The Arab world's (uneven) progress
A knowledge society is budding. But further reform is needed, for the sake of American security, global prosperity, and Arab dignity.
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Despite these gains, the assessment is far from rosy. Other regions are progressing even faster, leaving the Arab world behind. As a percentage of GDP, Ireland's research and development spending outpaces Jordan's by nearly 300 percent. About 18 percent of Moroccan university students study science or engineering, compared with 40 percent of Malaysians. Internet usage in Egypt jumped, but only slightly compared with Peru and Slovakia. And intraregional trade increased, but it is still half the level of Asia.Skip to next paragraph
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Though spending on education is high, the quality of education does not meet global standards. Students perform poorly on international tests in math and science. Universities inadequately prepare graduates for jobs. Literacy rates are low: 83 percent in Syria, 59 percent in Yemen, and 56 percent in Morocco.
In science and technology, funding for research is insufficient; brain drain is high; scientific institutions are too scarce; and university professors are overtaxed, with little time for research. The links between science and markets are weak, hindering the commercial application of knowledge. Though a high proportion of young women study science and engineering, few women go on to careers in those fields.
Arab economies still rely too much on natural resources, imported technology, and low-skill microenterprises. Foreign direct investment, as a percentage of GDP, is only half that of East Asia. Executives cite the lack of qualified personnel as the largest obstacle to innovation, despite high levels of unemployment in the region. Demographic challenges loom: With 35 percent of the population under the age of 15, Arab economies must create 100 million new jobs by 2020.
Why does this matter? For Arabs, success or failure in building a knowledge society will shape their collective future. It will mean the difference between wealth and poverty, dynamism and stagnation, frustration and hope.
For the United States and the global community, thriving Arab societies bear the promise of less political instability, less anger and despair, and less animosity toward the West. Such societies would export fewer security threats in form of terrorism, economic disruption, and war.
As conflict fills the headlines once again, we must be cognizant that reform in the Middle East not only should happen, it is happening, however fitfully. In order to catch up with the rest of the world though, reform – indigenously led with international support – must continue, for the sake of American security, global prosperity, and the people of the Arab world above all.
Kristin M. Lord is a fellow at the Brookings Institution and author of "A New Millennium of Knowledge? The Arab Human Development Report on Building a Knowledge Society, Five Years On."