x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

It will require lots of courage to reverse the ‘brain drain’

But this need not be considered as something to be afraid of. Rather, it ought to be considered as an achievement

There is a recurring problem in the region: why does the West so often look at the Arab world through a lens many Arabs find questionable? Why do western publications inform the international conversation on issues affecting this region? And, more importantly, why haven’t Arab communities developed their own alternatives?

Examples abound within the region. Recently, an attack on tourists by the radical group Ansar Bayt Al Maqdis resulted in four deaths in Egypt. Plenty of the commentaries on the incident published by the international media offered no great regional perspective.

On other occasions, regional analysts may be cited in terms of contributing to the international conversation – but invariably, they tend to be based at western institutions. Why?

The answer, unfortunately, is self-evident. Western institutions are deemed, on the international stage, to have expertise on the region, even though they might be based outside it.

Indeed, even far right-wing western institutions, which are politically opposed to the empowerment of Arab communities, are often keenly followed by those within the region itself.

The institutions of this region, however, are often not particularly well-respected or, worse still, don’t exist at all. This is particularly true of policy research institutions – there are very few of them and, of those, even fewer can be described as housing authentic expertise and are provided with sufficient support.

This is not to say that there is an absence of resources, either intellectual or financial, to create such institutions.

Financial resources have long been available within the Arab world to set up programmes within existing institutions, or even create new ones overseas, but not in the Arab world itself.

Scholars of repute are not in short supply in the Arab world, but all too often, the best minds find themselves attracted by opportunities overseas.

The key to intellectual production and knowledge development is the environment within which one can generate authentic ideas.

If the environment is not conducive to that – or even represses such activity – it is no surprise that few will take up the challenge. Particularly when there are easier pickings to be had elsewhere, where research is not only permitted without risk or fear of retribution, but also supported and valued.

The solution many have attempted has been to invite western institutions to form hubs within the region. Yet, invariably, this is not done with the intention of building up capacity so that, eventually, home-grown expertise can be relied upon to lead these projects.

The result is merely a continuation of the same dependency on non-native talent on the one hand, and the lack of development of indigenous expertise on the other.

Addressing this sort of dynamic is not rocket science – but it does require a certain amount of initiative and a type of courage.

Educational standards in the region already face huge problems, with the picture varying from place to place. The Arab Human Development report from the United Nations makes for challenging reading in this regard. As such, it is imperative that those who have received a decent education and have been able to prove themselves on the international level be encouraged to return to the region.

Reversing the “brain-drain” means stimulating the creation of suitable institutions at home. But such institutions require more than just financial support. That is the easy part, considering the wealth of resources that already exist.

The harder part is establishing institutions that are also intellectually independent.

Researchers, scholars and analysts will never invest their full capacity into institutions that they feel are stifled by a predominant or oafish narrative. Rather, they will take opportunities abroad.

It is the case that many institutions within the West have to deal with their own challenges.

Corporate and business interests affect the development of many a think tank or research institute and precious few have been able to remain fully independent by virtue of endowments.

Yet, the very concept of the “endowment” is a concept deeply rooted within the Arab world, through the “waqf” system. It is high time that concept is reintroduced, in both financial and intellectual terms.

That means giving researchers and scholars full independence to do their work – and that is something that many will find uncomfortable. After all, one day, these same scholars may turn around and criticise those who provided the funding that made such work possible in the first place.

But this need not be considered as something to be afraid of. Rather, it ought to be considered as an achievement.

When the region produces institutions that contain intellectuals who are not afraid to speak their minds, that is an accomplishment rather than a drawback.

It will also mean that when they do speak their minds, they’ll be speaking with a voice of the region – as opposed to a voice from afar.

Dr HA Hellyer is an associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London, and the Brookings Institution in Washington DC

On Twitter: @hahellyer