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  • Islamic countries need broader vision for development

Islamic nations must reshape Vision 1441 and promote innovation to create knowledge economies, say Syeda Tanveer Kausar Naim and Ali Shah.

The 14th General Assembly of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference's (OIC's) Standing Committee on Scientific and Technological Cooperation (COMSTECH), held in Islamabad, Pakistan, in January, lacked any discussion of the need to revisit the two documents steering the development of member states.

The Kuala Lumpur Declaration on Science and Technology for Socio-Economic Well-Being of the Ummah — also known as Vision 1441 — and the Ten-Year Programme of Action to Meet the Challenges Facing the Muslim Ummah in the 21st Century are both too narrow in scope.

Vision 1441 is dedicated to benefiting society in OIC member states by developing their science and technology (S&T) capabilities. But an exclusive focus on S&T capabilities alone will not be enough to achieve this.

Unless it is revised, Vision 1441 is unlikely to guide countries in the region to the development needed to ward off future socio-political unrest similar to the recent spate of protests across the Middle East.

Innovation culture

Socioeconomic development requires the promotion of an innovation culture in OIC countries.

In recent years, research has stressed the importance of knowledge to drive innovation in developing countries. Building this knowledge requires constant, collaborative, interactive and varied learning by individuals and organisations. In turn, learning requires well-aligned institutions and political, economic and social policies.

This means that to promote a culture of innovation, countries need to have in place a formal mode of learning about science, technology and innovation (STI) in order to develop human resources and build research capability.

But they also need experience-based doing, using and interactive (DUI) forms of learning. These take place largely through private enterprises and demand-driven market networks.

In our view, the ongoing Atlas of Islamic-World Science and Innovation project — jointly sponsored by the UK Royal Society and the Islamic Development Bank — and the OIC Mega Projects Initiative being planned may not be an advisable way of fostering innovation in the OIC countries. 

The emphasis of the Atlas project on producing reports aspiring to describe the innovation systems of 15 OIC countries, and that of the Mega Projects Initiative on producing vaccines, automobiles, planes and satellites without ensuring demand for these projects in OIC markets, reflects the supply-side outlook of Vision 1441.

The Atlas will fall short of its stated objective for the simple reason that such projects can just skim the surface of changes taking place in the highly complex innovation geography of a nation.

The reports likely to be produced may therefore contribute to a mosaic of facts and opinions on the innovation capabilities of the countries being reviewed, but would amount to little of real value. The Atlas would be merely a static snapshot of the highly dynamic systems and processes of innovation.

Local focus

The Islamic Development Bank and the Islamic Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (ISESCO) recently signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) that stipulates hiring foreign experts to help OIC countries formulate their STI policies.

This would not help OIC countries unless local expertise in STI research and policymaking is available in each member state, or is cultivated to fill this gap over time.

It would be more appropriate for UNESCO, the Islamic Development Bank, ISESCO and the Royal Society to dedicate resources to promoting research in science and innovation policy studies.

They can do this by supporting regional or national policy research institutes and think tanks. These institutions would regularly produce briefing papers on the challenges facing OIC countries in a rapidly changing global technological environment, and would propose measures for timely action. They should also be encouraged to regularly collect data on innovation and develop innovation indicators.

We must understand that the innovation systems of developed and developing countries are inherently different, owing to the different trajectories of their historical development.

Importing concepts designed to study innovation in the developed world without any sensitivity to local processes for change are unlikely to produce a realistic and correct understanding of innovation in OIC countries.

Continuous process

Setting and implementing STI policies effectively requires regular review and monitoring. Moreover, one-off policy advice will not help OIC countries address the inevitable periodic interruptions in knowledge flows to their innovation systems.

STI policy is an experimental and continuous learning process based on historical, cultural and natural resources, and is context specific.

The OIC includes high-, middle- and low-income countries that are not only experiencing different stages of social and economic development, but also face different challenges.

But they have something in common: so far, no member state has been able to develop a fully functional and sustainable knowledge-based economy.

This underscores the urgent need to revisit Vision 1441 and incorporate the concept of building innovation systems, which will allow OIC countries to harness the potential of their human and natural resources.

To achieve this goal, governments must put in place policies that promote a culture of learning and innovation based on the sharing of knowledge resources both within the OIC and with the best international research centres. This would not only create knowledge-based societies, but would also address the persistent problems of poverty and inequality.

Syeda Tanveer Kausar Naim is a former chairperson of the Pakistan Council for Science and Technology and is currently a consultant at the COMSTECH Secretariat in Islamabad, Pakistan. Ali Shah is a senior policy analyst at the COMSTECH Secretariat.

This article expresses the personal views of the authors and in no way reflects the views of the organisation to which they are affiliated.

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