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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 decade has modified the principles of economic growth with the move towards a knowledge-based economy affecting all sectors of the economy.
Against this backdrop and within the framework of follow-up and evaluation activities of the WSIS, this report aims to depict the status of information societies in the Arab region, measure the progress made in building these societies and evaluate the current status of each member country.
ROLE OF GOVERNMENTS AND ALL STAKEHOLDERS IN BUILDING THE INFORMATION SOCIETY
- Conduct periodical reviews of the national information society vision and of the ICT strategy to ensure their alignment with evolving national priorities;
- Create, update and align strategies and such companion action plans that are sector-specific as e-learning, e-education, e-health, e-government and e-commerce strategies;
- Research, evaluate, explore the possibility and study the feasibility ofadapting and integrating new or recent global approaches and concepts, such as open data, into national ICT and sector-specific strategies;
- Devise and put into practice practical implementation plans,relevant indicators, as well as accurate monitoring and measurement tools that would help in the assessment of the relevance and impact of national ICT and sector-specific strategies;
- Scale and align your strategies and companion implementation plans with national priorities and economic realities;
- Maximize the chances of success of your national ICT and sector-specific strategies by reaching out to a cross-section of the population at large through such popular social media websites as YouTube and Facebook, without neglecting such traditional media as radio, television and newspapers;
- Seek and cultivate partnerships with other persons or entities that share the same interests and that have complementary expertise and know-how.
ICT infrastructure is an essential pillar in building the information society and one of the four major pillars of the knowledge economy alongside education and training, economic incentive and institutional regime and innovation systems. The recommendations made in the report are:
- Continue to set up independent, proficient, transparent, and effective telecom regulatory commissions/authorities in member countries; and introduce new licensing schemes and regulatory frameworks to cater for new telecommunication technologies, especially wireless broadband;
- Accelerate the liberalization of the telecom sector and instigate additional competition in the subsectors, given its significant impact on increasing availability and affordability of various services;
- Give particular attention to the promotion of broadband services whether in their fixed or mobile variants. This requires a holistic approach as recommended by the Broadband Commission for Digital Development involving: (i) policy leadership for investment; (ii) open telecommunication markets; (iii) development of government and other public electronic services; (iv) a universal service programme; and (v) encourage efficient and innovative mobile broadband practices for new market entrants and consumers;
- Provide regulatory incentives to develop telecommunications in marginalized areas, including packaging urban projects with rural/remote area projects, in an effort to achieve universal service;
- Direct efforts towards the regional dimension to profit from economies of scale in terms of interconnectivity, bandwidth sharing, regional backbone, and regional manufacturing capabilities.
ACCESS TO INFORMATION AND KNOWLEDGE
ICT tools and services have become the main engine positioned to drive access to information and contribute to knowledge-creation and sharing. Access to information and knowledge requires an advanced ICT infrastructure, ubiquitous and affordable ICT services, including broadband services, related laws, the availably of relevant digital content, access initiatives, and widespread community/public ICT access points. Based on the regional comparative analysis, recommendations for ESCWA members countries are as follows:
- Increase the accessibility of Internet services by reducing broadband subscription costs to levels affordable by a wider section of the community; with concessions for free and open access in public areas;
- Boost the demand for e-services and increase ICT usage by raising awareness and building capacities for utilising ICT across all stakeholder groups, particularly for individuals and businesses;
- Adopt access policies and initiatives targeting the participation and inclusion of all citizens, especially the disabled and the ones located in remote or marginalized areas;
- 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;
- Adopt RTI and FOI legislations which guarantee the right of free access to information, especially public domain information;
- Promote the use of open-source software, which ensures openness standardization and cost reduction, and collaborate with national, regional and international organizations working in the field.
ICT CAPACITY BUILDING
One of the main pillars of this transformation is building the needed human resources that would actively participate in development and innovation. Several ESCWA member countries have witnessed, in the past two years, internal crises that challenged their developmental efforts; therefore, the progress pace in capacity-building topics has generally stalled in the region. The following recommendations could be used as suggested guidelines:
- Review the learning methods of the Arab education system to ensure the acquisition by youth of cognitive and soft skills and to offer them adequate training more adapted to labour-market demand;
- Take advantage of the available technology offered by mobile and social media platforms to enhance quality at all education levels;
- Develop initiatives for better use of web-enabled and mobile tools to raise the literacy rate in certain Arab countries, especially among women;
- Enhance educational institutions’ connectivity to the Internet, integrate the use of ICT tools and social media platforms in the educational system and train tutors and teachers accordingly;
- In some Arab countries, revise educational curricula to foster necessary knowledge in mathematics, science and ICT;
- In addition to providing a healthy enabling environment for research and development, support and encourage researchers and innovators to publish the results of their findings in science and technology reviews and journals, and protect their rights by applying to related international patents organizations;
- Encourage ICT professional training programmes, in addition to the ICT academic qualification, to provide graduates with the necessary practical skills and expertise to fulfil market needs;
- Encourage governments and educational institutions to make tuition fees affordable for all citizens, to provide student financial aid schemes and special scholarship programmes for ICT-related degrees;
- Invite educational institutions and peer research centres in the world to develop links to research and education networks in order to ease communication and sharing of information.
