A New Millennium of Knowledge? The Arab Human Development Report on Building a Knowledge Society, Five Years On

Kristin M. Lord


Building dynamic, innovative, and flexible economies that add value through the creative application of human initiative is now a central challenge of all societies. The challenge is particularly acute in the Arab world. As a group, these 22 countries lag other regions—and their own potential—in educational achievement, scientific advances, and economic growth. By all accounts, this situation is troubling. Arab countries, as diverse as they are, share a history of remarkable intellectual and scientific achievement. Their societies are brimming with young people who typically adapt easily and willingly to technological change. Yet, under-employment is high and human potential is under-tapped.

In 2003, the United Nations Development Programme published a widely read and controversial study that examined the region’s progress in developing the knowledge, skills, and institutions rewarded in today’s global economy. The study, entitled the Arab Human Development Report 2003: Building a Knowledge Society, presented a comprehensive explanation for the “knowledge deficit” and equally comprehensive prescriptions for reform. These reforms, the report emphasized, must be driven by Arabs. But openness and deeper engagement with the world is essential.

This study assesses what has happened in the five years since the 2003 report was published, what successes towards building a knowledge society have been achieved, what work remains, and what has failed. It analyzes what has occurred in the last five years in terms of governance, education, science and technology, knowledge-based industry, and building a knowledge culture. Drawing on the insights of a distinguished group of experts, it then recommends tangible steps toward achieving the vision of a knowledge society in the coming five years.

Our conclusion is that Arab countries, as a group, have made significant progress in most of these areas, especially compared with their own history. Yet, other regions have advanced even faster and tremendous challenges— such as creating 100 million new jobs for the region’s mushrooming youth population—loom ahead. The Arab world must reinvigorate its efforts or be left behind. Many new initiatives are underway, but it is too soon to assess their impact. Success, ultimately, will be judged by what is achieved, not by what is invested.

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Arab societies have achieved success in some areas. Access to education improved markedly in the past several years. An Arab country surpassed the global average in 8th grade science scores for the first time; others show new commitment to assessment and change. New universities with global standards are enrolling students. Governments are investing more in research and development. Economic growth is robust across much of the region and high technology exports are rising. More oil wealth now stays in the region, invested in education, research, innovation, and productive industry. New philanthropy supports these ends.

Concerns remain. In countries across the Arab region, growing censorship threatens the development of a knowledge society. The quality of education lags and educational institutions inadequately prepare young people for jobs. Arab science and technology institutions are underfunded and still too weak. Knowledge-based industries suffer from an insufficient information and communication infrastructure, a high cost of doing business, and rigid labor markets. Intraregional trade trails other world regions. Arab societies still undervalue creativity and innovation. High levels of illiteracy endure.

To bridge the divide between the world’s most developed knowledge societies and aspiring knowledge societies, mere progress is insufficient. As the 2003 Arab Human Development Report emphasized, a path of exponential growth is necessary in order to create a knowledge society—and widely enjoyed human development— in the Arab world. This future is possible. Arab societies contain vast human potential. They are vigorous with youth and vessels of a proud heritage of knowledge. Arabs can chart a new course and achieve a new Millennium of Knowledge. But this future will not come easily. Arabs must build this future with their own commitment and talents, supportive of each other, and engaged with the world.