In order for Arab nations to move forward in the modern world, countries in the region must work to reform their education systems, foreign relationships, and the structure of their governments, according to Rima Khalaf, a former United Nations assistant secretary-general and the keynote speaker at last weekend’s third annual Harvard Arab Weekend Conference.
While Khalaf lauded the increase in primary and secondary schools over the past 40 years, she said that the region continues to struggle with literacy.
“Arabs make about five percent of the world population but produce one percent of the books published,” she said.
Khalaf said that the Arab world still has a long way to go in terms of political and economic reforms.
While she said these challenges may impede Arab students from wanting to return to their countries, she encouraged them to serve as leaders and champion reforms within the region.
“I was debating whether or not I should [go back],” said molecular and cellular biology postdoctoral fellow Tala H. Fakhouri. “That encouraged me to go back.”
Graduate School of Design student Mais S. Al Azab said that she appreciated having an Arab voice represented at Harvard, and she called Khalaf’s speech “fair to the heritage of the Arab cultures.”
Josh N. Weiss, associate director of Harvard’s Global Negotiation Project, agreed that Khalaf brought “balance” and an “important perspective” in her speech.
Khalaf’s speech was preceded by an introductory address by Kennedy School professor R. Nicholas Burns and a welcome address by World Bank senior health policy specialist Sameh El-Saharty.
The Harvard Arab Weekend is a student-led conference organized by several Harvard Arab groups that brings together students and professionals to discuss issues facing the Arab world and increase Arab awareness at Harvard.
Fakhouri said she hoped that future Harvard Arab Weekends would draw more non-Arab students to help foster a better understanding of the Arab world.