|Issue:||Africa and the Middle East 2007|
|Topic:||ICT and the aspirations of the Middle East and Africa|
|Author:||Sabih Taher Masri|
|Title:||Chairman of the Board|
Sabih Taher Masri is the Chairman of the Board of the Paltel Group. Mr Masri founded and currently manages investment companies, financial institutions and commercial conglomerates in Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Palestine and throughout the Middle East. Mr Masriís diverse business interests span a variety of economic sectors, including agriculture, the hotel industry and tourism, trade, manufacturing, general contracting and construction. His private sector affiliations include the Arab Supply and Trading Corporation, ASTRA, Zara Investment Holding, Cairo Amman Bank and the RUM Agricultural Company. Mr Masri was the founder, and served as, Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Palestine Securities Exchange in Nablus. He is also the Vice Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Arab Bank PLC.
ICTs are among the most powerful tools countries have to better their economies and improve the standard of living of their people, but ICT also emphasises existing inequalities and creates new disparities. Access to mobile phones increases the profitability of small businesses throughout the region; in Palestine alone, they contribute 12 per cent to the GDP. ICT is also helping achieve the United Nationís Millennium Development Goals by making virtual learning and online training possible and facilitating social and government services.
It is hard to deny Information and Communication Technologyís, ICTs, transformative power in todayís global society. What we now take for granted – information accessible on the worldwide web, eBanking, eLearning, shopping on the Internet, or making business deals over mobile phones – was inconceivable only a few years ago. ICT is widely believed to have an enormous potential to promote economic growth, job creation and entrepreneurship, social inclusion, to improve education through information availability and connectivity, and help spread freedom of expression and even democracy. Aside from its capacity to unite and include, ICT can paradoxically also be very divisive and exclusive. When introduced in an unequal social and economic environment and without implementing appropriate measures and policies, it can further emphasise existing inequalities and lead to creating new economic, geographic and social enclaves of disparity. The risk is that the information-poor will become poorer, while the information-rich will not be willing to give up any of the knowledge and skills they have gained. Poverty is not only measured in dollars and cents, it is also dependent on oneís social capital and ability to connect with other people. It is empowerment through ICT that gives the poor of our world the ëcapacity to aspireí. With respect to human development, we need to recognise that ICT – as indeed all innovative technology – does not operate in a vacuum but rather complements political and socio-economic process. Although one cannot deny its possible negative side effects if wrongly applied, ICT is more likely to produce good than bad if applied strategically. ICT provides an extraordinary opportunity for poor countries and regions to catch up with both the information revolution and speed up the process of human and economic development. The equations of power, the balance between the informed and the misinformed, which has not changed since the advent of colonialism, finally has a chance to be shaken up. Both the Middle East and Africa have the opportunity to be transformed into truly knowledge-based societies, empowered through information, communication, education and professional skills. The Middle East and, especially, Africa still have a long way to go before achieving the network readiness – the level of preparation to participate fully in the development of ICT and enjoy its benefits – of most of the northern nations. Still, tremendous changes have occurred in the past ten years. According to the World Economic Forumís 2007 Global Information Technology Report, which measures both the environment for ICT offered by a country and the usage of ICT among its stakeholders, only three Arab states and one African state were included in the top 50 most innovative countries. There were 122 nations taking part in the survey. Sadly, they tended to figure in the lower ranks of the table, with UAE in 29th place, Qatar 36th, South Africa 47th and Bahrain 50th, outpaced by Europe and South Asia. Most African states were judged to be among the least technologically advanced. Indeed, studies by the International Telecommunications Union, ITU, have revealed that Europeís mobile penetration rate is eight times that of Africa. Similarly, less than one out of ten people in Africa subscribe to a mobile service. The continent in itself is far from being ëequalí in terms of the distribution of technology. In Africa, the urban regions monopolise most telephone lines, electricity supplies, human resources and skills. In some cases, it is the capital city that concentrates over 60 per cent of a countryís phone lines. Additionally, there is a massive brain drain from rural areas towards cities. This hinders ICT development in the most remote areas, further accentuating their isolation and exclusion. Additionally, reliable data is only sparsely available in Africa, which complicates ICT impact assessment and the formulation and planning of any strategy to reverse detrimental trends. The Middle East, in turn, has the second lowest rates of Internet and broadband penetration in the world. This is mainly due to the inadequate, legacy, fixed-line infrastructure in many countries in the region, fairly low-income levels – aside from the six Gulf Cooperation Council, GCC, countries – and the lack of affordable computers in these markets. On the other hand, we cannot ignore the success stories in both regions. The telecommunication sector, especially the mobile phone industry, has grown in leaps and bounds in both regions and has achieved very high penetration rates in some markets. The mobile industry stands out as the fastest-growing employer in Africaís most populated country – Nigeria. A similar situation applies in Palestine, a state the development of which is limited by the occupation and to a large extent dependence on foreign aid. Our group, which owns telecommunications companies, contributes 12 per cent to Palestineís GDP and indirectly provides employment for more than 30,000 people involved in fixed line, GSM and data services – thus helping the development of small businesses. The economic benefit of ICT is again confirmed in South Africa. Over 60 per cent of small enterprises confirmed in an ITU survey that their profits had increased thanks to the use of mobile phones, while over two-thirds of Tanzanian respondents stated that ICT has helped them save time and travel costs and improved their relationships with family and friends. Indeed, the Internet is in some cases, especially in a war-torn Middle East or parts of Africa, the only way refugees can communicate with their families, helping them deal with the extremely difficult experience of exile. This further demonstrates the power and the capacity of communication to facilitate social healing. Additionally, ICT can contribute to the achievement of the United Nationís Millennium Development Goals through virtual learning, online training or the production of lifeline radios designed to empower youth. It is also used for awareness-raising campaigns on environmental issues – just to give another example, or improving the health of people living in remote areas by keeping them connected with urban clinics and medical centres. Nevertheless, in order to promote both economic and social development through ICT, a transparent business climate and currency stability are needed. Unfortunately, this is rarely the case in less developed countries. Many states in Africa and the Middle East are characterised by inflation and complex, time-consuming business procedures. In order to succeed and most importantly contribute to society, ICT companies need the support of their governments through policies that encourage the establishment of public-private partnerships. Favourable conditions need to be created in order to establish research and development centres that facilitate a multidisciplinary approach to technology and an interaction between all stakeholders: academics, scientists, public institutions, civil society and the business community. It is my belief that ICT is a very powerful tool but can only work when used as part of a holistic approach to development, one grounded in the idea of social and economic inclusion. Through its very nature and the message of information and communication it encompasses, ICT has the possibility to reach out and should be specifically used towards the achievement of the goal of social and economic inclusion.