On education, Arab world has no time to waste

Arab countries need to make education a national priority, even a national mission.
Sunday 25/02/2018
Young boys attend their class at school in  eastern Mosul.  (Reuters)
Pressing priority. Young boys attend their class at school in eastern Mosul. (Reuters)

One of the demographic hallmarks of the Middle East and North Africa is the high percentage of the population under age 15. While the figure varies by country, overall the region is home to more than 100 million school-age children.

A “youth bulge” such as this is not an inherently bad thing — if a country’s bulging young population receives adequate education and job skills and enjoys a supportive social structure. China and India have seen their populations surge in the past several decades — the result of earlier youth bulges — and the result has been greater economic productivity and national wealth.

However, a youth bulge that reaches maturity without a good education is a recipe for disaster, which is why the crisis in education in MENA countries should raise serious alarms. A generation that is not prepared to succeed in the fast-moving 21st century will become a lost one, characterised by frustration, despair and hopelessness.

A lost generation can easily become a dangerous generation, prone to manipulation by demagogues and extremists who offer simplistic answers and false promises of hope and glory. While a well-educated generation can boost a society’s overall growth and prosperity, a lost generation becomes a burden, a drag on growth and a constant source of political instability.

The MENA region is staring at a disaster in the making and Arab countries have no time to lose. UNESCO, the UN cultural agency, reports that, region-wide, 8.7 million children of primary and secondary school age are not enrolled in school. Another 5.3 million are of primary school entry age but received no pre-school education, which is a significant marker of academic success. This does not include children who drop out of or otherwise fail to complete secondary education.

The turmoil that has wracked the region since 2011 has made the problem worse — much worse, in the cases of Syria, Iraq and Yemen — and the remedies harder to carry out. Political upheaval and demands for economic reform, however, cannot be used as an excuse to avoid addressing the MENA region’s feeble education systems. Financial resources are part of the answer, for sure, but most governments face budget pressures that do not allow for massive spending programmes and foreign funds are unlikely to appear, even when they are promised.

Education need not be a hostage to budgets. Arab countries need to make education a national priority, even a national mission, and they need to start thinking outside of the box: The private sector, civil society organisations, charities, wealthy individuals who have benefitted from good educations and want to give back to society — all can be mobilised towards the goal of ensuring that children, even those living in or having fled from war zones, receive solid educations.

Online capabilities have greatly expanded the options for how knowledge is communicated and reduced the imperative to build schools. Knowledge is so easily accessed on the internet that it is, in effect, a virtually free commodity. Even refugee students living in camps could gather in a central location every day for online courses. Young college graduates could be asked to spend two years teaching in underserved parts of their country — perhaps in lieu of military service.

These are not budget-busting suggestions. They would require competent coordination and on-site supervision by trained staff to ensure that specific national standards and educational objectives are met but this would not require an insurmountably large financial investment.

What is most required is inspiring and visionary leadership. There is no time to waste and there are no excuses.