justice, charged with monitoring infringements of Internet-related intellectual property and publishing rights and applications.

  • More advanced ESCWA members must shift attention from quantity to quality in the following ways:
    • deploying high-speed broadband Internet;
    • using and interconnecting advanced computer systems, particularly those in business and Government establishments; and
    • increasing Internet and computer use among lower-income sectors of society by devising adequate plans and programmes;
  • Relatively poorer ESCWA members need to focus on the following:
    • increase spending on improving ICT infrastructure and lower related service costs; and
    • increase Internet and computer use by boosting the number of free or semi-free public access centres and by providing support to Internet cafés, thereby encouraging low-cost services accessible to a larger segment of society.

ICT CAPACITY BUILDING

The suggestions and recommendations in this regard are as follows:

  • To increase expenditure on RDI, which remains significantly low across the ESCWA region compared to the world average;
  • To raise awareness concerning the importance of ICTs and boost levels of use through special targeted programmes, especially in rural areas;
  • To link ICT awareness programmes with literacy programmes in a way that harnesses ICTs to serve the illiteracy eradication process, thereby resulting in the eradication of ICT illiteracy as well;
  • To increase and expand the use of such media services as satellite television stations and radio channels, thereby raising awareness of the importance of ICTs;
  • To promote the training of human resources in both public and private establishments through ongoing training programmes, and to link employee performance reviews with continued training;
  • To increase the number of computers in schools, incorporate research on the Internet into educational curricula and vitalize the role of the telecommunications sector, thereby providing schools with technical equipment and Internet access as part of a social responsibility;
  • To provide incentives to all universities and university students, especially in the form of subsidies for increasing Internet connectivity and IT use in universities and educational and research establishments;
  • To allocate funds for and increase Government spending on research and development in public universities.

BUILDING THE ICT SECTOR

Governments in the region need to deploy efforts in order to build their ICT sectors. The suggestions and recommendations in this regard are as follows:

  • To create an enabling environment for risky ICT investments;
  • To increase ICT spending, especially Government spending, by allocating a larger share of annual Government budgets;
  • To encourage foreign and local investment in the ICT sector by creating an attractive investment environment through such measures as giving priority to locally produced products in Government purchases;
  • To support the ICT export/re-export industry through incentives given to global corporations looking to benefit from relatively low labour costs in some ESCWA member countries.

ICT APPLICATIONS IN GOVERNMENT ESTABLISHMENTS

E-Government applications are still very limited across the ESCWA region. The suggestions and recommendations in this regard are as follows:

  • To focus on creating comprehensive and networked Government databases, and to allocate necessary funds in annual budgets;
  • To promote the use of e-government services by formulating training plans and publishing related literature and manuals;
  • To develop advanced, unified e-purchase systems that allow unification of Government sector purchases.

ICT APPLICATIONS IN EDUCATION

The ESCWA region is still at an early stage of maturity in the use of ICTs in education, particularly primary education. The following are important steps to develop such applications:

  • To benefit from the substantial progress made by e-learning to extend education, especially to rural areas, and to incorporate the large numbers of students in basic education;
  • To develop e-learning curricula in association with international agencies and major educational corporations;
  • To give priority to the establishment of multimedia e-libraries in schools, particularly given that the cost of establishing an e-library is lower than that of establishing a traditional library in each school and requires only some simple equipment;
  • To enhance e-school experiments set up in some countries and boost their numbers;
  • To increase the role of private sector establishments in the educational process by encouraging them, through corporate tax incentives, to provide financial or local community support;
  • To enhance and vitalize the role of virtual universities, especially in terms of grants and scholarships.

ICT APPLICATIONS IN BUSINESS AND COMMERCE

Significant discrepancies exist in e-business and e-commerce in the ESCWA region, particularly between countries in the GCC and other ESCWA members. The suggestions and recommendations in this regard are as follows:

  • To accelerate the legislation of e-commerce laws;
  • To support national e-commerce websites by endorsing their use by Government establishments, when possible, and by providing them with tax incentives;
  • To complete and vitalize the e-commerce market in the GCC;
  • To establish an Arab e-commerce market;
  • To enhance the banking infrastructure in less-developed ESCWA member countries and to encourage the use of electronic payment cards as a basic form of online payment in B2C e-commerce sites.

ICT APPLICATIONS IN HEALTHCARE

The suggestions and recommendations in this regard are as follows:

  • To establish national electronic health care networks in Arabic, which requires unifying basic health care terminology;
  • To link large medical centre databases in ESCWA member countries online to a single network, thereby allowing the transfer of expertise and remote collaboration;
  • To encourage the collaboration between telecommunications companies and medical syndicates aimed at providing comprehensive online information services on doctors, hospitals and health care centres in each country.

DIGITAL ARABIC CONTENT

The presence of the Arabic language on the Internet is extremely limited compared to other languages. The suggestions and recommendations in this regard are as follows:

  • To devise comprehensive national plans aimed at providing Internet access to schools and universities, thereby contributing to the development of educational websites as part of educational curricula;
  • To support Arabic cultural centres aimed at establishing content-rich websites;
  • To raise awareness of the Internet as a medium and promotional channel in order to attract the private sector to take part in developing digital Arabic content;
  • To implement IPR laws in the software production industry, which support this developing industry;
  • To devise ambitious national plans to develop an Arabic software industry as a strategic industry, especially in ESCWA member countries with large populations.