Study Urges Investment in Arab Schools

By Ori Nir

Published August 15, 2003, issue of August 15, 2003.
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WASHINGTON — Education is the key to liberalizing and stabilizing Arab countries, according to a new study that recommends that the United States invest money to help develop high-quality, secular schools in the Middle East.

The study, “The Youth Factor,” was published by the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at Washington’s Brookings Institution, and focused on the implications of the disproportionately young demographic profiles of Arab countries.

“Education is absolutely essential,” the author of the study, Graham Fuller, said in an interview. “Educational levels are dropping, even if you forget about content ––– just the general levels of students enrolled and of the teachers’s quality, not to talk about all the competing theologically-oriented education for poor people, which is [provided for] free by Islamists. Arab states right now don’t seem to be able to fully replace this religious education because of lack of funds and because of unwillingness to put the funds there, instead of into guns.”

According to Fuller — senior political consultant at the Rand Corporation in Washington and former vice-chairman of the National Intelligence Council at the CIA — the United States and the international community should invest in secular Arab education as part of an overall initiative to promote liberalization in the Arab world. This effort should be made, he noted, even though promoting liberalization may “initially open the gates to public articulation of much pent-up anti-American hostility.”

Fuller’s report points out that the rapid population growth in the Arab world in the past two decades produced a “youth cohort” that accounts for a majority of the Arab population. Fully half of the population in Lebanon and Algeria is under the age of 24; in Yemen, Saudi Arabia and Iraq, the proportion is two-thirds. The magnitude of this demographic “youth bulge” is unmatched outside sub-Saharan Africa.

Similarly, the school-age population is unusually large in Arab countries. Approximately one-third of the people in Arab countries are under 15 — twice the level found in Western Europe.

Even if this demographic “bulge” peaks and declines in coming years — which seems likely in most Arab states — “it is nonetheless capable of inflicting serious problems upon the socio-political order in the region in the period of the next 20 to 40 years,” according to the study.

A large population of youngsters who are not yet of an economically productive age puts a huge burden on social services, particularly healthcare. It also has crucial political repercussions, as Islamist groups fill the voids left by the state, leading to growing resentment of Arab regimes, according to “The Youth Factor”: “This creates an increasingly destabilizing mix, which could articulate itself in greater levels of terrorism, violence, and underlying instability, enduring over a period of generations.”

This youth cohort places tremendous strains on the Arab states’s infrastructure, Fuller wrote, particularly in the field of education. Already, says the report, “education needs for growing numbers of Muslim youths are not being met.” Primary school enrollment lags behind worldwide averages, and the number drops dramatically for secondary schools. Girls — only 48% of whom receive secondary education — fare worse than boys.

The American government would do best to encourage the liberalization of Middle Eastern societies by fostering liberal, democratic institutions, Fuller says in his report, and by supporting better broadly-based secular education. That education, if accessible and of high quality, will successfully compete with the religious Islamist education system.

There are risks to increasing liberal education in Arab countries that have repressive regimes, he said. “If more people get educated, it will be destabilizing to the governments, and the governments know it — all of them,” Fuller said, “so I recognize the risk. But you always have to consider the alternative.”

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