Why increasing digital Arabic content is key for development
Boosting online Arabic content can help diversify the economy and improve opportunities in the Middle East and North Africa.
According to various estimates, less than 1% of total global online content is in Arabic and less than 0.2% of global digital content is hosted in the Middle East and North Africa, although native Arabic speakers represent about 4.5% of the world population.
That is both puzzling and alarming.
About a third of the region’s population is under 15 – presumably too busy with school and teenage pursuits to contribute to Wikipedia pages in Arabic. On the other hand, the region’s large contingent of 15- to 24-year olds, avid social media users, should be boosting overall digital Arabic content. In my mind, the low figures reflect lingering business and household connectivity issues but also raise questions of equity and opportunity that matter tremendously for the development of the region.
Internet access is constrained by the high cost of connectivity in a region marked by weak competition in telecom markets, as described by my World Bank colleagues in a new report on broadband networks in the Middle East and North Africa.
With the exception of Gulf countries, where internet access is available to large segments of the population, in many countries of the Arab world fewer than a quarter of households have access to high-speed internet. High retail prices, low-speed connections and online censorship dissuade people from creating and hosting new content.
Policy reforms combined with investments in infrastructure could change that. The same report suggests that broadband can be deployed affordably, for example by sharing the region’s underused fibre optic networks owned by energy, electricity and transport utilities, or coupling internet deployment with housing construction in dynamic urban markets.
Why does this matter for development? The ability to download and upload content quickly is central to creativity, teamwork and information-sharing, the hallmarks of a vibrant 21st-century knowledge economy. Try downloading a 20MB report, let alone backing-up your files in the cloud, with a dial-up modem. The availability of high-speed internet is also a determining factor in foreign direct investment. Targeted investments and policy reforms that make broadband access more affordable and widespread could boost a whole array of digital Arabic content industries, from online advertising to media, games, education and entertainment. It would also help diversify the economy of an oil-dependent region and provide hope and jobs for a tech-savvy generation of around 100 million young people between the ages of 15 and 24 growing up in an era of enhanced connectivity.
But the task does not stop at supplying affordable broadband technology. Arguably, vernacular is one of the reasons that mobile phones have spread so fast: the main applications (voice and text messages) are offered in the language that is most relevant to their users. Over 60% of Arabic speakers prefer browsing internet content in Arabic according to Arab Media Outlook 2009-2013. More than half of them do not speak English. For the extreme poor and the bottom 40% of the population that the World Bank seeks to help, access to online knowledge and services in a native language is likely to matter even more.
The prospects for stronger digital Arabic content are exciting. Consider these last few numbers: only a quarter of women in the Arab world participate in the formal workforce. New forms of work such as online contracting and microwork could offer a chance to bypass physical barriers or social restrictions and empower women.
Mobile phone subscriptions are two to three times more ubiquitous than internet connections in places like Egypt and Morocco. Mobile applications are expected to generate a growing stream of local language content.
There are four times more Facebook subscribers under the age of 30 in the Arab world than there are registered university students. Think about the educational potential that could be unlocked by creating and hosting high-quality, locally accessible knowledge, such as Arabic online university courses. (By the way, how do you say MOOC in Arabic?)
Chris Vein is the chief innovation officer for global information and communications technology development at the World Bank
Courtesy of Guardian News & Media Ltd
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