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   Regional Profile 2011  

The information society, in which information is processed efficiently, including the production, exchange, adaptation and use of information, is the appropriate environment for achieving sustainable development and enhancing the quality of life for all citizens. However, the move towards the information society constitutes a real challenge to developing countries, particularly in view of the expanding digital divide with developed countries, thus rendering them increasingly vulnerable to reduction in their productive and economic capacities.

Given the importance of information societies as a path for achieving sustainable development and realizing the Millennium Development Goals, and in the process of following up to the World Summit on the Information Society, ESCWA prepared this regional profile report, which is the fifth in a series on the information society in Western Asia. The present report provides essential information on the status of the information society in ESCWA member countries. It aims at assisting decision makers and researchers by providing them with reference information for analysis and planning. It also allows national authorities to compare the current status of their information society with that of other countries in the region and the world, thereby promoting opportunities for cooperation and regional integration in an increasingly knowledge-based global economy.

RECOMMENDATIONS

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

Building the information society requires efficient governance and widespread partnership with
various actors in the private and public sectors. Below are some recommendations to improve the role of
Governments and all stakeholders in building the information society:

  • Strategies are tools for formulation of plans of action and implementation, and should not be considered as stand-alone objects that are shelved on adoption;
  • Benefit from internationally established templates that can help structuring or updating ICT strategies, without resorting to blindly copying the strategies or plans of action of other countries;
  • 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 financial resources needed;
  • 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, as well as in implementing, evaluating, revamping and monitoring their execution;
  • While telecommunications is important, including infrastructure, more importance should be given to IT in devising ICT strategy updates and implementing them, particularly capacity-building, content and knowledge development, software development and building the ICT sector;
  • Sectoral e-strategies should be formulated, 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 are essential to strengthen regional integration and complementarity.

ICT INFRASTRUCTURE

  • It is absolutely essential to set up an effective and transparent telecom regulatory commission/authority, which should function independently and fairly. Without this, there are strong possibilities of exploitation of subscribers through unaffordable tariffs and corruption;
  • It is important to continue the liberalization of the telecom sector and instigate competition, given that it has a significant impact on increasing dissemination of telecom services to different areas;
  • New licensing schemes and regulatory frameworks should be developed to cater for the introduction of new telecommunication technologies, especially wireless, in order to bridge the digital divide between urban and rural/remote areas, particularly when fixed-line deployment is not economically feasible;
  • Efforts should be directed towards the regional dimension to profit from: economies of scale (for instance bandwidth); harmonization of the regional telecom interconnectivity (for instance regional telecom backbone); and ICT manufacturing/software development and ICT content;
  • Significant attention should be directed towards increased connectivity of such sectors as education and health given their long-term impact on socio-economic development, launching infrastructure development initiatives for specific segments based on best practices from other countries in the region and beyond;
  • Liberalization of broadband services, unbundling local loops and availing applications and content should be promoted in order to harness the benefits of broadband technologies for development;
  • Given the importance of promoting universal access through funding disadvantaged sectors of the community and rural areas, the regulatory authority should provide incentives to develop telecommunications in marginalized areas, including packaging urban projects with rural/remote area projects.

ACCESS TO INFORMATION AND KNOWLEDGE

Access to information and knowledge requires a reasonably priced and advanced ICT infrastructure,
ICT literacy, the availability of public domain digital content in Arabic and widespread community/public
ICT access points. 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 section of the community;
  • Increase the number of public/community ICT access centres in rural/disadvantaged areas in all ESCWA member countries, particularly those with modest or low GDP per capita;
  • Continue the development of a competitive telecommunication sector to lower connectivity costs and rates;
  • Reduce censorship, filtering 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 online content on the Internet in order to encourage knowledge creation and sharing;
  • Accelerate the implementation of the Arabic Domain Name System (ADNS) and encourage its use by the public and private sectors for promoting access to information of a large segment of the population that is literate only in Arabic;
  • Promote the use of open-source software, benefit from regional success stories, and collaborate with national, regional and international organizations working in the field, in order to address limitations facing the adoption of open source in the region.

