In order to better understand some of the cultural frictions that would impede content generation, I spoke with Professor Jerry Leach,
former MENA Peace Corps Director and the Director of the American Studies Center at the American University in Cairo.

Jerry_Leach.png"Dr. Jerry Leach has held a number of position in government and in the private sector. He is the former National President of the World Affairs Councils of America. He has also been the Peace Corps Regional Director for Eastern Europe, the Soviet Republics, Middle East, Asia, and the Pacific. In the U.S. government, Dr. Leach served as the National Security Council Director of International Economic Affairs at the White House, as the Deputy Director in the Office of Strategic Technology Affairs, State Department, and as a Consular Officer in the U.S. Embassy, on post in London, UK. Dr. Leach has also been an Assistant Lecturer at Cambridge University, Instructor at the University of Papua New Guinea; and a Peace Corps Volunteer in Turkey." - AUC Profile

Download Full Interview (.mp3)


Dr Leach set the stage by stating a fundamental observation: that "Arabs in general terms are not readers. They don't take to reading and they don't like it very much." He then went on to explain that there is not yet a system in the Arab World developed around the "philanthropic use of time," and that "when people are asked to give their time to do something, they very often regard that as strange, or at least a new idea or something that's coming in from the outside world."

Paying For Content

Leach then recommended that Wikipedia pursue a method of payment, for "the possibility of putting together a team of editors from different parts of the Arab world and paying them some local stipend, or paying them by hour or by entry would probably work pretty well and wouldn't cost all that much money. That's the best way in can think of to build up Wikipedia and get people to sit down in front of a machine and write out articles."

Educational Systems

He then noted that, "you'd need to devise a method to keep the stringers active because just paying them isn't going to be perfectly satisfactory... they just don't have a disciplined way of using their time. Because of lacks and poor schooling, they are accustomed to getting away with pretty much anything they do in school ... so they're not going to be disciplined writers right off the bat." Additionally, noting global educational disparity, he warned that "covering the abstruse, way-out fields, which Wikipedia does, that's not going to be all that easy because some of the academic fields aren't really covered in Arab universities. Their structure of knowledge and the structure of their teaching programs is 50, 75, or 100 years behind the Western world, so you'd probably have some decided gaps that you wouldn't really be able to cover."

Un/der Employment

But despite the fact that "finding the people out there will probably sound on the face of it like a very daunting job," Leach claims that "it will be quite easy because there are so many people sitting around looking for things to do and not being able to get jobs and not being interested in the jobs they've got."


Citing the issue of language variation, he stated that "there are a lot of different dialects in Arabic and they approach you might have to just accept that there will be dialectical versions and a certain number of complaints flowing in saying that this is really not the way we speak and write. Unless you decide to standardize on one of the dialectical variations; the biggest one is obviously Egyptian Arabic because 1/4 of all the Arabs in the world live in Egypt. So if the answer is standardization and using only one dialect, then i guess what you'd need is for people in Algeria, Yemen and Abu Dhabi to be writing in their own native dialect and then have a super editor turning it into Egyptian Arabic."


Leach states that the overall publication rate in the Arab world is very low. "There's the idea is that if it's not in a printed paper form then it doesn't doesn't have any gravitas. You don't get any career credit for it. So the idea of publishing academic-style material in Arabic has almost no standing in the Arab for the next ten years the citations would have to be in English and'd have to be bilingual citations. That's not uncommon in the Arab world."


So what about universities? Are they the right place to start? Leach says, maybe not. "Assigning it to universities without giving the universities some money, without overhead if you like, wont generally work...I don't think that universities are the best place unless money is involved and even then I'm not sure money is going to solve the problem. The best thing I think is really to find university-educated people who are very enthusiastic and recommended to you. Turn them in to your direct stringers, have workshops for them and go visit them from time to time and make them feel a part of it...I mean one of the things that makes Arabs really jump up and take notice and get enthusiastic is to say that, in addition to getting paid, we'll be able to sponsor a trip for you to Wikipedia headquarters to see the whole operation ... and if it means having a free trip to the US, then boy, all of the sudden they are paying close attention."

Cameraphones: Trust and Text

Discussing the prevalence of mobile phone culture in the Arab World, Leach argues that, "a picture has a great deal more credibility, believability in the Arab world than the printed word." He continues that writings "have been vehicles of deception. They've been essentially lies told to the people by their government, lies told by newspapers, broadsides by the Muslim brotherhood, broadsides by the left wing etc. In other words, what's said by authoritative people and what's written down are often suspect in the Arab world because of the long history of deception...that would seem to say to me that in the Arab world, having a sort of video attachments to written articles would be basically, a very very good idea."

And while stressing the perils of photographic and video documentation in oppressive countries, Leach also tackles the way in which the state controls media output and consumption. "So i think it would be a great thing to have on Wikipedia as a further step in opening up the Arab world."

To see the full interview, click here


This research was done by Corey Boling, a graduate student at Columbia University. Email him at

This is a page under The Use of Video a sub-topic of Wikimedia in the Arab World.
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