Saturday, 17 July 2010

'When ideas have sex' - and why it's halal

TED Global just wrapped up in Oxford with a program to blow your mind. Speakers ranged from Joseph Nye - the progenitor of smart power - to Naif al-Mutawa the creator of The 99. It was a power-packed lineup meant to foster innovation and creativity from a plurality of perspective. The talk that grabbed many headlines was "When ideas have sex," (also reposted below) delivered by Matt Ridley. Ridley is a best-selling author, who believes in rational optimism. The fundamental premise that he offered is that not only is the arc of prosperity trending upwards, but it is also due to the sustained interaction of peoples and ideas. In isolation, the parts amount to much less than a collective whole. What does that mean for the Middle East and the Muslim world? Are Arab countries fostering the necessary level of interaction to help their societies reach the tipping point of progress and development?

Fundamentally, the answer would have to be no. In fact, it is one of the most endemic problems facing many developing countries, and particularly those in the Middle East. Faced with external threats and internal strife, bonded by the vestiges of colonialism, the inhibition of discourse and exchange is a systemic problem. The problem has been highlighted a number of times, never as clearly as the UNDP Human Development Report for the Arab world starting in 2002. At the outset, fostering a necessary level of interaction, requires a knowledgeable population firstly that has the literacy to pursue interactions, be they cultural, academic, economic, social, political or otherwise, and secondly an economy that is managed well enough to allow for trade, and industrial and economic collaboration and learning.

The Arab world specifically has failed to deliver on this promise. A telling graph is that of Egypt and South Korea's economic development. In 1968, Egypt's GDP per capita (in this graph nominal) both in nominal an real terms exceeded that of South Korea. Yet, since that time it has been a story of opposite directions, as the graph demonstrates. Today Egypt's economy is still in its primitive stage, and the population as a whole whole is unprepared to participate in a global knowledge-based economy, given the level of only 71% having basic literacy.

It is easy to dwell on the past and castigate the socialist policies of Gemal Abdelnasser or the inert leadership of Hosni Mubarak. It is harder to contemplate what needs to be done in order for 'ideas to have sex' in the Arab world, and to a large extent, many Muslim developing countries. Yet, a starting point has to be literacy and enrollment in education. This is an issue I will revisit in this blog, but let me leave you with a stark excerpt from the Arab Knowledge Report of 2009:
Many key problems still form a major obstacle to the establishment of the knowledge society [in the Arab world], perhaps the most prominent among them being continuing illiteracy. Around one third of the adult population is unable to read and write, meaning that there are still some 60 million illiterate people in the Arab countries, two-thirds of them women, and almost 9 million children of elementary-school age outside school, most of them in the countries that have not solved the illiteracy problem. It is impossible to realise the ambition of setting up the knowledge economy and society as long as the regional gross enrolment ratio in upper secondary education remains below 55 per cent for males and females alike, when the industrially advanced states and those of Central Asia have achieved enrolment rates around 84 per cent.


  1. Connectivity has a lot to do with openness. I'd argue openess and connectivity come before education rather than the other way around. Perhaps North Korea is a good example where the population is well brain-washed. It matters what the education involves.

    In regards to the lacking connectivity in the Middle East, I was waiting for you to discuss ... See MoreTurkey's international position operating within both the West and Middle East and the strategic difficulties and benefits of this approach. While 'Clash of Civilizations' is an exaggeration of the differences in culture (in my opinion) there is utility in assessing the operations with such a dichotomous approach, because they do differ. Muslim countries appear unable and unwilling to criticize each other and appear united mainly in complaining about Israel. They don't appear to unite in dealing with the situation on the ground.

    The seeming inability of Palestine's Muslim neighbours to deal with the reality of the situation made worse by the inheriting of refugee status of many displaced Palestinians, seemingly using them for political leverage to be critical of Israel and its policies. This uniting in critical opposition increases tension with Israel and provides no solution to never-realized state of Palestine.

  2. Thanks Julian for your comments. I think that most likely openness and education come hand-in-hand. Saudi Arabia for example suffers from 'critical thinking' as a key skills deficit; a likely result of its education system. Perhaps it is a chicken and egg scenario. Keep your thoughts coming.