ICT CAPACITY BUILDING

While ESCWA member countries have advanced meaningfully in their ICT capacity-building, this
higher maturity level suggests that a change in measurements of success and priorities will be needed in the
future. Whereas success was previously defined in terms of basic literacy, an increasing number of ESCWA
member countries are now in competitive environments which require competition at the tertiary level.
Re-normalization of the maturity-level criteria in future profiles will be needed to reflect this improvement.

As such, greater investment in research and development, creating a hospitable business environment
and investing in capacity-building are increasingly needed.

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:

  • Prioritize expenditures on higher education, with investments carefully assessed against outcome measurements to insure that resources are producing optimal results;
  • Adopt policies to promote research and development, with particular emphasis on creating an environment which can attract highly-educated professionals;
  • Update and modernize educational systems, including integrating ICT in education and training, equipping schools, training teachers, incorporating ICT, and fostering the use of the Internet and online research as subjects in school curricula;
  • Invest in teacher-training programmes to ensure that technology is appropriately used in classrooms to promote the needed educational improvements systemically;
  • Promote an enabling business environment which values and monetizes globally competitive innovation.

BUILDING CONFIDENCE AND SECURITY IN THE USE OF ICTS

The following recommendations can be used as a benchmark for maturity and development within
each ESCWA member country. Some of these recommendations have been collectively agreed on during
discussions held at the workshop on Building Trust in the Use of e-Services in the ESCWA Region in May
2010:

  • Develop a national security strategy with a clear plan of action, including the establishment of an adequate national regulatory structure or institution responsible for implementation;
  • Identify critical resources, infrastructures and key priorities that Governments should address at the national level and for which adequate policies need to be formulated to ensure online security and safety;
  • Develop comprehensive cyberlegislations in line with international treaties to cover all topics related to cyberspace, in particular those related to cybercrime, privacy and confidentiality of personal information, and train judges and lawyers on their application;
  • Use all means available to raise awareness amongst decision makers on the importance of protecting cyberspace and building trust and security in the use of ICTs;
  • Equally raise awareness amongst public-sector workers, business owners, individuals, households and children on protection mechanisms in the digital environment and safe, secure and ethical interaction;
  • Outline standards and adopt novel and innovative methodologies for developing safe and reliable e-services and applications resilient to external risks and threats, including mechanisms necessary to maintain the privacy and confidentiality of personal information;
  • Share best practices from existing CERTs among ESCWA member countries for promoting the establishment of an incident management capability with national responsibilities;
  • Support the activities of CERTs by providing them with the latest technological solutions and standards in the field of security and protection of cyberspace, and making them the national points of reference in all technical matters related to the protection of ICTs;
  • Encourage cooperation between public and private sectors in order to maintain the protection and security of networks and information systems and that of the national cyberspace, including the application of the tightest security measures for local networks and computer systems connected to the Internet, which are firewalls, anti-virus applications and spyware;
  • Stimulate regional and international cooperation to share experiences and best practices, and to ensure a secure global cyberspace.

ENABLING ENVIRONMENT

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

  • 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, personal data protection laws and e-commerce laws, including consumer protection, and build the capacity of various institutions for the implementation of these legislations, starting with awareness campaigns;
  • Put in place mechanisms and procedures for the implementation of cyberlegislations at the national level and for the enhancement of legal framework efficiency;
  • Harmonize cyberlegislations in the ESCWA region in order to improve regional integration and promote e-transactions and e-commerce in the region;
  • Define national ICT standards in line with the international ones to ensure interoperability between different ICT applications and e-services, while promoting and building institutional capacity for the applications of these ICT standards;
  • Proceed with the liberalization of the telecommunication sector, especially fixed-line telephony and Internet services;
  • Set up supporting measures that encourage the creation of new ICT businesses and facilitate the interaction between Government and private sector to promote ICT products for export;
  • Establish venture capital and investment funds to support the creation of startups and SMEs in the ICT sector, in cooperation with all stakeholders in the information society, and take measures that encourage national and foreign investment in the ICT sector;
  • Develop the spirit of innovation and entrepreneurship in the ICT sector through the creation of incubators and science and technology parks and establishing appropriate linkage between research and development institutions, industry and incubators.

