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   Regional Profile 2009  

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 each member country. With those objectives, comprehensive analysis is provided on the following: (a) role of Governments and all stakeholders in chapter I; (b) ICT infrastructure in chapter II; (c) access to information and knowledge in chapter III; (d) ICT capacity-building in chapter IV; (e) building confidence and security in the use of ICTs in chapter V; (f) enabling environment in chapter VI; (g) ICT applications in chapter VII; (h) cultural diversity and identity, linguistic diversity and local content in chapter VIII; (i) media in chapter IX; (j) regional and international cooperation in chapter X; (k) MDGs in chapter XI; (l) building the ICT sector in chapter XII; and (m) the regional and global comparative analysis and results in chapter XIII.

 

RECOMMENDATIONS

THE ROLE OF GOVERNMENTS AND ALL STAKEHOLDERS IN BUILDING THE INFORMATION SOCIETY

National policies and strategies are just the starting point for building the information society; they are not targets, but tools for implementation. They require good governance and partnership with various stakeholders and actors in the socio-economic sectors, mainly private sector companies and NGOs, for timely and effective implementation.

The following recommendations take into account the above comparative analysis:

  • Strategies are tools for formulation of plans of action and implementation. They should not be considered as standalone objects that are shelved on completion;
  • Formulation of strategies and implementation require mindset and management change in Government institutions and the private sector to overcome bureaucratic hindrances and resistance to change, as well as overcome the lack of trust between Governments and private sector and to ensure that private companies are not looking for quick profits at the expense of long-term benefits;
  • Systematic and periodic monitoring of execution of strategies and plans is essential, thereby ensuring that corrective actions are taken as appropriate;
  • ICT strategies should be revised periodically based on evidence collected through information society indicators as well as on future national needs of the society and economy, while allocating needed financial resources and without resorting to blindly copying other countries’ strategies or plans of action;
  • Strategic PPP should be activated at a wider scale in order to involve the private sector and NGOs in developing strategies and plans of action, and implementing, evaluating, revamping and monitoring their
  • execution;
  • While telecommunications is important, including infrastructure, more importance should be given to information technology in devising ICT strategy updates and implementing them, particularly capacity-building, content and knowledge development, software development and building the IT sector;
  • Sectoral e-strategies should be devised, including strategies and implementation plans for e-learning, e-government and ICT research and development;
  • Coordination of ICT strategies at the regional level and developing partnerships between ESCWA member countries strengthen regional integration and complementarities;
  • Standard templates can help to structure ICT strategies in an internationally acceptable format. ESCWA and the World Bank have templates that can assist countries in formulating their ICT strategies.

ICT INFRASTRUCTURE

  • It is important to set up an effective and transparent telecom regulatory commission. Without this, there are strong possibilities of exploitation of subscribers through unaffordable tariffs and corruption;
  • It is important to continue the liberalization of telecom sectors and instigate competition, which has a significant impact in increased dissemination of telecom services. Competition in the fixed-line market is crucial for a better dissemination of ICT services in marginalized and remote areas;
  • The introduction of new telecommunication technologies, especially wireless, is essential for bridging the digital divide inside the same country, particularly when fixed-line deployment is not economically feasible or not possible. New licensing schemes and regulatory frameworks should be developed to cater for these technologies;
  • Efforts should be directed towards the regional dimension of economies of scale, especially in such areas as bandwidth. Efforts should be directed towards harmonization of the regional telecom interconnectivity and reviving efforts related to establishing of a regional telecom backbone. The same can be applied in areas of ICT manufacturing and ICT content, which both contribute to wider dissemination of ICT services;
  • Significant attention should be directed towards increased connectivity of such sectors as education and health given their long-term impact on socio-economical development. Dedicated initiatives for developing ICT infrastructure should be directed to specific segments and best practices from other countries in the region need to be explored and exploited;
  • The effect of broadband on development justifies more liberalization of broadband services, unbundling local loops and availing applications and content that drive demand in this field. Dedicated initiatives at the governmental level should be directed towards harnessing the benefits of broadband technologies for development;
  • It is important to promote universal access funds for certain sectors of the community and rural areas.

ACCESS TO INFORMATION AND KNOWLEDGE

Access to information and knowledge requires a reasonably priced and advanced ICT infrastructure, ICT literacy and the availability of digital content. Recommendations are as follows:

  • Accelerate the implementation of ICT infrastructure projects, especially for broadband technologies and reduce Internet subscription costs to a level affordable by a wider cross-section of the community;
  • Increase the number of public access centres in all ESCWA member countries, particularly those with modest or low GDP per capita;
  • Continue the liberalization of the telecommunication sector and reduce censorship and blockage of websites to a minimum;
  • Increase the availability of digital Arabic content in order to encourage usage by large segments of the population; and provide free access to scientific content on the Internet in order to encourage research and innovation;
  • Benefit from success stories and best practices of other regions and countries in the area of access to information and knowledge;
  • Implement an Arabic Domain Name System for promoting access to information of a large segment of the population that is literate only in Arabic;
  • Promote the use of FOSS by collaborating with universities and international organizations that are experienced in using FOSS.

