UN: Arab World Rife with Illiteracy & Lacks Innovation

U.N. report finds one third of Arabs illiterate and only $10 per person spent on scientific research.
The level of education, research and innovation in the Arab world is appalling, a new United Nations report has claimed.
Benjamin Joffe-Walt - The Media Line
Gaza's public landfill. © S.M. / arabimages.com
Gaza's public landfill. © S.M. / arabimages.com

The report, produced as part of a partnership between the United Nations Development Program and the United Arab Emirates-based Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Foundation, found that despite the efforts of scientists and researchers throughout the region, the Arab world makes up only 1.1% of global scientific publishing and the low level of investment into research has led to relatively low levels of innovation throughout the Arab world.

Examining a number of aspects of "the current Arab knowledge landscape," the report expressed "grave concerns over the state of education in the Arab world," with over one third of the adult population unable to read or write and major educational discrepancies between males and females.

The report found that despite 20% of national budgets in the Arab world being spent on education over the past 40 years, the average Arab individual reads very little compared to other societies and around 60 million Arabs are illiterate, two thirds of them women.

With almost nine million primary school-aged children not attending school in the Arab world, it is predicted that only a few select Arab nations will meet the universal primary education goal of the United Nation's Millennium Development Goals.

The report's harshest criticism was reserved for the lack of investment in academic and scientific research, hampering the ability of Arab nations to meet global occupational, technical and higher education standards. The report found that spending on scientific research in the Arab world does not exceed 0.3% of most nations' GDP and is 97% dependent on government funding.

While nations like Finland were found to spend over $1000 per person on scientific research each year, less than $10 per person is spent annually on scientific research in the Arab world. As a result, the number of patents registered with Arab national institutions is minimal and Arab scientists and researchers account for 1.1% of global scientific publishing.

"Things are really bad," Dr Ghassan Khateeb, Vice President of Community Affairs at Birzeit University in the Palestinian Territories, told The Media Line. "There is a direct relation between the lack of investment and the problematic situation we find ourselves in relation to knowledge."

"This is all related to politics," he continued. "The lack of democracy and lack of knowledge reinforce each other: the lack of education contributes to the lack of democracy and the fact that rulers can remain rulers without the will of the people. In turn, the fact that there is no proper democracy in the Arab world means that there is less incentive among rulers to really invest in knowledge of the kinds of things that have a positive impact on the public which would elect them."

"When there are vicious circles you have to work on both education and democratization together," he said.

The report was also critical of the quality of university education, citing a lack of emphasis on modern communication technologies and specialized sciences. "As a result," the UNDP wrote in a statement, "the region lacks a critical mass of highly skilled professionals equipped with the ability to innovate and capable of answering the needs of the marketplace."

The report lauded, however, what it described as "exponential growth in Internet use," particularly in the Gulf. Arabic is the fastest growing of the top 10 languages used online, with almost 60 million Arabic speakers using the Internet, and the report describes Arab countries' advancements in technological performance last year as "surpassing any other region of the world. The report warns, though, that outside the Gulf, rates of Internet use in the Arab world remain below the global average of 21% of the population.

Muna Al-Bahar, a sociologist and Senior Executive Advisor at the Emirates Foundation's Social Program, said a variety of factors had contributed to Gulf countries' relative success when compared to the rest of the Arab world.

"It's true, there is a lack of investment and research, but the Gulf has seen success in part due to the stability of the countries, in part due to the vision of the governments and in part due to oil revenue and the availability of resources," she told The Media Line. "People were brought in from all over the world to enrich the productivity of the country and many Gulf citizens are educated in the West, so the research standards are quite high in comparison to other countries in the Arab world."

But Dr. Rima Sabban, a sociologist at the UAE's Zayyed University, argued that Gulf countries' claims of growth in research and development were somewhat artificial.

"We all know that the Arab world is lagging behind in education and knowledge, so it's good that the UNDP continues to highlight these issues," she told The Media Line. "But in areas like the Gulf region, where we are seeing a rising interest in spending on research, unfortunately what is actually happening is that much of this money is going to foreigners. So what they are doing is spending money not on their indigenous population but on foreigners doing research in the region just to boost the numbers. We need to be much more critical of where this money is going and which populations' research we are actually developing."

Nabil Dajani, Chairperson of the Department of Social and Behavior Sciences at the American University of Beirut, agreed with Dr Sabban's criticisms and rejected the report's outlook, arguing it offered an imperialist analysis.

"I don't agree at all, neither with their diagnosis of the problem nor with their proposed solutions," he told The Media Line. "The report looks at development from a point of view that is alien to this part of the world, using the old imperialist school of thinking in which development is only defined in economic or materialistic terms."

"There are many examples," he said, "but just to give one, they argue it's good for Westerners to be migrating to the Arab world while Arabs migrate to the West to gain skills and send back money. This is a ridiculous way of looking at things. You can't look at development only in terms of material resources."

First seen in The Media Line