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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. The profile of the information society was divided into 11 basic components. Each component was rated on a four-level maturity scale, whereby level 1 indicates the lowest level of maturity (1 point) and level 4 the highest level of maturity (4 points). The score for each country (assessed based on information provided in national country reports sent to ESCWA, in addition to a number of external sources) was calculated by adding up the score points for the 11 components and then dividing the result by 11. This allows country comparisons and rankings according to their progress in building the information society.
THE ROLE OF GOVERNMENTS AND ALL STAKEHOLDERS IN BUILDING THE INFORMATION SOCIETY
The establishment and creation of an information society requires effective governance and widespread participation of economic and social sectors. The following are some recommendations in this regard:
- Revamp information and communication technology strategies and policies, based on thorough research and studies to assess the current and future needs of society, without resorting to copying strategies and policies devised by other countries;
- Support the establishment of information and communication technology-related civil society organizations both financially and procedurally. Even Bahrain, considered the ESCWA member country most accommodating to the establishment of civil society organizations and associations, places many obstacles in the way of establishing some of these organizations. The country blocked the Arab Knowledge Economy Association’s (AKEA) attempts to obtain a license, which led the association to get it through Saudi Aramco;
- Encourage the participation of the private sector and existing civil society organizations (such as Internet and computer associations) in evaluating, revamping and monitoring the implementation of government strategies and policies;
- Allocate the necessary financial resources to realize information and communication technologyrelated strategies and policies, figuring them into the country’s annual budget;
- Put in place mechanisms to monitor information and communication technology indicators for the establishment of an information society, measure the pace and extent to which policies and strategies have been implemented and issue an annual report on the matter.
- PC penetration rate should be increased, especially in education. The number of PCs per a hundred students in ESCWA member countries is still very low. For instance, Jordan, which recorded the highest ratio among its ESCWA counterparts in this domain, has only five PCs per 100 students. The ratio in the United Arab Emirates is three PCs per 100 students, while in the less developed ESCWA member countries the ratio drops down to less than one PC per 100 students;
- While it is imperative that bringing Internet access to the largest possible number of the ESCWA region’s population should remain a primary objective, the importance of the quality of such Internet access should not be underestimated. Internet access of high quality and high speed should be equally sought to be made increasingly available to larger populations, especially in the richer ESCWA member countries such as the GCCs, keeping in mind that an increasing number of applications nowadays requires much higher speeds than what a dial-up connection, for instance, could handle;
- As income levels in most ESCWA member countries with limited resources are rather low, it is essential to find resources to increase the numbers of public or community Internet centers where access is provided for free or for a minimal charge. This would give people who cannot afford Internet subscription and use charges the opportunity to use or learn at these free or government-subsidized centers how to use the Internet, and thus increase ICT and Internet literacy and the number of Internet users.
ACCESS TO INFORMATION AND KNOWLEDGE
Access to information and knowledge requires a reasonably priced advanced ICT infrastructure, ICT literacy and the availability of digital content.
- Publish government documents and data and provide unequivocal access to this information to the public;
- Increase the number of public access centers in all ESCWA member countries;
- Continue the liberalization of the telecommunications sector and lower Internet connection costs;
- Reduce censorship and the blockage of websites to a minimum;
- Increase Arabic Internet content to encourage usage by large segments of the population. This can be done in association with civil society organizations and schools;
- Provide free access to scientific content on the Internet in order to encourage research and innovation, in association with academic establishments.
ICT CAPACITY BUILDING
In terms of capacity building, ESCWA member countries are distributed between maturity levels 2 and 3, while average spending on research and development remains lower than the world average. In order to build an information society, the region must pay greater attention to this aspect. The following recommendations can be used as guidelines to be developed further, in line with the circumstances of each country in the ESCWA region:
- Adopt serious strategies and employ greater capabilities in research and development, as well as stimulate initiatives and pledges undertaken by the ruler of Dubai (allocation of $10 billion to increase knowledge, including support for research and development) and the Emir of Qatar (allocation of 2.8 per cent of annual GDP to research and development);
- Raise the level of human resource training in public and private sector establishments through ongoing training programmes, and associate employee performance assessment with continued training;
- Devise specific measurable goals to increase computers in schools within two to three years (10 computers for every 100 students in the wealthier ESCWA member countries, five computers for every 100 students in remaining theESCWA member countries);
- Incorporate the subjects of the Internet and online research into school curricula.
BUILDING CONFIDENCE AND SECURITY IN THE USE OF ICTS
The existence of data security and privacy policies are basic international measures that help build ICT use confidence and security, and should therefore be paid more attention to by ESCWA member countries. Recommendations in this regard include:
- Accelerating the process of devising laws to counter misuse of ICT;
- Ensuring transparency in reporting incidents related to networks and database hacking;
- Increasing awareness campaigns on the different types of cyber crimes, to help ICT users avoid them;
- Increasing international and regional cooperation in fighting ICT crimes;
- Putting in place the highest security measures for local networks and computer systems connected to the Internet (firewalls, anti-virus applications and spyware), especially in public sector organizations, to patch security holes and decrease the chances of attacks;
- Devising and publishing “privacy policies” on every website.