BUILDING CONFIDENCE AND SECURITY IN THE USE OF ICTS
Cybersecurity is an increasingly complicated topic in the region. In keeping with the consistent trend, a variety of threats and challenges face the region, including such issues as electronic crime, targeted malware, cyberwarfare and data privacy issues. These are the recommendations suggest to reduce these threats:
- Develop a national cybersecurity strategy with a clear plan of action including the establishment of adequate national structures or institutions responsible for implementation;
- Proactively identify vulnerabilities in critical resources, infrastructures and key priorities as part of a cybersecurity plan involving all stakeholders;
- Through a programme of multilateral cooperation at the legislative level, implement comprehensive cyberlegislation in line with international treaties and conventions at the global and regional levels to cover all topics related to cyberspace, in particular those related to cybercrime, privacy and confidentiality of personal information;
- Pursue capacity-building programmes to enhance the operational ability of law enforcement, judges, lawyers, and regulatory bodies to effectively handle emerging forms of cybercrime;
- Outline standards and adopt novel and innovative methodologies on how to develop safe and reliable e-services and applications resilient to external risks and threats, including necessary mechanisms 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, and support their activities by providing them with the latest technological solutions and standards in the field of security and protection of cyberspace. These centres should become the national points of reference in all matters related to technical issues aimed at the protection of ICTs, and should be designed to cooperate at the bilateral, regional and global levels;
- Encourage cooperation between the public and the private sectors in order to maintain the protection and security of networks and information systems and the protection of national cyberspace, including the application of the security measures, resilience and recovery for local networks and computer systems;
- Contribute to the building of a “national culture of cybersecurity” through proper awareness and education campaigns regarding online risks, particularly those affecting children.
The Arab region is one of the most diversified regions in terms of enabling environment. The following recommendations address the limitations in the Arab region that prevent the establishment of a mature enabling environment in the large majority of its countries:
- Pursue efforts to develop, update and complete an integrated package of cyberlegislation covering all topics related to the use of cyberspace and its applications, and allowing to build confidence and trust in cyberspace. Arab governments should draw special attention to cyberlaws related to personal data protection, consumer protection and e-payment;
- Harmonize the cyberlegislation for promoting the Arab regional knowledge society, facilitating the cross-border use of e-services, and combating cybercrime in the region. Governments should also comply with international conventions related to IPR and cyberlegislation and ratify and join those that fit the national laws;
- Build capacity of legislators, judges and lawyers on cyberlegislation and organize awareness workshops on the various aspects of these laws. Governments should also put in place procedures and mechanisms for enforcing and applying cyberlegislation at the national level;
- Put in place procedures for using properly licensed software and for fighting the utilization of pirated software and promoting development of software locally and regionally;
- Pursue efforts for defining national ICT standards in line with the international ones to guarantee the production of infrastructures and software according to the international standards and to ensure interoperability between different ICT applications and e-government services at national, subregional and regional levels;
- Encourage all national stakeholders to register their portals and websites under the ccTLD and promote the use of Arabic ccTLD;
- Develop the spirit of innovation and entrepreneurship in the ICT sector through the creation of incubators and science and technology parks and through establishing appropriate linkage between research and development institutions, industry and incubators;
- Encourage investment in ICT, establishment of venture capital and funds to promote the creation of start-ups working in the field of ICT.
