|MIT gathering believes in hi-tech Lebanon|
|Measures include call centers, arabization of software
Turning Lebanon into a regional IT and software hub can be achieved if proper decisions were taken by the government.
This conclusion came after two days of deliberations and discussions during the first international conference on technology development in Lebanon (TECHLEB/06) (www.techlebconference.com) held at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the United States in May of this year.
A group of Lebanese expatriates studying and working in the US succeeded in gathering business leaders, decision makers and economic development experts to address the potential of the technology sector in Lebanon and lay the ground work for a road map of development strategies and initiatives.
Speakers and participants at the conference proposed a number of measures such as developing infrastructures, setting regulatory frameworks, improving market access and mobilizing financial resources
"Lebanon has a great potential for becoming a vibrant and sustainable technology hub in the Middle East and North Africa region," the conference chair Loai Naamani told The Daily Star on a visit to Lebanon.
The conference came up with a concrete set of recommendations not only for the government but also for the private sector, academia, the media, expatriates and civil society, according to Naamani, who is pursuing his doctorate at MIT.
Beyond recommendations, the conference's planning committee has started setting into motion specialized working groups and task forces to identify gaps, specify areas where achievements could be made, and coordinate efforts with the various stakeholders.
One of these initiatives, the OpenMarket Working Group, "will help Lebanese entrepreneurs access the global market by introducing them to strategic US customers," Naamani said. The group already includes top executives from leading companies, namely, IBM, Microsoft, RedLine Communications and Vernier Networks.
The conference also showcased success stories of hi-tech ventures in Lebanon and abroad and featured international experts to talk about models of technology-driven economic development in countries like Ireland, India, and Eastern Europe, Naamani said.
One of the key speakers according to Naamani was John Cullinane, founder of the first successful software products company, who pointed out why Lebanon has to invest in the area of "smart" call centers as Ireland did in the past. Cullinane gave as an example specialized call centers which act as help and support desks for nurses.
Naamani sees this is an area that doesn't need much in the way of financial resources and where Lebanon's multi-lingual skilled human capital is very much needed.
"I believe call centers would create job opportunities exponentially," he said. He added that such an initiative would attract multinationals servicing this area as well as local companies which are realizing the importance of outsourcing their call centers.
Other areas where Lebanon could be leading include the Arabization of software and computer games that are politically and socially relevant to the region.
So far, the response of the Lebanese government has been very positive. Telecommunications Minister Marwan Hamade also promised to set up a call-center unit under his supervision and will issue, within weeks, a decree that would legalize voice-over Internet protocol technology, which is today the main cost barrier for the establishment of call centers in Lebanon, Naamani said.
Furthermore, Prime Minister Fouad Siniora announced last week the establishment of a unit for the development of the technology sector grouping representatives from several ministries, the private sector and civil society.
For Naamani, the government should assume the role of "an industry facilitator and promoter" by developing the legal and technical infrastructure while "staying in the back seat during the ride."
He stressed, however, the importance of fighting corruption, promoting good governance principles and ensuring political stability as essential prerequisites for technology development in Lebanon.
Another project Naamani and his group are working on currently is bringing Endeavor, a leading nonprofit organization that fosters private-sector development, to work in Lebanon. Endeavor works in Latin America, South Africa and Turkey to stimulate and support high-impact entrepreneurship in emerging markets.
Beirut,06 19 2006
Raed El Rafei
The Daily Star