ICT CAPACITY BUILDING

While ESCWA member countries exhibited adequate ICT capacity-building programmes, the average spending on R and D remains lower than the world average. In order to build an information society, the region must pay greater attention to this aspect. Naturally this can be done in two tracks over a short or long term, depending on resources, strategies and policies for development in the field of ICT capacity-building.

The following recommendations can be used as guidelines to be developed further, in line with the specificities and circumstances of each country in the region:

  • Adopt serious strategies and employ greater capabilities in R and D, as well as stimulate initiatives and pledges for the allocation of adequate amounts of funds (a percentage of annual GDP) for R and D, especially in science and technology;
  • Increase spending on education and focus on adult education to avoid serious incidents in the evolution of societies in the region. In this regard, ICTs can extend the scope of education and training and be instrumental in providing new educational services at all stages in life. It should be used to support innovation and enable lifelong learning for all;
  • 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 strategies and action plans for capacity-building and place education among the top priorities in Government developmental plans;
  • Update educational systems, integrate ICT in education and training by equipping schools and training teachers, and incorporate the fields of basic ICT, the Internet and online research as subjects in school curricula;
  • Build multi-disciplinary networks of human expertise and resources and create dedicated centres of excellence for technology training, knowledge sharing and cross-border cooperation.

BUILDING CONFIDENCE AND SECURITY IN THE USE OF ICTS

The majority of ESCWA member countries have shown genuine interest for improving confidence and security in the use of ICTs and have, as such, undertaken serious steps towards achieving it. Almost all member countries have shown serious concern for information misuse and securing e-transactions to the extent that a large number of countries have promulgated e-transactions and e-signatures laws, while others are expected to follow suit in the near future. However, all ESCWA member countries still lack proper regulations for protecting personal data and safeguarding the privacy of online users, with the exception of the United Arab Emirates, which devised a related law in 2007.

The following recommendations can be used as guidelines to be developed further, in line with the
specificities and circumstances of each country in the region:

  • Update national legal frameworks in line with the demands of the information society and take the necessary measures to implement related laws at the national level covering privacy and data protection, countering cybercrimes, protection of intellectual property, as well as consumer protection;
  • Identify ICT-based critical infrastructures in the country, and develop practical plans for their protection from cyberthreats and network attacks;
  • Ensure that a national business continuity management (BCM) plan is formulated and provide guidelines for Government and private sector organizations for the formulation of BCM plans at the organizational level;
  • Build effective incident management capabilities through the development of a computer security incident response team (CSIRT) under the frameworks provided by national CERTs. Empower CERTs to become national focal points for all technical matters related to the protection of cyberspace, and ensuring transparency in reporting all cybercrime incidents;
  • Encourage the public-private cooperation in order to maintain the security of networks and information systems and the protection of national cyberspace;
  • Raise public awareness through campaigns about ways to protect privacy and secure online transactions, targeting all the stakeholders in cyberspace, especially decision makers, public sector employees, businesses, the private sector and individuals, including children;
  • Stimulate cooperation between ESCWA member countries and relevant international bodies/organizations in order to gain support for the development of a secure regional cyberspace, and combat cybercrimes given that these crimes do not recognize geographical or political boundaries;
  • Put in place the tightest security measures for local networks and computer systems connected to the Internet (firewalls, anti-virus applications and spyware), especially in public sector organizations, to close security gaps and decrease the chances of a cyberattack.

ENABLING ENVIRONMENT

The following recommendations address the limitations in the ESCWA region that prevent the establishment of a mature enabling environment:

  • Accelerate the process of signing, ratifying and joining international agreements on IPR and ensure their synergy with national laws;
  • Accelerate the issuance and implementation of cyberlaws, especially cybercrime laws, data protection and privacy laws as well as consumer protection laws;
  • Harmonize cyberlegislation in the ESCWA region in order to improve regional integration and promote e-transaction laws and e-commerce in the region;
  • Promote ICT standardization to ensure the interoperability between different ICT applications and services;
  • Proceed with the liberalization of the telecommunication sector, especially the fixed-line and Internet sectors; and take measures that encourage national and foreign investments in the ICT sector;
  • Establish venture capital and investment funds to support the creation of start-ups and SMEs in the ICT sector, in cooperation with all stakeholders in the information society;
  • Encourage entrepreneurship in the ICT sector through the creation of incubators and science and technology parks.

