By Zaid M. Belbagi
October 26, 2018
Amid fanciful economic statistics and short-term political wins, the failure of Arab countries to acquire and produce knowledge remains their most critical challenge. Stunted human development has massive adverse effects on the political and economic environment in the Arab world — a reality that policymakers cannot ignore amid ever-worsening regional circumstances.
It is more than a decade since the first Arab Human Development report warned that a regional “knowledge deficit” risked the Arab world playing a “marginal role in the next phase of human history.” In the production of reports and scientific research, the Arab world remains behind, with more than 100 million of its population illiterate. Despite governments in the Middle East and North Africa having invested significantly in education, the results have been disappointing. Secondary and tertiary education has turned out graduates without the skills to succeed in the labor market, resulting in higher levels of education coupled with mass unemployment.
Mismanagement of education has been exacerbated by demography. Nearly one in five people, about 85 million in total, are aged 15 to 24. More broadly speaking, over 60 percent are under the age of 30. The stark reality is that the region will need to create 100 million job opportunities for its youth over the next two decades. Regional governments are seemingly unaware of the implications of potentially having the world’s highest youth unemployment rate. In Tunisia and Egypt, the youth unemployment rate is a staggering 31 and 34 percent, respectively.
Joblessness is exacerbated by the fact that young people have lengthy periods of what economists call “waithood” — the time it takes before finding employment after graduating. The prospect of employment raises living standards and has an important impact on security; without this, Arab governments will increasingly find themselves facing political problems from under-occupied youths. The UN warned of a “poverty of opportunities” in the Arab world in 2004. This warning went unheeded and the region has since witnessed its worst post-colonial political and social crises. Without advancements in education and opportunities to significantly harness human capital, the next wave of disturbance could be worse.
According to the World Bank, the quality of education in the Arab world has dropped in comparison to other regions. Immediate reform in this regard is needed to make the same progress that has been made in Asia and Latin America. Yemen and Egypt, which have high levels of illiteracy, are also plagued with political problems. There is no doubt that improving education will ameliorate the plight of young people in such counties. Though over the last 40 years Arab governments have spent 5 percent of their domestic revenue on education, young people are not being taught the skills that are required by the modern job market. In failing to make the most of available human resources, poverty levels remain high. Put into context, the relationship between economic growth, the distribution of income and lowering levels of poverty remains weak.
The gap between male and female education is shrinking and, societally speaking, there is a culture of learning in the Arab world. However, more needs to be done to make sure that education is improved. According to the World Bank’s Human Capital Index, government intervention is central to ensuring quality education is provided to young people to help them reach their potential. Egypt ranked a pitiful 104 out of 157 countries in the newly launched index, which measures the amount of human capital that a child born today can expect to attain by age 18. Measuring the productivity of the next generation of workers compared to a benchmark of complete education and full health, Bahrain was the leading Arab state, ranked 47th, followed by the UAE, ranked 49th, and Oman at 54. To overhaul these results and thereby transform the future for the region’s youth, governments must adopt the focus on education present in Singapore, Japan and South Korea, who topped the index.
Going forward, Arab governments, obsessed with security, must realize that making sure young people are educated properly and provided with jobs is central to the longevity of their states. In a region where, in the last two decades, four states have imploded, it is imperative that education be reformed to improve the lives of citizens. Writing in post-revolutionary France, Victor Hugo advised that the “opening of a school door means the closure of a prison” — such philosophy is incredibly relevant to the Arab world today.
Zaid M. Belbagi is a political commentator, and an adviser to private clients between London and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).