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UN report: e-government in region faces multiple snags – Lebanon

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Countries in the Middle East may talk the technological lingo, but just how serious most are about preparing, promoting and facilitating the use of electronic government and actual electronic participation remains to be seen.
At least that was the underlying indication of the UN's latest report – the 2003 E-Government at the Crossroads, which assessed the electronic governance readiness and electronic participation of 173 countries worldwide, both on a quantitative and qualitative level. According to the report, the United Kingdom is the world's leader in e-participation and Chile is the highest ranked developing country. Forty countries tied for last place. In e-government readiness, the United States leads the world while Palau comes in last. Among 15 countries of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), only the United Arab Emirates appeared high up on the list, ranking 38th worldwide and first in the region. “Moving toward e-government shows that you are committed to development,” says Nassib Ghobril, a researcher at the Saradar Investment House in Beirut, who analyzed the UN Report, focusing on the results for the MENA region, including Israel and Iran. “The concept behind e-government is to speed-up actions, avoid middlemen and reduce the size and costs of governments,” he explains. In addition, adds Ghobril, the aim of e-government is to improve services to the population at large, enhance interaction with business and industry, and empower citizens through access to information. “Bahrain and Oman are up and coming when it comes to e-government,” Ghobril says, referring to his findings. “And the UAE has shown that it is serious about its commitment.” The UAE's high ranking is related in part to such online services as those offered by the Ministry of Finance and Industry where customers can register, fill out forms, upload documents and pay online. The UN report appraised the use of electronic government as a tool to provide services to the general public by assessing three main aspects: websites, telecommunication infrastructure and human resources. “Human capital is the most important thing to start with,” says Ghobril. “In essence you need a population that can access and use the internet.” A second 2003 UN report on information technology in the region supports the idea that development of skilled human resources lies at the core of any information and communication technologies strategy. The UN Regional Profile of the Information Society in Western Asia shows that Egypt, Jordan and UAE – although on the third level of a four tier system – are ahead in the region in terms of information and communication technology (ICT). This indicator is related to levels of awareness, number of computers at schools and ICT training in university programs – key factors to make the transition to e-government. Countries on this third level are achieving significant output, as measured in terms of ICT-educated graduates. Recommendations for improvement include focusing on building local world-class ICT educational facilities, and transforming the education into an effective research development and innovation source, thereby enhancing growth and exports. According to the report, these countries should expand their partnerships to include other universities and research institutes. In terms of overall e-readiness, the study ranks the UAE, Bahrain, Jordan and Lebanon ahead of Indonesia, Belize and Guyana. However, all four are behind Fiji, St Kitts & Nevis and Costa Rica. Moreover, while most countries in the region have plans to move forward, only Jordan and UAE have adopted clear strategies. Ghobril says that, in terms of telecommunications infrastructure – which covers personal computers, telephone lines, television sets, internet usage, on-line population and mobile subscriptions – the UAE is excelling, and Bahrain and Qatar are not far behind. “The primary factors contributing to a high level of e-government readiness are past investments in human resources and telecom infrastructure,” says Ghobril. Despite a worldwide trend toward setting up national portal or gateway sites, the ability of individual governments to develop and present portals in an integrated fashion is uneven. There is a strong correlation between the existence of a formal e-government policy and the overall quality of a country's websites. “Government websites are being established in a haphazard manner,” says Ghobril. Then there is the quality of specific government electronic facilities and services, such as the relevance and usefulness of the information that a government presents on its websites. The UN report analyzes how the government interacts with people and encourages their input online, how it promotes e-government services, and the degree to which it encourages the public to participate in deciding public policy issues. “Jordan, despite limited resources, is ahead when it comes to both indices,” says Ghobril. “King Abdullah has decided ICT and high-tech are a high priority to attract investors.” Although most MENA ministries and government institutes are launching new and modified websites, as well as linking them to their databases when applicable, there are those countries – Iraq, Libya, Qatar and Syria – that scored zero on the UN's electronic participation scale. Another key issue, according to Ghobril, is access. In countries like Egypt, Algeria, Saudi Arabia or Syria, where you have large populations, this can be difficult. For many, lack of trust when it comes to dealing with the government is a stumbling point. “There are some cultural obstacles. People are suspicious about interacting online,” he says. “In order for things to change there needs to be sustained information campaigns.” The UN has recommended that governments in the region share information, rather than begin from scratch. They should also introduce administrative reforms to encourage transparency and accountability, as well as adopt an enabling fiscal environment that attracts investment. Additionally, some countries need to show they are serious about changes. Ghobril points to the fact that Lebanon has been paying lip service regarding laws on electronic signature for years. But “when a country like Dubai declares a priority area, things are done in record time,” says Ghobril.

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