Arab academic institutions need rethinking to improve health outcomes

Andrea Rinaldi

Andrea Rinaldi
Freelance journalist, SciDev.Net


Brainstorming discussion is taking place at the ‘Boosting research for health in the new Arab world’ meeting in Bellagio, north Italy. The common view presented so far is that health is both a causative agent and an end-point of development, and that health research is a major driver of the entire process.

“Health is a societal good, not the exclusive interest of the Ministries of Health,” said COHRED Director Carel IJsselmuiden.

Iman Nuwayhid, from the Faculty of Health Science of the American University of Beirut, Lebanon, spoke about the role academic institutions can play in fostering the shaping of national health research strategies in Arab countries.

“Academic institutions are partly responsible for the status of research in the region,” said Nuwayhid. “On one hand, they have suffered from regional conflicts, lack of funding, a dearth of qualified researchers, lack of institutional collaboration, and restrictions on free scientific inquiry and access to information. On the other hand, these institutions have accepted the status quo and some have even served as a mouthpiece for the political regimes.”

However, exceptions exist, Nuwayhid added, and a few centers of excellence present models that are distinct but homegrown and worth scaling up in the region. “Building a regional network of such core academic institutions is no doubt a strict pre-requisite for any effort to support and shape research for health in the region,” Nuwayhid said.

According to the data presented by Nuwayhid, the Arab world is, at least on paper, well equipped with both public and private higher institutions (some 1,200) and universities (more than 400), with good geographic spread.

Quality, of course, differs greatly.

The Ranking Web of Universities (also known as Webometrics Ranking) in its last edition lists some 726 higher education institutions in the Arab world, with world rank position running from 420 (King Saud University, Saudi Arabia) down to 21,100!

As the UNESCO Science Report 2010 remarked, poorer countries like Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco are home to some of the oldest universities in the Arab world, and can be seen as regional leaders in terms of S&T human resources and scientific publications. On the other hand, institutions based in the Gulf States “have the material and financial resources to carry out R&D but lack the solid S&T and higher education systems to generate knowledge”.

But for academic institutions to be engaged as authoritative catalyzers of the transformation in the Arab world, they first have to rethink themselves. As an instructive example, Nuwahyd quoted the Kasr Al-Ainy School of Medicine of the Cairo University, inaugurated back in 1827, where teaching faculty is limited to graduates from the same institution.

“The uprisings in the Arab World have confirmed that people are ready for change. Academic institutions in this region are simultaneously the target of such a demand as well as the beacon of hope and change. It is a dilemma that we all, and especially donors and international organisations, need to face,” Nuwahyd said. “We have to invest heavily in academic institutions of this region. It is a leap of faith that we cannot afford missing. If entrusted, academic institutions will deliver.”

This blog post is part of our coverage of Boosting Research for Health in the New Arab World meeting which takes place 26 February – 1 March 2013, in Bellagio, Italy. To read further news and analysis please visit our website.

One Response to Arab academic institutions need rethinking to improve health outcomes

  1. Fantastic post. Indeed, the region, in particular the high-income GCC states, have a long way to go to transform their academic institutions allowing them to adapt to the growing regional needs. Many, unfortunately, continue to depend on or are victim of a highly bureaucratic governmental process where nepotism and corruption remain prevalent. Due to our historic ‘politics of exclusion’ the promotion schemes are often guided by nationality or by an antiquated system of seniority and not qualifications and productivity. Like the health system, a fair amount of decentralization is needed in the higher education system. Talent is available but our institutions must begin a thorough reform process to mobilize and nurture it to create a sustainable R&D milieu.

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