New Arab initiatives for a knowledge-based economy

A plan to boost the role of higher education, research and development activities in cultivating sustainable, innovative and knowledge-based societies throughout the Arab world has been launched.

The initiative includes the establishment of an Arab Higher Council for Scientific Research, Technological Development and Innovation. The council will develop Arab research and development indicators, an Arab network of experts in the Arab diaspora, and find funding to finance higher education and scientific research.

The plans were announced at the first Arab Forum for Scientific Research and Sustainable Development, organised by the Arab League Educational, Cultural and Scientific Organization, known as ALECSO in cooperation with the Belgium-based Intelligence in Science or ISC. The forum took place in Tunis, Tunisia late in December.

"Although scientific and technological research and training are on the rise throughout the Arab world, they do not necessarily translate into solutions for social, economic and environmental dilemmas facing the region," a forum paper stated.

"This gap between the generation of scientific and technological knowledge and its application is attributed to a lack of strong regional and interdisciplinary collaboration between public, private and research sectors."

To overcome these challenges, the new initiatives aim at identifying and implementing regional mechanisms and strategies to enhance the contribution of scientific research in promoting Arab development policy and growth. Another goal is to enhance cooperation in five core regional development priorities facing the Arab world, including health, renewable energy, climate change, food security and water.

The project also includes programmes for initiation of Arabic dialogue on issues of international conventions related to research and development and innovation; manufacturing and marketing of tools and educational supplies by Arab institutions as well as sharing successful Arab experiences.

In addition, programmes for promoting the use of Arabic language in education, research and processing along with schemes to boost scientific publishing and dissemination will be developed.

To further the “arabisation of university education”, an institution called the World Mihrab for the Arabic Language was approved by the forum. Located in Tunisia with branches in Arab states, the new institute will focus on the arabisation of higher education by dissemination and teaching Arabic as a foreign language, and the arabisation of academic research.

Arabisation of higher education will be encouraged through promoting the use of Arabic as a medium of instruction and expression in higher education. This includes teaching using Arabic language with books and teaching materials written in Arabic.

Arabisation of research will be achieved by encouraging research on arabisation and using Arabic language as a medium for scientific conferences, publishing research and disseminating knowledge through the production of journals and bulletins written in Arabic.

"I think these initiatives are significant if pursued with determination and consistency,” said Aden Aw-Hassan, director of social, economics and policy research programme at the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas in Syria. “ALECSO should continue pushing and get effective partners."

Alexandra Singer, a policy analyst at Intelligence in Science in Belgium which assisted in organising the conference, said "Research and development is traditionally regarded as an important generator of knowledge and can be used to devise new applications and products.

"In developing regions, such as South and Southeast Asia, governments have increasingly tended to invest in R&D initiatives to foster high growth rates and promote national capacity building initiatives. Thus, scientific and technological knowledge is an essential element in the process of socio-economic transformation and sustainable economic growth for developing countries."

Singer said for R&D to play a substantial role in driving sustainable development, a series of institutional prerequisites must be in place. These include dynamic information and research infrastructures, an educated and skilled population as well as an efficient innovation system.