ICT APPLICATIONS

  • ICT applications in Governments
    • Increase Government commitment as well as political and financial support to implement rapidly plans and strategies relating to ICT applications in general and e-government in particular;
    • Establish a separate authority for e-government planning, implementation and monitoring where this authority directly reports to the highest authority in the country, such as the council of ministers, rather than a specific line ministry. This will give the e-government project the leverage and power to implement e-government applications in all ministries according to a national priority set by the highest authority in the government;
    • Increase staff and citizen awareness on e-government, with a focus on empowerment gained by citizens as a result of e-government services. Staff awareness should come as part of change management with due regard to resistance to change through process re-engineering in all Government institutions;
    • Improve and make affordable the access of rural and marginalized areas as well as attend to the requirements of citizens with special needs by using available modern technologies and varied access points such as the Internet, fixed telephone, mobile telephone, call centres and public kiosks;
    • Promote collaboration among ESCWA member countries for sharing experience and develop applications that apply to more than one country in the region. ESCWA could provide the platform for such collaboration.
  • ICT applications in business and commerce
    • Formulate and implement national plans for building trust through increased technical security and enactment of e-transaction/e-commerce and e-signature laws;
    • Provide secure online payment and enable a variety of means for online payment to meet different needs.
  • ICT applications in education and training
    • Education, as a sector, is awarded considerable attention by Governments of the member countries. However, it is recommended to integrate ICTs into the national strategy for school education whether for digitizing curricula, supporting the classroom teaching process, and providing appropriate teacher training. A selected number of pilot schools could serve as a starting point;
    • Improve availability and access of quality lifelong e-learning programmes to meet the needs of the constantly changing job market today;
    • Encourage the use of e-learning in professional skills development and motivate the development of instructional content and use of course authoring for courses;
    • Encourage the development of specialized learning portals for various sections of knowledge and disciplines.
  • General recommendations
    • Update ICT strategies whenever a strategy has expired or has been completed which should then be evaluated for formulating a new strategy. The new strategy should include benchmarks and processes for evaluating results and monitoring progress. While some member countries have formulated new five-year strategies for the use of ICT, others have not;
    • Train staff (teachers, business professionals, Government employees and health-care providers, among others) such that there are plans for annual number of training days on ICTs, ranging from basic ICT literacy to advanced ICT applications in all domains;
    • Give special attention to new, innovative services that can ensure better access to all citizens, such as the use of mobile applications or any other future technologies which should be exploited as new venues for service delivery;
    • Increase general public ICT literacy through skill development and training programmes in order to reap more and fuller benefits of ICT applications in general. Selected social groups, including women, should be given priority;
    • Implement awareness campaigns on the benefits of e-services, particularly e-commerce with focus on all stakeholders, namely, the private sector and consumers.

CULTURAL DIVERSITY AND IDENTITY, LINGUISTIC DIVERSITY AND LOCAL CONTENT

  • Set up strategies for the development of DAC and its industry at national and regional levels;
  • Improve university curricula in order to produce skilled graduates in fields related to DAC development, and encourage the establishment of training centres providing hands-on education software applications, technologies and platforms needed for DAC development;
  • Support an enabling environment conducive to the growth of DAC, ensuring IPR protection and encouraging the private sector to participate effectively in the building and development of a DAC industry;
  • Strengthen cooperation between universities and the private sector in R and D related to the development of applications and tools needed for the development of DAC;
  • Accelerate the implementation of e-government projects and the launch of e-services by allocating additional funds and resources. These projects could dramatically increase online Arabic content;
  • Launch governmental initiatives supporting endeavours taken by the private sector, individuals and NGOs to preserve the diversity and cultural heritage of the region through digitization;
  • Enhance the cooperation between Arab countries as part of a regional integration initiative in the field of DAC, and strengthen cooperation with international organizations working in this field;
  • Create national and regional funds supporting the creation of start-ups and SMEs in the field of DAC development.

MEDIA

  • There is a strong need to promote professional journalism and instigate the training of journalists for building their capabilities in the media sector across the region;
  • Media institutions could direct their programmes and allocate part of their content to addressing the important issues that face the region, whether these relate to social or political reform. The media sector could be worked upon at the regional level to be a model, which, in turn, could impact the development of societies and the information society;
  • Content management in the media industry could be enhanced to include more than entertainment, and encompass programmes that build content that relate to all citizens and address the challenges they face in their daily lives;
  • Content and professionalism could be given special attention in the ubiquitous radio and television media formats, and given priority in order to ensure that information, knowledge, education and culture reach all areas.

REGIONAL AND INTERNATIONAL COOPERATION

Despite efforts of member countries and regional and international organizations during the past decade, cooperation in building an information society in the region still needs to be strengthened. All

ESCWA member countries have taken tangible steps towards regional integration in such economic sectors as tourism, electricity, communications and natural gas pipelines. In order to build an information society in the region, however, further regional cooperation in ICT is necessary. The suggestions and recommendations to strengthen regional cooperation in ICT are set forth below.

