Report after report from such bodies as the World Bank, UNDP and the Arab League emphasizes that the education deficit in the Arab world is among the main causes of underdevelopment. With 5% of the world’s population and the bulk of the world’s oil and gas, the Arab world still lags behind most parts of the world, and suffers from what can best be termed “educational poverty”. Without a dramatic renewal of the educational sector at all levels in the Arab region, unemployment, illiteracy, and income inequality will continue to worsen, and the region will continue to be a danger to itself and to its neighbours.
Even before the current economic recession, unemployment in the Arab world was estimated at 14% – the world’s highest average outside sub-Saharan Africa, and among youth and recent graduates it is more than double that figure. The Arab world also has the highest population growth rate in the world, with almost 40% of the population now under the age of 15. Some estimates say the Arab world accounts for a quarter of the world’s youth unemployed between the ages of 15 and 24. Just to keep up with the inflow of young people onto the jobs market, the Arab economies will have to generate 100m new jobs over the next 10 years.
Education poverty is a key driver of these poor economic indicators. Enrolment ratios in the Arab world have improved over the past decade, but Arab countries still have one of the lowest average net enrolment ratios in the developing world. About one fifth of eligible children, more than 7m kids, are out-of-school, and 60% of these are girls. The average years of schooling for the Arab population are less than half the East Asian countries. Not surprisingly, illiteracy is an enormous problem, and although progress has been made in recent decades, it remains at around 30% on average and in some Arab countries climbs to 50 and 60%.
The quality of Arab education is also an obstacle. Today’s job market demands skills based on problem-solving, critical thinking, modern languages and technologies, but in general Arab educational systems are still heavily traditional, rote-based and authoritarian.
Educational poverty has a strongly negative impact on development, but it also creates an environment where radical and violent movements can find traction.
Developmental studies throughout the world have shown that education is a key pre-requisite for sustainable economic growth. The East Asian tigers have long invested heavily in education, and it paid off in terms of a capable and modern workforce. Economic development in the Arab world, driven largely by oil revenues and other forms of rent, has left the population under-educated and economically marginalised.
Looking beyond the development issue, education is also particularly important in the Arab context because of its special status in Islam. Islam, like Judaism and Christianity, is a religion of the book. The Gospel of St. John says “in the Beginning was the Word”; the first word that was revealed to the prophet Muhammad by the Angel Gabriel was “Read…”. Among the Prophet’s sayings is, “it is the duty of every Muslim man and woman to seek learning”. Islam does not have priesthood, just scholars. The Arab golden ages, in 11th century Baghdad and 14th century Andalucía are revered as times of great learning. Schools and universities received large-scale support, and students and scholars travelled from city to city in pursuit of knowledge.
After these golden ages, education fell into decline. In the 19th century, western missionaries established a number of schools and universities in Turkey, Lebanon, Egypt and elsewhere that introduced a whole new range of topics and new approaches in education. These schools trained many of the region’s 20th century leaders and elites. In response, local authorities and groups also set up educational institutions, and after independence the centralising states of the Middle East took over responsibility for education and expanded the public educational system at both school and university levels. By the 1970s and 1980s, these post-independence states had made great improvements in the education sector, but did not have the resources to keep up with their own growing populations. The dramatic levels of investment made in education in the 1950s and 1960s had begun to taper off as tight resources and competing priorities impinged, with the result that too many children are now either outside the school system or are receiving such a low quality of education that it leaves them without basic literacy and numeracy skills. And there are still too many disparities based on gender, location, wealth, disability and other markers of marginalisation.
Europe and the international community have played an important role in promoting education in the Arab world. In 2000, ‘Education For All by 2015’ (EFA) was identified by the international community as a key Millennium Development Goal. But global funding that currently stands at around $10bn a year lags well behind global needs, and there is a danger that with the global economic crisis this modest figure will shrink further.
France, Germany, the Netherlands and the UK have been among the leading donors, and other countries must also make educational aid a priority by developing partnerships that will significantly increase the level of overall educational support. Valuable lessons have been learned over the past years about which are the most effective means of boosting economic performance in developing countries. System-wide cooperation programmes with recipient countries that aim to transform the quantity and quality of education from primary to tertiary levels – as well as linking educational programmes to the jobs market – will have the most lasting impact.
European policymakers now need to convince the new U.S. administration that it should make educational aid an American priority too. Tens of thousands of Arabs flock to the U.S. every year to earn university degrees, yet there is relatively very little American investment in the region’s universities. The American University of Beirut, which was founded in 1866 and arguably has done more to transform the Middle East in positive ways than any other comparable institution, receives the astonishingly small amount of only $3m in U.S. aid every year, while billions in American tax dollars are spent on armies and weaponry in the region.
In the 19th century, Europe and America valued the role of education in transforming societies. France has always emphasised its international role in education, and in the 1960s President Kennedy made educational aid to developing countries a key component of U.S. foreign policy. One of his aides, Philip Coombs, called education the Fourth Dimension of Foreign Policy. Since then, however, education has slipped in prominence as an element of international aid policy. What the West has most, and what the Arab world most needs, is education. What they require are more schools, and less guns; more universities, less aircraft carriers.
Thematically, investment in education is the best long-term investment for sustainable development and long-term stability. Education holds the key to reducing poverty, combating marginalisation and empowering individuals. To paraphrase a well-known slogan, “It’s the Education, Stupid”.
In terms of resource allocation, the cost of a single month of western military spending in Iraq or Afghanistan would triple aid for education in the Middle East. The cost of two cruise missiles would build a school, the cost of a Eurofighter a small university.
Education can also have a fundamental effect on forming values. Radical Islamists recognised this long ago and ploughed their resources into schools. Saudi Arabia recognised this in the 1970s as it sought to expand its influence, and over the years has funded thousands of schools and colleges that teach its stringent brand of Wahhabi Islam. In Afghanistan and Pakistan the radical vision is conveyed to the young in the religious schools known as madrasas and the Taliban movement threatening stability there translates in English as “students”. The struggle for the future of the Arab and Muslim worlds is already being fought, and will be won or lost, in the classroom.