Arab News

A report which should open Arab eyes
By Khaled Al-Maeena, Editor in Chief
Published on Friday, July 05, 2002

We all know a great deal about surveys and reports. Too often they involve teams of highly-paid experts — who, I have always wondered, decides they are experts? — drawing conclusions from data they may not fully understand and realities they may know very little about. Except of course for what they learn from other surveys, reports and statistics.


A report released in Cairo this week, however, is different. It is entitled “Arab Human Development Report 2002” and according to Rima Hunaidi, director of the UN Development Program in Arab States, “was written by Arabs for Arabs.” Hunaidi, a former deputy prime minister of Jordan, invited the authors of the report “to come and look at the problem and decide why Arab culture and Arab countries are lagging behind.” Among those overseeing the survey was Saudi Arabia’s Thoraya Obaid, the first woman to serve as director of the United Nations Population Fund.


What, you are surely wondering by now, did the report find? There were, as in all reports, some good and some bad conclusions. First, some of the good. Arab countries have made substantial gains in life expectancy and reducing poverty. Commendable as these advances are, the report pointed out clearly that “much still needs to be done to provide people in the region with the political voice, social choices and economic opportunities they need for a better future.” I agree with this in general and feel that the time has come for Arab countries to strengthen both personal and institutional freedoms and to boost broad-based citizens’ participation in every political and economic undertaking.


The report went on to show that while revenues from oil have brought many changes to the region, the Arab world is “richer rather than developed.” Productivity has declined in the last 20 years; research and development are virtually non-existent and what science and technology there is has been imported. In other words, as we have heard before: We are consumers, not producers and for our own good, this must be addressed and at least partially reversed. All of this must surely lead any thinking person to the only possible conclusion about what is wrong: Our educational system and its products. In my opinion, this is the root of the problem and if the problems of the root are correctly diagnosed and treated, the tree will live and prosper for many years. Far too many of our Arab schools and universities turn out parrots. I define “parrots” as those who have memorized a great deal but who can apply the material in no practical way. In other words, the students have learned principles and facts but not how to analyze their applications and uses or their strengths and weaknesses. These parrots cannot possibly evaluate anything since they have not been taught to do anything but memorize. And what can be expected in real terms of a parrot?


Let us be fair. We have been told these things before. I am not the first to articulate them. We have had time to think about these points and to decide whether or not they are true. Have we thought? Have we decided? Or have we chosen to do neither? It is true that we are a traditional patriarchal society but that is by no means necessarily a fault. It does not mean that we are closed to ideas, innovations and ingenuity unless we choose to be. We never like for outsiders to point out what they believe are our faults. In fact, we are quick to condemn them for doing so but the truth is that we ought to consider carefully what they say. The man standing outside a house may see the fire in the basement before those on the second floor even smell the smoke. Sometimes what is said is unpleasant; it is not what we want to hear and not what we want to be true. Still it deserves analysis and if it turns out to be true, some kind of corrective action must be taken. If it turns out to be false and can be shown to be so, then we can indulge in one of our favorite pastimes: Finger-pointing. But is finger-pointing useful? Does it solve any problems?


One item in the report particularly shocked me. “The whole Arab world translates 330 books annually, one-fifth the number that Greece translates.” No one of course would maintain that every book written is worth translating but certainly of all the millions of books published every year, there should be more than 330 worth translating into Arabic! And where are our translators? How many Saudis do you know who can translate Arabic into French or English? Hebrew or Japanese? Rest assured that in all those countries, there are people who have studied Arabic, are fluent in it and who can translate accurately and quickly.


The report went on to say — and this is shameful indeed when we consider the Prophet’s injunction about seeking knowledge even as far away as China — that since the time of the Caliph Mamoun, a thousand years ago, the Arabs have translated the same number of books that Spain translates in a single year. The implications of this are plain and, in the long term, devastating. An immense quantity of information is thus unavailable to the Arab world. Archaic laws are responsible for some of this but another problem is a lack of curiosity — and so we come back to the parrot. It never seeks new information; it simply repeats what it has been told, blissfully unaware of anything else.


These days when we talk about information, we automatically think of the Internet. And what is the state of the Internet in most Arab countries? Well, restrictions on its usage and high charges for the service make it poorly-used. While there are certainly objectionable sites, there are also many which are useful, educational and informative — and they ought to be widely used in any institution which calls itself a school, college or university.


The report makes very sobering reading. Much of what it says is not what we would have chosen. It does recognize and address our problems and we ought to read and ponder what it says. I believe that it should be distributed to all Arabs so that they can get an idea of the state of the entire house and not just the room or corner where they live. It should be compulsory reading for all teachers and should be followed by seminars and conferences for discussing the problems and producing solutions. One of our greatest problems is that we may see the problem and even the solution but still remain unable to take the necessary action. Here we come to another great problem in the Arab world: The lack of accountability. Those in authority should be held accountable for what they do and for what they fail to do. Just as in most jobs, certain duties are part of the job; failure to discharge those duties results in the loss of a job and perhaps even punishment as well. The same should apply to those who are public servants; they hold their jobs in order to serve the public and they should be held accountable both for their failures and their successes.


In conclusion, the report must be looked at with an open mind and efforts must be made to produce solutions. It would indeed be a terrible tragedy if, 20 years from now, a similar report were made and the same unsolved problems were identified. It is up to us to read the report, agree or disagree with its findings and act accordingly.

“Now will the customs officer who confiscated my book at the airport, please return it to me.”