The United Nations has released the second in a series of reports on human development in Arab countries. Like the first report issued in July 2002, the new study was written by a group of Arab academics. The U-N reports cover twenty-two Arab countries with a combined population of two-hundred-eighty million. And both reports make it clear that Arab countries have many challenges to overcome. They include the need to secure equality for women and political freedom for all citizens, to fight corruption, and to promote educational opportunities and intellectual contacts with the rest of the world.
The new U-N report focuses on “Building a Knowledge Society.” The study shows that educational systems in Arab countries remain inadequate. Many children still do not have access to basic education. High rates of illiteracy among women persist in many Arab countries. Enrollment in higher education has decreased and so has public spending on education. And the quality of instruction has gone down.
The printed word is a vital means of extending knowledge. But few books are translated into Arabic from other languages. High illiteracy rates also explain why the overall number of books published in Arab countries barely exceeds one-percent of world production, although Arabs constitute five-percent of the world’s population.
The mass media are the most important means today for spreading knowledge and information. Yet as the U-N report points out, Arabs’ access to newspapers, radio, and television is below the world average. In most Arab countries, the government severely restricts freedom of the press. Journalists face intimidation and physical threats. Censorship is commonplace and newspapers and television channels are sometimes arbitrarily shut down.
Arab countries are also lagging behind in basic information technologies. The number of telephone lines in Arab countries is barely one-fifth of that in developed countries. Access to digital media is among the lowest in the world. There are only eighteen computers per one-thousand people in the region, compared to the global average of seventy-eight per one-thousand. Less than two percent of the population has Internet access.
The U-N report makes it clear that Arab countries must remove the restrictions on the free flow of information, so that knowledge in all its forms can be pursued. Otherwise, the economic, social, and political gap between the Arab countries and the rest of the world will continue to widen.