ICT APPLICATIONS

  • ICT applications in Governments
    • Increase Government commitment as well as political and financial support to rapidly implement plans and strategies relating to ICT applications in general and e-Government in particular;
    • Establish an independent authority in charge of e-Government planning, implementation and monitoring and link it directly to the highest authority in the country, for instance the council of ministers, rather than to a specific ministry;
    • Mobilize the proper resources for implementing e-Government initiatives in order to avoid potential losses incurred from developing multiple systems to solve the same problem, and generating the same data by several sources;
    • Simplify and reinvent Government procedures and processes before moving them to an electronic environment; a very misleading tendency is for Governments to start implementing online services through a mere digital translation of existing services;
    • Raise staff and citizen awareness on the importance of e-Government, with focus on benefits gained by citizens, staff awareness coming as part of change management with due regard to resistance to change;
    • Improve and make affordable the access of rural and marginalized areas and citizens with special needs to e-Government tools;
    • Provide citizen-centric, interactive e-services while urging users to provide feedback and boost their participation using Web 2.0 and social networking tools;
    • Promote collaboration among ESCWA member countries for sharing experiences and best practices 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 to increase the participation of citizens and to build their trust in e-business and e-commerce applications, including improved online security and enactment of e-transactions/e-commerce and e-signature laws;
    • Build national capacities for the development of ICT applications in business and commerce, while ensuring reliability, security and privacy, and provide incentives to companies for local development of these applications;
    • Encourage central banks in the ESCWA region to support or establish national e-payment gateways, while conducting financial and legal coordination between banks and companies working in the field of e-payment services provisioning;
  • ICT applications in education and training
    • Integrate ICTs into the national strategy for school education whether for digitizing curricula, supporting the classroom teaching process or 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;
    • Encourage the use of e-learning in upgrading professional skills;
    • Motivate the development of digital instructional content, learning object repositories and the use of course authoring tools;
    • Encourage the development of specialized learning portals covering various sections of knowledge and disciplines.
  • General recommendations
    • Update ICT sectoral strategies after their evaluation or formulating new strategies that include benchmarks and processes for evaluating impact and monitoring progress;
    • Provide regular training for staff, namely teachers, business professionals, Government employees and health-care providers, among others, on ICT and relevant applications, at different levels of competency;
    • Increase general public ICT literacy through media campaigns and training in order to reap more benefits of ICT applications in general, with selected social groups, including the disadvantaged and women, in mind;
    • Give special attention to new, innovative services that can provide better access to all citizens, for instance the use of mobile applications or smartphones;
    • Provide broadband for all, especially in rural and urban areas, at affordable prices, using the PPP model.

CULTURAL DIVERSITY AND IDENTITY, LINGUISTIC DIVERSITY AND LOCAL CONTENT

  • Set up strategies/action plans for the development of DAC and its industry at the national and regional levels;
  • Develop region-wide standards that are specific to the Arabic language and required for developing digital content;
  • Integrate the building of high and refined skills for the development of digital content into highereducation curricula and encourage the establishment of training centres that provide hands-on education in software development, as well as technologies and platforms needed for e-books, DAC, smart phone and social networks applications;
  • Enhance the enabling environment for a flourishing private sector through making national and regional funds available, as well as providing such facilities as the simplification of processes and tax exemptions for the establishment of startups and SMEs in the field of DAC development;
  • Strengthening cooperation between universities and the private sector in research and development on tools and applications for Arabic language processing and translation from/to Arabic;
  • Supporting the incubation of DAC applications, including those for mobile devices and tablet computers;
  • Accelerate the implementation of Arabic-based e-Government projects and the launch of Arabic e-services by allocating additional funds and resources, which should 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 of heritage and archives;
  • Enhance cooperation among Arab countries by launching regional initiatives in the field of DAC, and strengthen cooperation with international organizations working in this field.

MEDIA

  • Countries in the region need to enhance support to press freedom and media organizations, to reduce the legal, legislative and managerial constraints on publishing, remove prison penalties for journalists, and promote free of expression in all media outlets;
  • The role of unions of journalists and the media sector need to be strengthened towards promoting professional journalism and building regional capabilities in the media sector;
  • The need exists to empower women and strengthen their role in the media sector, through widespread practices that ensure equitable opportunities based on skills and professionalism;
  • The content of media outlets targeting free development and addressing the regional needs for education and skills should be strengthened in order to benefit the building of the information societies;
  • The capabilities of such media outlets as radio and television, need to be enhanced to reach all people in remote areas similarly to urban areas, with diverse and informative programmes involving educative and cultural content.