The following recommendations address the limitations in the ESCWA region which prevent the establishment of a mature enabling environment:
- Create awareness;
- Accelerate the process of signing, ratifying and joining international agreements related to intellectual property rights for countries that have not signed them yet;
- Accelerate the issuance and implementation of laws related to e-commerce and e-signatures;
- Devise laws related to protection of online intellectual property rights and copyrights, separating them from other laws on intellectual property rights;
- Decrease Internet censorship;
- Unify ICT standards through the adoption of international standards and development of standards related to the use of the Arabic language through regional committees and organizations;
- Complete telecommunications liberalization, especially in the fixed line sector, decrease consumer charges and devise laws that encourage investment in the ICT sector.
- Speeding up the completion of e-governments, and allocating a clear budget for them. Parallel with this is enhancement to ICT infrastructure and e-literacy so citizens could benefit from these modern services;
- Enforcing and activating laws related to e-transactions and e-signatures; encouraging private sector e-business and e-commerce initiatives; and establishing a joint electronic market for all ESCWA member countries in which both public and private sectors can participate;
- Developing appropriate curricula for e-learning, and grooming teachers so they can be comfortable working in an electronic environment since the dissemination of e-learning is not only about introducing computers and the Internet at schools; ESCWA member countries with poor resources must focus on model schools which could gradually be expanded in the future;
- Enhancing the use of ICT in the area of health could save poor and rich ESCWA member countries billions of dollars spent on citizens who go abroad seeking better treatment;
- And raising awareness among governments of the less wealthy ESCWA member countries (Jordan, Iraq, Syrian Arab Republic, Egypt, and Yemen) and private sector institutions in these countries concerning the emerging business market segments that are suitable for teleworking, such as translation, research, media, Web design, and consultations, originating in the GCC countries, as well as developing training plans for their citizens so that they could benefit from these growing opportunities in reducing unemployment.
CULTURAL DIVERSITY AND IDENTITY, LINGUISTIC DIVERSITY AND LOCAL CONTENT
- Accelerate the implementation of e-government projects through the allocation of additional funds, since these projects specifically increase online Arabic content;
- Set up effective governmental programmes that aim to develop Arabic content, establish non-profit Arabic digital information banks, and crystallize a plan for regional cooperation in this respect;
- Support individual projects related to cultural and linguistic diversity through free hosting of these website projects and furnishing them with financial assistance to sustain their activities;
- Increase governmental infrastructure investment to promote use of the Internet. Focus on the Internet as a distinct advertising environment which can convey the product message to the consumer in a more effective way than the traditional methods, which will help develop commercial content;
- Accelerate the legislation of laws and statutes related to the rights of digital publishing;
- Alleviate controls and minimize strict filtering of websites in some ESCWA member countries as much as possible;
- Provide an enabling environment that motivates the private sector to participate in establishing the Arabic content industry;
- Focus on e-learning content within the framework of a public strategy for lifelong education;
- Focus on the media of the local groups and consider the cultural diversity within Arab countries as a support element in developing the Arabic content industry.
- Support media independence and freedom of the press
- Support the production of television programmes that introduce and educate people on ICT and the concept of information society;
- Increase advertising campaigns, in all media and especially television, regarding e-government services available on the Internet and encourage their use by citizens;
- Require television program producers to add segments that introduce the use of information and communication technology to women’s programmes, and how technology can be used to stop violence against women, for example. This serves to eliminate popular stereotypes from women’s programmes;
- Support the production of media content that presents the roles of men and women in society according to modern-day norms;
- Develop women’s programmes in television and radio to address the family as a whole, given that women’s issues are society’s issues;
- Establish a legislative and economic environment that allows the development and enhancement of professional Arab electronic media;
- Present the contribution of Arabs to humanity and civilization and confirm the importance of adapting to the present age, with all its advancement and knowledge, in order to join the information society;
- Digitalize the television, radio and press archives by using ICT in order to convert audio, video and textual content to a digital format. Once preserved, these materials can become a part of the Arab and world heritage and its content will be able to serve researchers and academics.
REGIONAL AND INTERNATIONAL COOPERATION
All ESCWA member countries have taken tangible steps towards regional integration in some economic sectors such as tourism, electricity, natural gas pipelines. However, in order to build an information society in the region, further regional cooperation in ICT is necessary. Recommendations in this field include:
- Establish a clear framework for regional cooperation, supervised by the League of Arab States or ESCWA, which encourages regional efforts through deriving benefits from relative advantages such as common language, common social practices and geographical proximity;
- Benefit from various financial and human capabilities and resources found in the ESCWA region, to meet the needs of regional cooperation and integration;
- Commitment by donor countries to deliver on pledges made to developing countries in order to help them realize WSIS goals;
- Establish framework for sharing expertise, especially in education, electronic training and egovernment, where some ESCWA member countries (Bahrain, Qatar, and United Arab Emirates) have made considerable progress in this regard, while others (Iraq, Palestine, Syrian Arab Republic, and Yemen) remain in the preliminary stages of development.
MILLENNIUM DEVELOPMENT GOALS (MDG)
- Increase media campaigns to raise community awareness regarding the MDGs;
- Take advantage of the experiences of developing countries which have successfully alleviated or eradicated poverty, specifically in rural areas;
- Due to its direct impact on the achievement of most goals, ESCWA member countries must raise women's health awareness and activate their role in family and society;
- Hold donor countries accountable for fulfilling their commitment towards the developing countries in terms of providing the necessary assistance regardless of any political considerations;
- Develop plans and appropriate a budget to utilize ICT in promoting literacy;
- Build a database with accurate numbers of the MDG indicators, and make it available on the Internet;
- Boost investments in the e-health sector;
- Utilize digital technology (Internet primarily) to raise health awareness among school students.