Arab Human Development Report (2003): Building a Knowledge Society


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Arab development and the politics of knowledge: What role for ICT?

By Maja van der Velden

Abstract: This paper seeks to interrogate the concept of knowledge inherent in the 2003 Arab Human Development Report: Building a Knowledge Society. It argues that the Report’s “Arab knowledge model” is based on the understanding of knowledge as a commodity, thus disregarding the diversity of knowledge found in the Arab region. An investigation of the proposed role of information and communication technologies in the Report indicates that, because ICT is biased towards the transfer of commodified knowledge and not the cultivation of the diversity of indigenous cultures and traditions, ICT may intensify this neglect to the point of epistemic violence. The suppression of cognitive justice may eventually lead to the failure in building just and prosperous Arab societies.

1. Introduction
The first Arab Human Development Report was published in 2002 under the title Creating Opportunities for Future Generations (UNDP, 2002). The authors of the Report argued that the development challenges of the Arab region are the result of deficits in the area of knowledge, women’s empowerment, and freedom. The 2003 Arab Human Development Report, published under the title Building a Knowledge Society (UNDP, 2003), focuses on the first of these deficits, knowledge.

The Reports have received wide spread media attention around the world because, although the reports were published by the UNDP, its authors are Arab intellectuals and policy analysts, writing primarily for an Arab audience.
The other, equally important audience is no doubt that of ‘western’ governments, such as the United States. The Greater Middle East Initiative, announced by the Bush administration during the G-8 summit in June 2004, promotes a model of liberal democracy that is very similar to the one promoted in the Arab Human Development Reports. This model is not very different from that of the post-war Marshall Plan in Europe, in which a fragmented Europe was shaped into a prosperous place through a combination of open markets and democracies.

By focusing on the Arab world, the authors of the 2003 Report assume both an Arab identity as well as the influence of that identity on the development of the countries of the Middle East and Northern Africa (Lavergne, 2004). The 22 countries of the Arab League , most of the countries of the Middle East and Northern Africa, are the geopolitical representation of this identity.
In Section 2 of this paper the 2003 Arab Human Development Report’s conceptualisation of knowledge will be analysed in a brief socio-linguistic analysis.

Building forth on the findings presented in the previous section, section 3 will explore the extent to which the Report’s concept of contemporary Arab knowledge is constructed from the diverse ways of knowing found in the Arab world or whether it is another conceptualisation of the knowledge-as-commodity discourse found in knowledge-related development policy.

In section 4 the conceptualisation of knowledge will discussed in the context of the role of ICT in the building of the Arab knowledge society.

A discussion of cognitive justice as an alternative approach to the commodification of knowledge will be presented in section 5. This section will briefly discuss the Arab open source movement as a diverse, non-competitive, and self-organising system that may result in higher levels of creativity and problem-solving capacity than conventional systems. Lastly, four levels of intervention will be presented that can make ICT more flexible and responsive to the diversity of knowledge of its users.

Paper (full) presented at "Education, Diversity, and Development", the annual conference of Norwegian Development Research Association (NFU) - Bergen, 31 sept. - 1 Oct. 2004.
Programming for Cognitive Justice
The importance of cognitive justice for the design and development of information systems is that it provides a framework that challenges the assumed neutrality of the technology and the technology designer. With cognitive justice there is no objective ‘expert’ position from which to design and develop technology. Cognitive justice focuses information systems design on the knowers and the environments in which their knowledge is situated. As a result, the design process itself becomes a dialogue of diverse interests and values. The importance of this dialogue is that it takes place during the design of the "technical arrangements that precede the use of the technology in question”.
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