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. 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:

  • Promote and emphasize partnerships between various such ICT stakeholders as national and regional governmental organizations, the private sector and NGOs to realize the stated WSIS goals;
  • Strengthen regional cooperation in the field of ICT development through various such organizations as the League of Arab States and ESCWA;
  • Enhance the role and activities of international and regional organizations in establishing networks and hubs for regional cooperation;
  • Establish national task forces to coordinate with regional task forces and follow up on the activities within the framework of regional cooperation in building the information society;
  • Develop a coordinated approach on issues of common concern among member countries in international telecommunication and Internet governance;
  • Strengthen such existing regional cooperatives as AICTO, GAID and Arab States Research and Educational Network (ASREN), by developing support and follow-up mechanisms;
  • Promote the establishment of a regional network for information sharing by stakeholders in the region, creating communities of practice for sharing expertise, especially in education, ICT capacitybuilding, cyberlegislations and e-Government;
  • Encourage regional and sub-regional application projects that enhance regional harmonization efforts, particularly those with multiplier effect across countries of the region;
  • Enhance national and regional mechanisms that support FDI for regional integration.

MILLENNIUM DEVELOPMENT GOALS

  • Reduce the cost of ICT by abolishing taxes on ICT equipment and services, liberalizing the telecom sector, fostering competition between access providers, reducing the cost of local and international bandwidth, improving broadband access and implementing inexpensive faster-to-deploy wireless solutions in regions where telecommunication infrastructure projects would be costly and time-consuming;
  • Democratize access to knowledge by increasing the number and services of public access centres in regions where ICT is not affordable, supporting the development of local digital content that would address the needs of local communities and using more affordable and simpler technologies, particularly mobile phones, which have managed to establish a significant presence even in the most deprived of communities;
  • Persuade reluctant citizens to start using e-services by conducting regular mass media campaigns aimed at debunking the false theories that are behind their most common fears and at teaching them how to deal with and overcome real and perceived online threats, as well as by encouraging the development of trustworthy, citizen-centric applications;
  • Build a knowledge-based culture by instilling awareness of the developmental role of new and traditional knowledge and by training communities on how to gather, create, store, share and use data, information and knowledge which would enhance their quality of life and help them become active players in knowledge-based economies;
  • Create ICT employment opportunities by fostering ICT research and development, supporting innovation and entrepreneurship, encouraging the establishment of new business ventures, building science and technology parks, developing a culture of transparency and accountability and drafting cyberlegislation that would guarantee and protect the rights of businesses;
  • Improve, update and integrate education methods through the use of ICT;
  • Entice Governments to measure the economic impact of ICT by bolstering the bodies and mechanisms necessary for data collection, measurement and analysis, particularly comparative analysis between urban and rural/remote areas.

BUILDING THE ICT SECTOR

Building a robust, stand-alone and competitive ICT sector in the ESCWA region still has to overcome
a number of challenges. Almost all countries in the region remain consumers of imported technology rather
than producers. Despite the fact that a number of countries have developed strategies and have launched
initiatives to promote the ICT sector in the region, the sector remains underdeveloped and more efforts are
still needed in order to make it stronger, matching or competing with similar sectors in developed countries.

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

  • Systematic regulation of the ICT sector, particularly telecommunications, needs to be implemented effectively in order to have a transparent, fair and competitive environment;
  • Separation of the ICT sector from other economic sectors on the macroeconomic level is a must in order to measure its contribution to the national and regional economies;
  • Governments should ensure an adequate enabling environment and provide incentives for investment in ICT industries/services, whether through tax reduction or protection of national products/services;
  • PPP is a major catalyst for the development of the ICT sector and needs to become widespread in the region;
  • Excellence centres/institutions in ICT, particularly in the field of software development and telecommunications, are needed to be able to compete at the regional and global levels;
  • Cooperation among research institutions should be encouraged and ICT research and development in universities should be linked to industry and should focus on providing such innovative solutions to local and regional needs as promoting digital Arabic content.