|Africa and the Middle East 2007
|ICT – gateway to the future
|Abdul Razak Jawahery
|Vice Chairman and Managing Director
Mr Abdul Razak Jawahery is an Executive Manager of Kuwait Finance House – Bahrain, KFH, representing KFH as the Vice Chairman and Managing Director of Mena Telecom, a wholly-owned subsidiary of KFH. Mr Jawahery is also a member of the Board of Directors at Durrat Al-Bahrain, MEENA 7 and Alkindi Pharmaceutical (Jordan), and is the Chairman of Miracle Graphics. He holds an MBA from the United Kingdom in International Business and is an experienced, multi-lingual corporate and financial professional.
The Africa and Middle East region, like most of the developing world, desperately needs to incorporate ICTs in the lives of its citizens in order to survive and thrive in the information society. Regional leaders see what ICTs have done throughout the world to boost economies in less developed countries and are anxious to deploy these tools to improve the lot of their own citizens. WiMAX is one of the technologies that will accelerate the spread of ICTs in the region.
ICT is increasingly a central part of the economic infrastructure for all countries around the world and a pre-requisite for modern human development. The Middle East and African countries need to keep up or the consequences of being left behind could be damaging to both their economic and social development. We live in an information age which economies are increasingly knowledge based, the implications of which are far reaching. For example, good ICT infrastructure is now an essential requirement for facilitating international trade and finance. Gradually, countries will find it impossible to compete globally if they do not have world-class ICT infrastructure in place. Conversely, countries can improve their competitive position and leverage factors such as low cost labour if they have good ICT capabilities. For example, India has been able to position itself as a centre for low cost call centres, leveraging its cheap labour cost advantages by using ICT. This has created more jobs in India and also significant inward investment. Countries in the Middle East and Africa should be looking at and acting on opportunities that will do the same in this region. ICT can positively impact regional, human and industrial development in the Middle East and Africa. As shown by the call centres in India, ICT can create jobs and economic prosperity that have positive, long-term benefits on the country. It has the capability to connect a country and its people to the rest of world, growing its economy in the global marketplace. ICT can be deployed as a tool for learning and education, to improve the lives of people on various levels. It provides an avenue for sharing information and makes available educational opportunities for people in remote areas. ICT can help regions, countries and individuals reach their full potential through learning and education. In Ghana, they have developed the Global Teenager Project, which focuses on two-way communication and learning between students in different countries. The objective is to use ICT capabilities to develop educational content, provide a platform for global research and raise ICT awareness and literacy in Ghanaian schools. ICT has also proven to be especially advantageous in areas such as healthcare. It allows healthcare consultants in developed economies to participate remotely in medical operations in developing and transitioning economies. In Africa, using ICT they have introduced a Malaria Early Warning System; based on rainfall, they can predict and prepare for malaria epidemics. ICT has demonstrated to be a particularly empowering tool for women, especially those in remote areas. They have increased access to medical, learning and other human development opportunities through ICT channels. Uganda has been particularly active in this area with its Rural Women in Africa: Ideas for Earning Money CD-ROM project and the Mana FM educational programme. The flexibility of ICT, in terms of time and place, gives greater entrepreneurial opportunities for women. Women whose other commitments or cultural beliefs do not allow them to leave the home or the community can do much at home. In rural or remote parts of India appropriate, localized ICT networks have helped to link resource-poor women with buyers and sellers for their goods and provide them with a vital source of income. There are significant challenges to putting ICT development on a sustainable path in the Middle East and Africa. Creating and establishing a good ICT infrastructure requires significant investment. Naturally, investors need to believe they can secure a reasonable return on their investment. Generating the conditions under which investors will feel confident that they are not taking undesirable risks is a critical success factor. Both the public and private sector have a role to play in ensuring an appropriate investment environment. ICT is a skilled area and the availability of well-educated and trained workers is critical to the success of any programme. Governments in the region must look at the long-term benefits and take the initiative to invest in education and training now. The affordability of personal computers, PCs, and applications is an issue in the region; if people cannot afford to buy technology they cannot use it or benefit from it. Today, basic applications such as MS Word and MS Excel are too expensive for most people in the region. Equally, lack of electrical power in the more remote parts of Africa is still an enormous problem. Governments and investors need to develop practical energy alternatives – perhaps a low-cost wind-up PC – similar to the radios developed some years ago. There are many external factors influencing the impact of ICT on economic and social development. Trade, finance, education and training, automation and business process efficiency, communication, healthcare and entertainment all have a part to play in ICT development. The future of ICT in the Middle East and Africa will depend on the investment and the availability of skilled resources in the region. Governments must create the conditions to make inward investment attractive; they must be dynamic and responsive to change. The development of a comprehensive skills strategy will ensure suitable skilled resources are available when required. Now is the time to develop national strategies to ensure that the future of ICT is sustainable. For example, Jordan modified its investment regulations and the regulations involving the ICT industry to appeal to international investors, and endowed these investments with special tax incentive programmes and ownership rights. Regionally, there is an economic community of interest and countries in the region should be working together on ICT development for the greater good of the region as a whole. The Middle East and Africa should be taking advantage of any assistance, including research programmes, that is available from international bodies such as the International Telecommunications Union, ITU, the European Union, EU, the United Nations, UN, and other relevant agencies. Representatives from the region need to play an active role in international developments programmes to ensure the needs of the Middle East and Africa are taken into account. Regionally there have been some interesting initiatives in recent times. Jordan has made significant progress and is positioning itself at the forefront of ICT in the region. Qatarís ICT policy and regulatory body, ictQATAR, was established in 2004 as well as other initiatives, including an ICT Innovation and Development Fund. Dubai provides a cost-effective one-stop shop for ICT companies, targeting emerging markets through its Dubai Internet City. In the immediate future, the impact of nationwide fourth generation, 4G, wireless access projects in countries such as Bahrain are likely to stimulate the proliferation of WiMAX technology in the region. This may well have a big impact, within the next year or so, on ICT development in the region. It will not only affect the way businesses operate but also make a difference to individual lives and entire communities. WiMAX will allow people access to the Internet without physically connecting to a socket in the wall. WiMAX is becoming the de facto international standard for 4G wireless networking and mobility. It provides a real alternative to fixed-line networks, while offering unlimited facilities and infrastructure for fixed and nomadic wireless connectivity for voice and data services over a longer range than WiFi. WiMAX will affect the way people in the Middle East and Africa interact with technology; remote areas will have easy and affordable access to ICT networks. For ICT to advance from its infancy in the Middle East and Africa and reach its full potential, the key influencers and decision makers in the region have to transform barriers into opportunities. It will not be enough to do more of the same if we are to ensure the sustainability of ICT in the region. Governments and private organizations have to think outside the box. To facilitate the successful implementation of ICT in the Middle East and Africa, more regional forums – such as the Jordan ICT Forum last year – need to be organised to share information, expertise and experience throughout the region. By developing strategic and dynamic ICT initiatives, the Middle East and African countries can gain myriad opportunities. We need regional and international support, both public and private, to fulfil the real potential of ICT in the region. The impact ICT can make on the economic and social development of the region can only be positive; it is far too important to the future of the region to overlook. ICT can help reform governmental, educational and healthcare services and directly accelerate the social and economic development of the Middle East and Africa, changing its economies and societies forever.