14 - 20 October 1999
Issue No. 451
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875|
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The technological challengeBy Mohamed Sid-Ahmed
A question that has for long troubled me is why Japan "made it", so to speak, while Egypt did not, although the two countries were at approximately the same level of development at the time of the Meiji revolution in Japan and the reign of the Khedive Ismail in Egypt. Recently, I put the question to a Japanese friend, Professor Yuzo Itagaki, one of his country's top experts on the Arab world, and his answer was revealing. It was also strangely prophetic in the light of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry awarded this week to Egypt's Dr Ahmed Zewail for is groundbreaking work on lazers at the California Institute of Technology: "If you take an individual Egyptian scholar or professional, he is worth five Japanese. That is clear from the performance of Egyptians who have excelled abroad, outside the Egyptian environment. But when it comes to coordination of efforts and collective efficiency, five Japanese are worth five times as much as the same number of Egyptians working together." In other words, the Japanese taken collectively add up to more than the sum of their parts, while Egyptians operating as a team tend to cancel each other out and end up as less than the sum of their parts.
The vital role of teamwork in the STS, or science and technology system, applied by any given society is underlined in a new book by the noted Arab scholar, Dr Antoine Zahlan. Published in Arabic under the title, The Challenges of Science and Technology: progress without change, the book defines STS as a combination of elements (including teamwork) which work in harmony to transform an input of scientific and technological capabilities into outputs of a different nature; cultural, educational, military, economic, etc. Dr Zahlan stresses the importance of economic output, as only a positive economic yield can ensure the sustainability of the whole system. STS is thus a web of interconnected elements and activities which is doomed to collapse if any one of its ingredients suffers a breakdown. Hence the importance of teamwork for the project as a whole.
According to Dr Zahlan, each society establishes its own recipe for STS, making for vast discrepancies between national STS's. Still, it is always useful to study the STS's of other societies even if the transfer of experience from one society to another is usually very difficult. This could be the main challenge facing the new government's promise to lead Egypt into the technological age by placing technological proficiency at the top of its agenda.
The problem is that a genuine technological 'renaissance', the ambitious project to which Egypt's new government has committed itself, requires more than good faith and rousing slogans. It can only come about through a painstaking process of constantly measuring progress and making choices in the light of criteria that can neither be ignored nor falsified. Here Dr Zahlan cites a number of sobering statistics. In the field of R&D (research and development), for example, the world spent 500 billion dollars in 1995, a sum equivalent to three per cent of the gross national expenditures of all the states in the world. The Arab states account for a mere fraction of this figure, spending only 700 million dollars, or 0.2 per cent of their gross national expenditures; that is, 1/15 of the world average.
One of the most telling criteria by which to measure a given society's concern with scientific and technological issues is the number of research papers put out by its scientists. Here the figures speak for themselves: in the period between 1978 and 1980, the United States produced 32,304 papers in chemistry, 58,743 in physics, 250,941 in human sciences and 11,895 in mathematics. During the same period, Egypt produced 1,024 papers in chemistry, 272 in physics, 1,203 in human sciences and 26 in mathematics. Indeed, the collective output of the entire Arab world during this period represents less than one per cent of research papers produced worldwide on the first subject, chemistry, and less than 0.5 per cent on the other three subjects.
Another criterion is how much a society allocates to education, particularly higher education. In developed societies, the cost of putting one student through university in a field like engineering or medicine is between 20 and 50 thousand dollars. Much of the cost is factored into the price of laboratory equipment, computer technology and books, while approximately 40 per cent goes towards teachers' salaries. In Egypt, the average sum allocated to the higher education of one student is $687 compared to $920 in Morocco, $1,150 in Tunisia and $1,891 in Algeria.
Finally, there is the question of the benefits accruing to a given society from scientific and technological research and development.
According to Dr Zahlan, the return on investments in academic research in the United States is close to 30 per cent as against practically zero in Egypt!
These indicators are chilling reminders of the difficulties in the way of achieving a technological 'renaissance' compatible with the requirements of the age. Such an ambitious enterprise requires nothing less than a complete revision of our thinking in various spheres. In the field of education, for example, it is no longer possible to base the whole system on learning by rote, while in the field of industry, the planning and execution of projects should no longer have to rely on a turnkey formula.
Dr Zahlan acknowledges that the number of university graduates in the Arab world doubled between 1985 and 1995, but notes that the GNP did not increase while per capita income actually decreased, despite the investment of over a thousand billion dollars during that period in fixed capital assets. He concludes from this that the STS's of all the Arab states are extremely primitive. Egypt's new government is thus faced with a Herculean task as it sets out to revitalise our STS, a task rendered still more difficult in an age where globalisation has caused the dimensions of both time and space to shrink ever more rapidly.
Indeed, globalisation has, if anything, deepened the discrepancies between developed and non-developed societies. A striking illustration of just how wide the gap is between countries with advanced STS's in place and those still struggling to join the race is the proposed Teledesic project. The brainchild of Microsoft founder Bill Gates, cellular phone inventor Maclaw and Boeing, the biggest manufacturer of aeroplanes in the world, the project, scheduled for completion in 2002, will launch a system of satellites to reduce the cost of international phone calls to less than 15 cents a minute, far below current rates in the Arab world, which often exceed one dollar a minute for short distances. Once it is in operation, Teledesic promises to revolutionise the telecommunications industry, indeed, the whole field of electronic communications.
An added challenge is the rentier nature of the Arab economic structure, which came to rely heavily on oil revenues during the heyday of the oil price boom. This easy wealth syndrome discouraged Arab societies from furnishing serious efforts to streamline their economies, let alone develop their STS's. The challenge is further compounded by the huge advances made by Israel on both the economic and technological fronts. Its economy is today an integral part of the world's developed economies, while its technological know-how is second to none, with special expertise in such state-of-the-art activities as electronics and the computer industry. And, as long as it can brandish the threat of what it calls Arab terrorism to continue mobilising its potentialities to the full, there is no danger that it will lose the edge it now enjoys over its neighbours.
Many new ideas are being floated on the occasion of the cabinet reshuffle. There is talk of providing a state education system compatible with the new technological requirements, of developing a banking system with the requisite checks and balances that can ensure financial stability and curb corruption, of standing up to environmental degradation and of appointing young aides to each minister to build up a new generation of leaders. These and other proposals indicate the desire for an administrative shakeup to overcome the crippling bureaucracy and stagnation of the whole system. But it will take more than a shakeup to build up a solid system of science and technology capable of rising to the growing challenge and of ensuring a rate of return for Egypt commensurate with those realised by developed societies.