Last week, the Arab Economic Summit in Riyadh convened under the slogan “fighting poverty and unemployment” in the Arab world. This was the third summit, following the first one in Kuwait four years ago, trying hard to elevate those societies from the hardships they face.
In fighting poverty and unemployment, one should look somewhere else — not at the direct economic elements, but towards education. Nations that have prospered did so when they reformed their education systems. The Turks are proud, as they declare in every meeting and conference, that education is the largest sector that gets the biggest monetary share in their national budget. In contrast, Ahmad Abu Al Gaith, the Egyptian foreign minister during Hosni Mubarak’s reign, noted in a recent television interview that the biggest obstacle facing Egypt was its literacy rate. Illiterate men in Egypt, he said, constitute around 30 per cent of the population and the figure is much higher for women.
The battle for education is still being fought in most Arab countries and there is still no victory in sight. In terms of size, the Arab countries figure on top of the list of illiteracy. And in terms of the quality of education offered, these countries will probably feature at the bottom of the table. Personally, I have been teaching at Kuwait University for almost four decades now, during which I have witnessed a deterioration in the quality of education and it is getting worse every year.
There is no lack of studies or successful experiments showing how education spearheads development. There is plentiful literature on how other nations have got into the pipeline of modernity and development, because they based their work on enhancing education and training.
The two examples in mind are South Korea and Malaysia. A book by Mahathir Mohammad has become a textbook for most Arab intellectuals who are interested in bringing education to the forefront. That book describes in detail how the author put education on top of his priority list and where this course took him and his country Malaysia.
So the means to progression into the modern age and fighting most of the backwardness are through enhancing the way societies look at education. The fact is well-known to most Arab academics and politicians, but the big question here is why is nothing happening on the ground? One factor which has a dual effect is money — the lack of it in some places, or having plenty of it in other places! This one element works in a negative way in both, rich as well as poor Arab states.
The rich do not bother as there is plenty of opportunity — earning well despite working less. For the poor, it is a question of scarcity of resources and lack of funds. Some poor Arab countries lack the financial resources that are necessary to develop a new and modern education system. Other nations may be having plenty of money, but that in itself has become an obstacle to enhancing a meaningful, modern education system and initiating creative and proactive attitudes among the public.
I was once a member of the Kuwaiti Planning Board, the agency responsible for planning for the state. Supported by an expert group, we conducted a study on education. To our surprise, we found out that 40 per cent of Kuwaiti families admitted their children to private schools, despite the fact that they have to pay a lot for these schools and despite the fact that the government provides free education — from pre-school and kindergarten to graduate programmes.
There is a difference in terms of administration, besides the curriculum, between government-run educational institutions and private ones. Administration in government education follows the general rules that are seen in other government agencies, but these are not productive enough. The debate over private-versus-government education is widely noted in the Arab World. We have a good number of private universities in Egypt, Jordon and the Gulf countries and some of them are very weak and interest-driven. This has been noted by the authorities concerned, yet they can do nothing about it. Some students from Kuwait, for instance, travel as far as the Philippines and beyond to acquire certificates that are good for nothing and then they use these to force their way into the labour market and are absorbed by government agencies.
In poorer countries, political agendas dictate the education polices. Hundreds of students crowd classrooms, the teachers are overworked and there are poor facilities. All these factors contribute towards sending worthless and unskilled hands to the labour market. There are people who supposedly have university education, but are not useful in the job market because they have been poorly trained. The socio-political outcome of such a paradigm is phenomenal. Not only is a large segment of the population — mostly young adults — left without a job, but are also short on self-respect and hope for the future. In bigger cities, some of these people go on to have some sort of a job in the black market or manage to get involved in illegal activities, become drug pushers and petty criminals. Still others get drawn to radical groups.
The problem of a faulty education system in the more prosperous Arab countries is much more acute. Poor education and training in these countries springs not from a lack of money, but from an abundance of it, as people are dependent on a secure government job for life and are guaranteed a fat monthly salary — thus resulting in diminished creativity, few personality traits and defused eagerness in the attitudes of most of the public.
When I asked some of my pupils about what meaning education had for them, most replied “salary”! So the lack of impetus for any real sense of achievement is clear from this general attitude — that a guaranteed job at the end of the day means there is no need to work hard. This is reflected on the level of productivity and quality of service or anything else for that matter. Unfortunately, the Riyadh summit featured a lot of experts from every field, but not from the business of developing human capital — education and training — and this is what we Arabs seriously lack.
Mohammed Alrumaihi is a professor of political sociology at Kuwait University.