Knowledge and the Arab world

Nader Fergany , Sunday 15 Jul 2012

Arab nations must embrace knowledge creation and end their reliance on oil revenues if they want to compete on the global stage

The days of measuring a nation’s wealth by its natural resources are gone for good. Soon it will also be obsolete to measure progress based on accumulated financial capital, since knowledge – especially the production of knowledge – is becoming the fundamental measure of human progress.

When the UN Development Programme in 1990 proposed the concept of human development as a substitute for the prevalent notion of economic growth in development theory, knowledge became a cornerstone of new thinking. It took the World Bank – a pillar of traditional perceptions of economic growth – nearly one decade to appreciate the idea and act on it.

In 1999, the World Bank issued its annual report on world development under the title ‘Knowledge for Development’, in which the bank recognised that gaps in knowledge, not income, had become the primary criteria to gauge the progress of nations. It added that the gap in the ability to acquire knowledge between developing and advanced countries was greater than the knowledge gap itself.

In a move further away from unfettered economic freedom, the report stressed the need for active support by states for knowledge acquisition.

The Arab nation appears to be on the verge of a historical decline because it is heavily reliant on ephemeral capital while neglecting the acquisition of knowledge that is ever renewable.

A close observer of the region does not see rising powers on the world stage, except Iran and Turkey. The overdependence on oil revenues in some countries has encouraged them to pursue division and fragmentation in the belief that money will protect them. Meanwhile, countries suffering hardship are only focused on pursuing charity from rich Arabs. Thus, a pattern of appropriation of rent has become the norm in the Arab world.

Comparing knowledge and money is not a new concept. It is narrated that Imam Ali said: “Knowledge is better than money; knowledge protects you, but you have to protect money; spending depletes money, but knowledge is increased by spending; what money makes goes when money goes; knowledge is a debt with which a person commands obedience during their lifetime and good mention after their death; knowledge rules and money is ruled; money hoarders perish while they live but scholars live for eternity.”

When it exemplified these sage and perceptive sayings, the Arab region, extending from the Atlantic Ocean in the West to the Arabian Gulf in the East, was the cradle of a magnificent civilisation. At its height, between the 9th and 11th centuries, Arab Islamic civilisation was the world leader in generating knowledge – the criteria for measuring human progress those days. Arabic was the uncontested language of knowledge and all features of civilisation.

The Arab Islamic empire included a rich variety of ethnicities, cultures, and religions. It established prominent universities two centuries before the creation of similar ones in Europe. The first European university opened in 1090 in Salerno, followed by Padua University in 1222.

Thus we see that the flourishing of a civilisation is closely linked to its ability to acquire knowledge and the current decline of the Arab region is linked to a corrosion of its knowledge capabilities, as noted in the second Arab Human Development Report of 2003.

The rule of thumb is that the ability to acquire knowledge defines the value of a nation, whether in its rise or fall. Any assertions linking knowledge acquisition with the importation of tools and machines is nonsense based on ignorance of the basic facts.

Needless to say, the Arab world will not rise again through a pioneering project of human revival except through knowledge acquisition, by intensively investing in human capital and directing it towards enhancing its ability to acquire and generate knowledge.

The end result, according to fundamental human development indicators – especially freedom and knowledge – is that the Arab world has remained stagnant, or even worse, for a long time in comparison to the rest of the world.

This decline might even have accelerated in recent years.

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