(Jordan Times ) — Representatives of the information technology sector have embarked on a 10-week effort to review, realign and expand the national strategy for the industry's development amid increasing concerns as to the adequacy of the country's infrastructure and laws.
Scores of meetings, debates and workshops that will pack the already normally busy agendas of IT executives throughout the summer are expected to produce “Reach 2.0,” the second phase of last year's REACH Initiative, a five-year plan for “Regulatory framework, Estate and infrastructure, Advancement programs, Capital and Human resources development.”
“Today [marks] the start of a process that may take as many as 10 weeks,” Information Technology Association-Jordan's (Int@j) Chairman Karim Kawar said at a launch ceremony late on Wednesday.
The brainchild of some 40 IT professionals, REACH came last July in response to a challenge by His Majesty King Abdullah to the private sector to prioritize the development of the IT industry. The plan estimated that Jordan's IT industry could create as many as 30,000 new quality jobs, generate $55 million in annual exports and attract $150 million in foreign direct investment by 2004.
Backed by King Abdullah, REACH was the focus of the Kingdom's first-ever economic forum, held in November at the Dead Sea, and it was endorsed by the forum's offspring, the Economic Consultative Council, at one of its first meetings.
One year on, IT leaders are taking stock of achievements, failures and pending tasks. “Now we have to realign our strategy, also in consideration of changes at the global level, set deadlines, and devise a mechanism to oversee implementation so that reviews become an on-going process,” Kawar said.
Furthermore, REACH was sort of rushed, and Reach 2.0 will have to fill some of the gaps. “We were given only four weeks to put together a comprehensive plan, and we might have overlooked a few items,” Kawar admitted.
“E-commerce, for example, was mentioned [in REACH], but it has developed a lot, especially in the area of B2B. We should now look into the consequences that this has for us, and what amendments should be made to the Companies Law to [develop] e-commerce.”
Bassem Awadallah, director of the Royal Court's Economic Unit, and Fawwaz Zobi, minister of post and telecommunications, expressed their full backing for the industry and Reach 2.0. “In the past two weeks, I have been trying to lay out a framework and an action plan not only for my ministry, but for the whole sector,” Zobi said, anticipating that his “strategy” will hinge on a much broader private sector role.
Awadallah reviewed the developments that occurred during the last year. “We are not there yet,” he said. “But progress has been terrific. Let us not undermine the achievements.”
Kawar's presentation before some 300 investors, private sector representatives, officials, donor agency representatives and diplomats started with the acknowledgement of the first important achievement of the year: IT is now on the national agenda — and at the very top of it.
Other achievements, according to Kawar, included growth in IT-related local and foreign investments and exports, as well as in the demand for skills and talents.
Overall, the sector was capable of organizing itself, mainly through the establishment in March of Int@j. The birth of the association was met with a certain degree of resentment by some IT representatives who privately said they felt deliberately left out of Int@j and initiatives such as the IT Forum at the Dead Sea, also last March.
Indirectly addressing such complaints, Kawar stressed: “We hope we are not missing any one, because we need everyone's help and cooperation for Reach 2.0. If you think that someone should be here, and he is not, please tell us or tell him to contact us.”
Public-private sector cooperation — the pillar of the King's economic growth plan and one of the basic principles behind REACH — has been achieved only partially, and the same applies to plans to improve IT capabilities, Kawar told the gathering.
Certification programs and the development of Employee Stock Ownership Plans (ESOP) are also behind schedule, while nothing, industry leaders charged, has yet been done to reduce indirect taxation burdening all IT- related products.
Notwithstanding a recent government decision to abolish customs on IT products and computers, participants in the gathering complained that they were still charged for each shipment they received.
Those who export to the Gulf reported problems related to payments, and stressed the need for bilateral agreements to facilitate exports of software to those countries.
Enforcement of intellectual property rights has been lax, Kawar said, and attendees expressed deep concern on this issue in the debate that followed the presentation. “The government is taking [copyrights and patent issues] very seriously,” responded Awadallah.
The Royal Court official declined to disclose details of future copyrights enforcement plans, citing the current negotiations for a Free Trade Area agreement with the US, widely expected to be concluded in the summer and to be submitted to the US Congress as early as September. “But you will see something happening within a very short period,” Awadallah ensured.
In the field of education, the huge government effort to start English in first grade and computer skills in second grade in all public schools as of this year was unanimously saluted at the Reach 2.0 launch. Kawar also acknowledged that ties between the industry and universities are still too weak, and there is not yet an IT incubator program.
As for the infrastructure, an average 40 percent reduction decided by Jordan Telecom this month on the prices of leased high-speed data transmission lines was judged as inadequate. “Prices are still twice as high as incoming circuits from international carriers,” Kawar said.
Minister Zobi replied that “prices have to come down, we have been talking to Jordan Telecom already. But it cannot happen all at once. It is my understanding that there will be a [tariff] review in the last quarter of the year and that prices will be more affordable in six to 12 months.”
By Francesca Ciriaci
© 2000 Mena Report (www.menareport.com )