Young people the world over invest in their education with the belief that it will lead them to better jobs and greater opportunities. But in the Middle East and North Africa region, education has become a source of widespread frustration because it is not delivering the skills young people need in today’s world. Rather than leading to meaningful jobs and greater well-being, a university degree in the Middle East is now more likely to lead to a dead end of unemployment.
By 2050, the Mena region will have to produce 300 million new jobs just to absorb the large youth population entering the labour market. Unless governments act now, invest in quality education, and improve learning, many of these young people will face a life of disappointment, with repercussions not just for the region but for the world.
The millions of unemployed graduates in countries ranging from Morocco and Tunisia to Egypt and Lebanon represent a waste of precious human resources. This is especially true for young women, who achieve significantly higher outcomes in learning assessments than young men, and who outnumber them at universities but have twice the unemployment rate of their male peers.
While some see the huge youth bulge in the Mena region as a threat, we must see it as an opportunity. If governments prioritise learning, education can help drive long-term economic growth, spur innovation, strengthen institutions, and promote social cohesion. Equipping young people with the skills needed to thrive in evolving modern economies will allow their aspirations and drive to become engines of growth.
The good news is that the tide has started to turn.
Nine countries from across the Middle East and North Africa have chosen to become early adopters of the World Bank’s Human Capital Project, which aims to encourage governments to invest in people as the most valuable asset of every country. The Human Capital Index, revealed how much growth and productivity countries are missing out on by failing to provide quality health and education for the region’s young people.
The bold decision to submit to this scrutiny is a sign that Mena governments are ready to face hard truths, act on them and make a commitment to the region’s youth and future generations by launching far-reaching education reforms.
Countries across the world have shown what is possible, regardless of income levels. In 2012, Vietnam surprised the world with Programme for International Student Assessment results that were at the same level as Germany. With concerted policy action, Peru achieved some of the fastest growth in overall learning outcomes between 2009 and 2015. The Mena region is indeed capable of similar progress.
A World Bank report being launched this week in Cairo − titled Expectations and Aspirations, A New Framework for Education in the Middle East and North Africa − identifies the constraints holding back the region’s education potential and offers guidance and solutions to unleash it. The Mena region needs to make a concerted push for new ways of intelligent learning, away from traditional paths and aiming at ambitious goals. It also needs a pull for the skills required to create the economy of the future. It needs a pact with, and a commitment to its youth.
The push for learning entails investing in the early years and the early grades. There is strong scientific evidence that shows the largest and most cost-effective impacts of public investment in education can be realised in the early years of life, when the brain undergoes its greatest development. Governments in the region are increasingly recognising the importance of early childhood development. The United Arab Emirates, for example, has made a big commitment to ECD, with its goal of reaching universal enrolment in pre-school by 2021.