EDUCATION: For Arabs the task is arduous
Ramzy Baroud

April 27, 2005

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has a well-devised and controlled method of measuring the educational progress - or lack thereof - in any given country or region around the world.

In Dakar, Senegal, 2002, the World Education Forum called on all UN member states to formulate national plans to achieve `Education For All` (EFA) by 2015.

So that the plan is not merely ink on paper - as is the case regarding many similar initiatives in the past - the forum presented six goals that must be achieved for the overall plan to be realized. Important examples, and ones most pertinent to Arab countries, are expanding adult literacy and ensuring gender parity.

Since then UNESCO has been active in both creating awareness of and garnering support for the initiative. It has also been consumed with monitoring the results and whether member states are indeed reaching the hardly ambitious goals set for the year 2015.

It should come as no surprise that quality education is largely a matter of economics: the poorer you get the more consumed you become with other immediate needs - survival for example. More than 12 Arab countries, therefore, are far behind the EFA goals. And some are actually regressing.

The 2005 EFA Global Monitoring Report launched in Brazil attests to this fact. Indeed, most of the statistics to which I consulted, including data offered by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) and the World Bank`s statistics mostly highlight such a realization: poverty and quality education don`t go well together.

Thus Mauritania, the poorest Arab nation, which according to a 2002 tally has a per capita annual income of $334, resides second to last on the Arab literacy rate list, with 59.8 percent of the population that cannot read or write.

Sadly, the bottom spot of the literacy rate, according to the EFA report 2003/4 was reserved for no other than Iraq, a country that was once recognized for being a Third World model of development. Along with Cuba, Iraq once offered universal education and health coverage. Now, following 15 years of crippling sanctions, unjustified and bloody war and a self-consumed and brutal occupation, only 39.3 percent of Iraqis can read.

Iraq is a unique but important case, since its anathema of poverty, unlike other countries, is man-made - a very egocentric Washington-based man, whose interest in business contracts, control of energy sources and securing his imperial domains surpasses his empathy for human life.

Palestinians in the Occupied Territories are another interesting case. Strikingly, Palestinians have fully achieved gender parity in education, a major component in the EFA initiative. And despite the fact that 60 percent of the population lives at less than $2 per day - below the universally recognized poverty level - there is an impressive determination to join and stay in school.

However, living under occupation, and a vile one at that, is no easy task. Alas, most of the statistics dealing with Palestinian education continue to focus on the number of students killed, wounded and maimed by Israeli forces; on the number of schools shelled, partially or fully destroyed; on the number of students unable to reach the classroom because of military restrictions and checkpoints; on the number of students trapped behind the illegal Israeli Wall slicing up the West Bank and completely isolating entire communities, and so on.

But poverty, security and freedom are not always the only causes of education deficits. Misguided developmental projects are an equally detrimental factor that keeps some rich Arab countries behind; at least as far as the quality education component is concerned.

Most wealthy Arab states seem to comprehend and thus measure development by the number of skyscrapers, top of the line SUVs and the hosting of world-renowned sporting events. Conversely, a well-devised national education program is almost nonexistent, save the ever-growing private school system, which communicates Western cultures to Arab students without taking into account the national identity and priorities of each country.

The end result is as simple as it is devastating: detached generations of hip-hop bad boy wannabes who have no complete command over any particular language or much commitment or even interest in the development of their own countries.

Human capital is the most fundamental prerequisite for sustainable, beneficial and long term development. A case in point is the Malaysian experience in the last 15 years. With over 20 percent of the budget spent on human development and education, the country has achieved phenomenal results in the field and continues to take significant strides, as its once run-down universities are now world-class edifices of learning.

There are other factors that must be scrutinized in order for the hampered educational progress in much of the Arab world to be fully revived and revamped. Without such understanding EFA in the Arab world shall remain confined to ineffectual workshops followed by photo-ops and fancy banquets.

EFA is a decision where governments, civil societies and nations as a whole are and ought to be active participants. Unless that decision is made - not imposed - most Arab nations should not be expected to meet the minimal standards for progress and modernity; not in 10 years, not in a hundred.

Ramzy Baroud is a veteran Arab-American journalist, the editor in chief of and a program producer at Al Jazeera Satellite Television