  • Highlight the necessity of regional cooperation and its effect on the national development;
  • Enhance the roles and activities of international and regional organizations in establishing networking and hubs for regional cooperation;
  • Establish national task forces to coordinate with regional task forces and follow up the activities within the framework of regional cooperation;
  • Develop a coordinated approach on issues of common concern among member countries in international telecommunication;
  • Strengthen existing regional cooperatives by developing support and follow-up mechanisms;
  • Promote the establishment of a network for information sharing by stakeholders in the region, creating communities of practice;
  • Develop frameworks for sharing expertise, especially in education, ICT capacity-building, cyberlegislations and e-government;
  • Encourage regional and subregional application projects that enhance harmonization efforts;
  • Enhance national and regional mechanisms that support FDI for regional integration;
  • Improve the efficiency of human capabilities and resources found in the ESCWA region to meet the requirements of regional cooperation and integration;
  • Give special consideration to such members with special needs as Iraq, Palestine, the Sudan and Yemen;
  • Encourage the formulation of projects with multiplier effects across countries of the region;
  • Encourage joint projects and initiatives aimed at minimizing disparities within and among member countries in the telecommunication field.

MILLENNIUM DEVELOPMENT GOALS

  • Democratize the use of ICT by lowering the cost of access to ICT services with the abolishment of taxes on ICT equipment and services and the reduction of the cost of local and international bandwidth;
  • Facilitate access to ICT in underprivileged areas by improving ICT infrastructure and by connecting schools, universities and public institutions;
  • Alleviate the problem of brain drain, which is especially acute in the poorer countries of the region, by promoting better salaries, social benefits as well as regular training for ICT specialists and workers;
  • Accelerate the deployment of citizen-centred e-government applications by implementing measures and enacting laws to make e-government and e-services viable;
  • Encourage the creation of new business ventures by improving ICT enabling environments for local and foreign investors, implementing measures to build trust, developing a culture of transparency and accountability, and by drafting cyberlegislation that would guarantee and protect the rights of businesses and citizens alike;
  • Foster ICT R and D by initiating partnerships between universities, government institutions, research entities, think tanks and ICT businesses;
  • Implement projects and initiatives that would be beneficial to the region as a whole, specifically in the areas of communication infrastructure where the development of a shared infrastructure could lower the costs of digital access;
  • Promote cooperation with more developed countries, particularly those which score high on the ICT Development Index (IDI), which would allow ESCWA member countries to avoid growing pains by learning from and adapting the experience of those countries to national realities.

BUILDING THE ICT SECTOR

Countries in the ESCWA region still have to overcome a number of challenges in order to build a strong ICT sector and reach levels comparable to developed countries. Despite the economic slowdown as a result of the economic crisis, the future of ICT in the ESCWA region remains relatively bright. While initiatives to develop the ICT sector in the region have been carried out by a number of ESCWA member countries, the sector remains underdeveloped.

In fact, many such ESCWA members, as Iraq, Palestine and Yemen, suffer from political instability and conflicts, while other such countries as the Sudan and the Syrian Arab Republic, suffer severe sanctions and/or embargoes on imports of high-technology products. Other reasons that also hinder the development and building of the ICT sector in the ESCWA region are shortages of electrical power, limited infrastructure, shortage of national human resources and limited financial resources.

Within that context, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Jordan are considered leaders in building the ICT sector in the ESCWA region. As for the Syrian Arab Republic, Yemen and the Sudan, the liberalization of the ICT sector should effectively contribute to its development.

Generally, the ICT sector suffers from being part of other, such economic and service sectors as transport, high-tech or media, thereby lacking its own autonomy and necessary focus. Moreover, the ICT sector remains consumption-based rather than production-based, with minimal production and export activities. The ICT sector is predominately telecom-based with very little contribution from software and professional service industries, thereby no real added value exists that provides a competitive advantage.

Local companies, constituting an important segment of the sector, require support from Governments, giving them priority in bidding for Government projects and tenders. Without effective market share in their local markets, such companies could hardly be in a position to compete in markets abroad.

Some suggestions to develop the ICT sector in the ESCWA region are as follows:

  • Continue the liberalizing of the telecommunication sector, which helps to attract investments in the ICT sector;
  • Separate the ICT sector from other economic sectors on the macroeconomy level;
  • Promote the implementation of software and value-added services geared towards the regional competitive advantage, including location, language and specialized skills;
  • Intensify research and conduct studies to assess the current status of the ICT sector in the region and its contribution to economic growth;
  • Urge Governments to build an enabling legislative, regulatory and financial environment aimed at promoting the ICT sector and its components, such as software development and DAC industry among the areas for value-added services and at providing incentives for SMEs specialized in ICT.