To Change the Middle East, Invest in Education
by Charles Lemos, Wed Jan 21, 2009 at 08:04:51 PM EST
In a story in the New York Times today on Arab discord at yet another failed pan-Arab conference is this paragraph:
By many measures, the Arab world is slipping further and further behind in its ability to compete globally. Perhaps the single greatest drag on the region, one that afflicts wealthy Gulf states as well as poorer countries like Egypt, is the quality of schools. International trends in math and science among fourth- and eighth-graders show that in math, for example, eighth-graders from Saudi Arabia placed 46th, out of 48; among fourth-graders, the bottom four nations out of 36 were Tunisia, Kuwait, Qatar and Yemen. In science, eighth-grade students in Qatar placed second to last, below Botswana and El Salvador. Among fourth-graders taking the science test, Algeria, Kuwait, Tunisia, Morocco, Qatar and Yemen were at the bottom of the list.
The numbers are stunning. In Yemen, only 40% of the population achieves a primary school education. In Egypt, 52% of the rural poor remain illiterate. Overall, Egypt's literacy rate is just 58%. Even in wealthy Bahrain and Qatar, the literacy rate is just 89%. Across the Middle East and North Africa region as a whole, public spending on education has actually decreased as percentage of GDP and on a per capita basis since 1990 (in 1980 the region spent $250 per capita on education, now it is under $200) even as much of the region enjoyed unprecedented wealth from the oil boom. Yet despite rising Gross National Income, in too many parts of the Middle East and North Africa, education remains a distinct luxury, unavailable to many or only offered to a select few. Too often, girls are prevented from attending school by custom, religious tradition, lack of resources, and oppression. The result is that too many people in the region can neither read nor take advantage of the opportunities that come with education and thus remain mired in endemic poverty. And poverty is fertile ground for Islamic fundamentalism and jihadism. According to the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), across the Middle East and North Africa, more than seventy-five million women and more than forty-five million men are illiterate. Secretary of State Clinton spoke of 'smart power' during her confirmation hearings, the interests of the United States and the cause of peace would be well served if our diplomatic efforts in the region would encourage the leadership of these Arab lands to invest in the development of their own human resources. Literacy must be conceived of as a basic human right.