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Arab Experts Cite Region's Development Failures - 2003-10-20

A new U.N. Development Program report has some harsh words of criticism for Arab countries.

The report, compiled by a group of Arab academics and analysts, contains some unusually frank assessments of the failure of Arab countries to meet development challenges, especially in establishing a "knowledge-based society."

The study is highly critical of the declining quality of education in the Arab countries, and scolds the governments for the obstacles they put in the way of the free exchange of information.

In most Arab countries, the report says, the media operate in an environment that sharply restricts freedom of the press and freedom of expression and opinion.

It says illegal harassment, intimidation, and even physical threats to journalists are on the rise, and censorship is widespread. Newspaper and television stations in the Arab countries are sometimes arbitrarily closed down.

The report also details ways in which Arab countries are lagging behind the rest of the world in modern communications. It says there are only 18.3 computers per 1,000 people, compared with a global average of 78.3.

Translation of foreign books into Arabic is far below the figure for other languages. Arabs make up five percent of the world's population, but produce only one percent of the world's books.

According to the U.N. study, student enrollment in scientific disciplines at Arab universities is low in comparison with countries such as South Korea, which have used knowledge to make dramatic strides in development.

The study says the oil boom in the Arab world had a degrading effect on the social standing of scientists and intellectuals, replacing knowledge as social value with money and fortune.

Authorities in some Arab countries, the study says, are using restrictive anti-terror laws as an excuse to crack down on their dissidents and impose stricter limits on civil and political freedoms.

But the U.N. study also cites the West, including the United States, for curtailing its freedoms in the wake of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

The U.N. message to the Arab countries is that unless they remove the restrictions on the free flow of information, they will fall further behind in a world run on communication and knowledge.