- ICT applications in Governments
- Mobilize the proper resources through concerted national efforts to implement e-government initiatives, based on reinvented and reengineering government procedures and processes, thus avoiding potential losses incurred from developing multiple systems to solve the same problems;
- Designate a national coordinating authority, with real authority across departmental and ministerial boundaries, to facilitate e-government planning, implementation and monitoring; this will avoid duplication of efforts when different ministries work on e-government projects separately;
- Raise awareness among staff and citizens on the importance of e-government, all as part of a change management scheme to cater for and alleviate resistance to change;
- Improve government services through adjusting to the new concepts of openness and interaction, providing citizen-centric and interactive e-services, urging users to participation using Web 2.0 and social networking tools, and providing multi-channel service delivery, particularly through mobile devices;
- 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
- Encourage the use of such electronic payment means as credit cards and e-banking, which will require the availability of appropriate infrastructure for handling transactions electronically as well as the support of central banks to establish national e-payment gateways and to provide financial and legal coordination between involved banks and companies;
- Improve measurement through reliable statistical surveys as regards e-commerce and ICT use by businesses to interact with their customers (B2C) or peers (B2B);
- Formulate and implement national plans to increase the participation of citizens and to build their trust in using e-business and e-commerce applications, including improved online security and the enactment of e-transactions, e-commerce and e-signature laws;
- Encourage and support studies, data collection and analytical research on the impact of such business applications as enterprise resource planning (ERP) and customer relationship management (CRM).
- ICT applications in education and training
- Integrate ICTs into the national strategy, with special focus on mobile technologies and m-learning, 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;
- Encourage the availability of affordable and relevant devices, content and connectivity, including smart phones, notepads, tablets, and integrated digital textbooks;
- Improve availability and access of quality lifelong and professional e-learning programmes to meet the needs of the constantly changing job market;
- Develop an ecosystem for the safe use of mobile technologies for education by teaching digital citizenship and responsible use to learners;
- Encourage research and development in the area of e-learning and m-learning.
- ICT applications in health care
- Adopt national e-health strategies and focus on integrating ICTs, including mobile technologies, to support the priorities of the health sector. A national e-health strategy will result in an ecosystem for all involved medical and health-care practitioners and institutions, including those in remote areas;
- Measure the impact of e-health, through credible and reproducible evaluation mechanisms and metrics focused on the effect of e-health on health outcomes;
- Ensure affordable, reliable connectivity to health centres, institutions and remote areas.
- ICT applications in employment
- Instal, or improve existing, LMIS as a priority in a region with the highest level of unemployment in the world. PES should be effective, proactive and citizen-friendly;
- Assist PES in the region to develop partnerships with the private sector to (i) deliver training and employment services to the many unemployed (notably youth); (ii) promote beneficiary participation in internships and on-the-job training; and (iii) develop demand-driven programmes tailored to the needs of the private sector. ICT will be particularly helpful in this matter because it is a tool that allows instant circulation of information among those stakeholders provided, however, that the necessary IT platforms have been properly designed and implemented.
- General recommendations
- Countries should encourage the emergence of an applications industry aimed at developing digital Arabic content (DAC), and promote the development of freely available applications targeting governments and other public e-services in such areas as health, education and learning;
- The growing popularity and affordability of smartphones will change the way e-services and learning are delivered to the masses. Governments should provide incentives for developing mobile applications by the private sector, as well as initiate plans to harness the use of smartphones for learning purposes;
- Mobile Web Content is an important driver of mobile demand and as such, policymakers should foster the development of mobile applications and content, through the creation of an enabling innovation ecosystem.
CULTURAL DIVERSITY AND IDENTITY, LINGUISTIC DIVERSITY AND LOCAL CONTENT
- Set up strategies/action plans for the development and enrichment of DAC and its industry at the national and regional levels;
- Accelerate the implementation of e-government and e-services projects in Arabic by allocating additional funds and resources, which should dramatically increase online Arabic content;
- Launch and support governmental and regional initiatives as well as support endeavours taken by the private sector, individuals and civil society for digitization and digital archiving of cultural heritage;
- Facilitate the establishment of a national entrepreneurial and start-up support ecosystem, including incubators, accelerators, mentorship, investments, and venture capital, focusing on DAC applications and emphasizing such recent technology trends as mobile devices, tablet computers and cloud computing;
- Enhance the enabling environment needed for a flourishing private sector by facilitating access to national and regional funds and making these funds available, providing such facilities as the simplification of processes to establish a business, and providing such incentives as tax exemptions for start-ups and SMEs in the field of DAC development;
- Enhance cooperation among Arab countries by launching regional initiatives in the field of DAC, facilitate inter- and intraregional knowledge-sharing and technology transfer in content development and strengthen cooperation with international organizations working in this field;
- Streamline DAC initiatives and programmes launched and/or implemented by different international and regional organizations, including the League of Arab States, ESCWA, ITU and the Arab ICT Organization (AICTO);
- Integrate concepts and the building of high skills for digital content development into higher education IT curricula and encourage the establishment of specialized training centres that provide hands-on education in software development, as well as technologies and such platforms needed for the distribution of content as e-books, smart phone applications and social networks;
- Introduce interdisciplinary post-graduate programmes by combining ICT with linguistic knowledge, to provide the necessary skills for DAC development and strengthen the links between universities, higher education institutions and research centres with the private sector on developing and commercializing tools and applications for Arabic language processing;
- Develop region-wide standards for developing digital content specific to the Arabic language which will enhance quality, interoperability and interregional collaboration;
- Set a framework for measuring DAC and develop a list of digital content indicators to be adopted at the regional and then global levels.
