MENA Panel Highlights Enabling Environments for Digital Transformation

On Wednesday, Portulans Institute, in cooperation with UNESCO, the School of Business at the American University in Cairo and the American Chamber of Commerce in Egypt hosted a regional panel highlighting MENA’s track record in digital transformation, in addition to discussing regional data from the  2020 Network Readiness Index (read our summary here). In recent years, MENA’s digital track record has generated much international attention and interest. With the onset of the COVID-19 crisis, which regional economies are best prepared to maintain and improve their competitiveness and digital readiness for a post-COVID-19 world?

The virtual panel was moderated by Maroulla Haddad, Senior Digital Development Policy Specialist at the World Bank, and hosted by Carolina Rossini, CEO at Portulans Institute. The panel featured a line-up of regional and global experts representing the private, nonprofit and academic sectors, including:

  • Paul Hector, Advisor for Information and Communication, UNESCO Regional Bureau for Sciences in the Arab States
  • Dr. Sherif Kamel, President, American Chamber of Commerce in Egypt and Dean, School of Business at the American University in Cairo
  • Dr. Bruno Lanvin, Director, Portulans Institute and Executive Director for Global Indices, INSEAD
  • Prof. Nagla Rizk, Professor of Economics and Founding Director of the Access to Knowledge for Development Center (A2K4D) at the School of Business at the American University in Cairo
  • Dr. Ahmed Tantawy, Advisor to the Minister of Communications and Information Technology, Egypt

Partnerships and “enabling environments” are decisive for digital transformation

All panelists noted the importance of an “enabling environment” for digital transformation in the public and private sectors. Dean Sherif Kamel noted that while the government enables digital transformation – for example, by building critical digital infrastructure – the private sector needs to reap the benefits of this environment and be a “driving force” of change. Paul Hector outlined the ways in which UNESCO seeks to foster this enabling environment, with frameworks for collaboration between civil society, government and educational institutions to ensure digital inclusion of individuals and communities on the one hand, and global progress towards achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals on the other. Mr. Hector praised the research and implementation of emerging technologies such as AI across the region; however, “unfortunately, the legal guidelines that should regulate it are developing a lot slower.”

Digital transformation must take a people-first, multidimensional approach, rooted in good governance

Professor Nagla Rizk emphasized that digital transformation strategies must adopt a people-first approach, and consider the unique characteristics of the MENA region’s societies and demographics. Professor Rizk provided a range of thought-provoking examples of this disjuncture between national innovation and local challenges from across the region, stating that “while technology is important, it is just part of the story… in the region, we suffer from the ills of a fragmented approach.” As Dean Kamel noted, the ecosystem of digital transformation and emerging technology is “by design, an ecosystem [in which all parts] benefit from each other and affect each other. It’s like a value chain – the more it develops, the more everyone benefits.” Panelists praised the multidimensional approach adopted by the Network Readiness Index, demonstrating why leaps in digital innovation and technology are only effective when supported by good governance, strong talent and impact-oriented policy-making.

Building digital talent for lasting change

Drawing on his experiences as an Advisor in the Egyptian Ministry of Information and Communication, Ahmed Tantawy stressed the importance of confidence-building among leaders faced with unprecedented digital transformations. “The level of confidence… in the digital domain is critical.” While many digital literacy programs focus on the younger generation, it is critical to focus on the older generation, too, and particularly political leaders who may face a hesitation to become learners. Professor Rizk agreed, and raised the issue of brain drain. “We need collaborative models for growing [digital] skills” that are designed with skill retention in mind. “We must allow for organic knowledge production”, using digital solutions to fight local challenges. Marolla Haddad commented that while COVID-19 produces newfound strains on talent landscapes, digital transformation has the potential to diversify regional economies and in fact create new jobs.

The United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Saudi Arabia are regional leaders in the NRI 2020

Dr. Bruno Lanvin presented highlights of regional data in this year’s NRI, and commented on key takeaways about digital transformation on a global level. Leading the region are the United Arab Emirates (30th), Qatar (38th) and Saudi Arabia (41st), with the region’s other major economies like Jordan and Egypt ranked at 84th and 69th, respectively. The region’s lowest-ranking economy is Yemen, in 132rd place. Dr. Lanvin stressed that the region performs relatively well in the People and Technology pillars, while there is room for improvement in the Governance and Impact pillars. Highlighting regional data regarding Impact, Dr. Lanvin stressed that “technology is not an end in itself. We advance technology in the hope that it will improve the lives of people: is it making people happier? Is it making societies more inclusive?” Mr. Tantawy’s remarks also focused on the importance of social inclusion and quality of life as key indicators and objectives in a country’s digital transformation strategy.