I remember once at a conference in Tunisia being asked by a young member of parliament why it made sense to invest in a fiber optic cable to a remote village in Djerba instead of improving more basic services such as electricity grids or water irrigation. The interesting thing is that the two are not mutually exclusive, as most of the times conventional infrastructure projects also have the capacity to deliver fiber at a small incremental cost. But at the time I answered that investing in internet infrastructure should not only be seen as an economic activity but also as an extension of the values of the “Arab Spring”.
Across the Arab world, the Internet has played a key role in advancing social inclusion, accountability, human rights, and civic engagement. During the Arab Spring the powerful role played by social media platforms has positioned the Internet as an enabler of democracy and social transformation. However, three years down the line, the youth of the region are in the midst of a turbulent period of political transition with challenging economic repercussions. Today, one out of every four young people in the Arab world is unemployed and for every adult out of work there are four young people who don’t have jobs. In this sobering environment, it has become clear to young people in the Arab world that the democracies they seek can fully succeed only if, in addition to freedom of expression, countries can also sustain solid economic growth that translates into job opportunities for the youth. The question now is whether the internet, which was so vital during the Arab Spring, has an equally important role to play in meeting these new aspirations.
With about 30 percent of the Arab world’s population between the ages of 15 and 24, there is a generation of around 100 million young people that are growing up in an era of enhanced global connectivity and rapidly developing Information and Communication Technologies. This puts the Arab world in a favourable position - having a large online and tech-savvy generation yearning to benefit from a global knowledge revolution.
By the year 2020 there will be 50 billion devices connected to the internet which makes data and online content the oil of the future. The key questions are: How well is the Arab world prepared and how well is it connected? Today less than 20 percent of the Arab world has access to broadband internet. So improving the performance of and accessibility to high-speed internet should be a key policy priority for governments. Without affordable and high quality internet access, 100 million young people will be sidelined from this global phenomenon and excluded from a wealth of business and knowledge sharing opportunities. What spring then?
Despite a good amount of work done on national broadband strategies throughout the Arab world, the significance of the internet as a social and economic development platform is still an alien concept to most parts of government. Maybe a few figures can help put things in context.
Every day in the Arab world there are:
- 100 million google searches. That is 70,000 days’ worth of knowledge creation and sharing, if each google search takes just under a minute.
- 36,000 new Facebook users register online. That’s more than the number of people born in the region per day.
- A staggering 60 days’ worth of Youtube videos is uploaded. That’s around the same amount of content aired by the region’s leading TV stations
- 10,832,000 tweets per day. That’s more than triple the content of all Arabic newspapers printed every day
- 37,095,955 Facebook users below the age of 30. That’s more than 4 times the total number of students enrolled in universities across the Arab world
Today, by leveraging the power of digital connectivity governments in the MENA region have a historic opportunity to better advance various development agendas for their increasingly youthful societies. Viewing development in the region from the connectivity lens can be seen as a natural policy response to the challenges of transition.
Why? Well, improved connectivity is a requirement for young people to be able to innovate at a local level. That is the foundation of any forward looking economy. So access to things like distance learning, online courses, language learning websites, educational blogs, instructional videos, social media, news, e-commerce, gaming, entertainment, social networking and crowd-sourcing platforms can all help stimulate local innovation and provide the youth of the region with opportunities to take charge of their challenges and seek their own solutions.
For example, leading educational institutions publish whole courses online. With high-speed internet, a young engineer developing an irrigation prototype in rural Egypt can access thousands of hours’ worth of online learning from MIT to complement his or her education. Incubators and smart cities across the region have become like oases for high-speed internet access providing opportunities for thousands of entrepreneurs to nourish their business concepts into actionable models. Crowdfunding websites such as “Zoomal”, “Aflamnah” and “Eureeca” have helped raise millions of dollars in funding for budding startups across the Arab world. Recently, a 25 year-old college graduate, Hind Hobeika, made headlines in the wearable technology market after she designed a small monitor that can be fitted into any pair of goggles to track swimmers’ performance. Hind, based in Beirut, was able to raise US$ 75,000 on a US based crowd-funding website. She has now been approached by a number of local venture capital firms and angel investors in what could very well become a multimillion dollar business.
The Arab world needs to speak the language of the future. Along with enhancing citizen engagement in the region and promoting social inclusion, social networking tools have the potential to create new opportunities for employment, entrepreneurial activities, and social development. Access to high-speed internet can help enhance the opportunities for startups and entrepreneurs to reach out to wider markets, and local businesses to grow and become competitive on a global scale. It can play a major role in modernizing key developmental sectors such as education, healthcare and public services by creating an enabling environment for innovative ideas and new business models to thrive.
Going back to the question about whether broadband should be a priority; it becomes clear that broadband connectivity is a strategic asset for the future of the region and its youth. Increased access to high-speed internet can help position the Arab world as a lead contributor of original digital content carving out its own unique place in the future digital economy. In as much as the internet empowered young people during the Arab Spring, it continues to have an important role to play today.