- Call upon governments to amend the laws and legislations that govern the media sector and its professions in such a way to ensure that the press freedoms are well protected and the sector is governed in accordance to the international laws;
- Build the capabilities of unions in the media sector so that they have better stand in opposing the violations against journalists and lobbying for freedom of expression and against censorship and government control over the free Internet resources;
- Empower women to take part and have a more influential role in the media sector through promoting equal professional job and training opportunities;
- Promote periodic field research that analyses the media sector and shares the results of this research with the public in order to raise awareness on the best means and practices needed for the development of a free and professional media system that has a key role in the information society;
- Strengthen access to both traditional and new media systems in remote areas and for marginalized communities, and support this access with educational programmes that complement education services in rural areas.
REGIONAL AND INTERNATIONAL COOPERATION
During the last decade, the Arab region has made tangible progress in the area of ICT. Yet, much needs to be done in light of the pace of technological advancement worldwide in the ICT field. More has to be done also to meet the huge demand for ICT services among the Arab citizens and contribute to the bridging of the digital divide. Following are some suggestions and recommendations for policymakers and other stakeholders in order to advance this important field of regional and international cooperation even further:
- Encourage the Council of ICT Ministers of the Arab League to take more bold steps to advance cooperation between the Arab countries in the ICT4D field; and take steps to strengthen regional cooperation in the field of ICT development through the involvement of such organizations as the League of Arab States and ESCWA;
- Attract the attention of Arab funds to invest in ICT-related projects and initiatives, especially those of regional nature, on the grounds that ICT is a key player in generating growth and providing Arab youth with employment opportunities;
- Develop a coordinated approach to regional issues of common concern among member countries, including the areas of international telecommunication, Internet governance, digital Arabic content, and cybersafety;
- 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 capacity-building and cyberlegislations and create new and advance already existing observatories on the various ICT issues related to policymaking;
- Establish an Arab e-government council composed of Arab heads of e-government programmes in order to provide a platform for cooperation and exchange of know-how and expertise;
- Develop an Arab scheme for cross-border Internet and mobile services with schemes for price levelling, especially pricing of roaming services; and develop a cross-border IXP that services the region and helps lower the cost of Internet traffic;
- Encourage Arab countries to fill, add and update their entries in the WSIS Stock Taking to reflect the progress made in building the information society.
BUILDING THE ICT SECTOR
Based on the analysis provided above, it is worth mentioning that many challenges and problems are hindering the expansion of a competitive ICT economic sector in the Arab region. Although a number of strategies and initiatives have been initiated in a good number of ESCWA member countries, the majority of them remain importers and consumers of ICT products and services rather than technology producers. This section provides selected recommendations and suggestions to boost a robust, stand-alone and competitive ICT sector and to increase its contribution to socioeconomic development:
- Promote the development of the ICT sector as a key enabler for the transition to a knowledge-based economy in the Arab region;
- In partnership with national stakeholders, governments are advised to devise a separate national strategy to develop a competitive economic ICT sector as a core of the national sustainable development master plan and commit necessary resources for implementation;
- Improve the legal and regulatory frameworks required to build a healthy environment for a competitive ICT sector;
- Ensure an adapted enabling environment to promote business in the ICT sector through developing incentives for investment in this industry, including tax reduction and/or protection of national products/services;
- Encourage a more active involvement of the banking sector and other financial and investment institutions in the development of new and innovative sources of funding for start-ups as well as modern financing mechanisms in order to attract investments in ICT activities;
- Improve regional cooperation among research institutions and teams working in the ICT field and encourage networking with the industry and with similar institutions in developed countries;
- Support the development of mature financial institutions and capital markets as an essential precondition for a sustainable, innovative ICT sector.