Lengthy reports by international institutions are often long to digest. But when the process starts, it nourishes lively discussions. It is what is happening in the case of a much-acclaimed World Bank report, titled the “Road Less Traveled”, released back in February 2008. This report aims to support policymakers in the Middle East and North Africa (“MENA”) region develop more effective education strategies that is based on global and regional experience in the sector.
The key messages of the report are as follows. Education is at the crossroads for the future of MENA. It plays crucial role in promoting poverty alleviation and economic growth, both at national and household levels. Various stakeholders in the region regard education as their most important development challenge, and education reform is on top of the reform agenda of many regional governments.
Having succeeded in expanding the education systems to include most eligible children, boys and girls, the MENA region is now ready to travel a new road. While the exact configuration of this new road will not be the same for each country, all countries, irrespective of their initial conditions, will require a shift from “engineering inputs” to “engineering for results”, along with a combination of incentives and public accountability measures, as well as measures to improve labor market outcomes.
Finally, labor market reforms will need to be implemented hand in hand with those for the education system proper. In the case of MENA, the relevant labor market extends much farther than the confines of any country or even the region because of important migration trends and opportunities.
The report is 399-page long and is starting to stimulate quite a bit of discussions, in particular in the countries members of Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Public authorities are reviewing the details and assessing which analyses and recommendations are relevant to their own country.
Probably the best feature of this report on education is precisely that it is not (uniquely) about education, its own internal debates and inward-looking theories.
Granted, GCC countries have achieved a tremendous growth over the past thirty years. And their transformations do not seem to slow down. It is actually hard to think of a field in which nothing has been attempted: science, media, transport, education, art, sport, infrastructure, trade, e-government, the world is hearing from projects popping out from the western side of the Persian Gulf – a palm-shaped man-made island, a one-kilometer high tower, the Louvre, a couple of Formula One Grand Prix, English Premier League teams, television networks challenging CNN, local branches of top-tier universities and research centers. We cannot wait for the Football World Cup, the Olympic Games (at least the summer Olympic Games to start with), a landing on the moon…
This accumulation has been made possible by two fundamental God-sent gifts. The first one is obviously fossil fuel reserves. Albeit at various levels, the GCC countries have had access to cheap and abundant oil and gas. The second aspect is the peace and stability that the GCC countries have enjoyed.
Now, at the risk of spoiling the fun, two issues would need highlighting.
First, the rapid stockpiling of material assets biases the focus of life away from culture and heritage. While religion plays a central role in the societies of the Gulf and in spite of the many public initiatives such as festivals, competitions and museums, people do not seem to be genuinely interested in high culture or art.
Think about fine arts in everyday life in the main capitals of the Gulf – sculpture, painting, literature, theatre, music, dance, photography, filmmaking – and it is fair to say that they are not often the main topics of interest. The occasional buzz occurs (Paris Hilton in Dubai) but even the most educated people do not seem to have a deep interest in art. If it can be used as anecdotal evidence, compare the Friday edition of the local newspapers to the Sunday issue of any European newspaper. Locally, art attracts almost no attention.
This is not to say that endless passionate debates on the latest modern art exhibition, a new novel or an art-house film are the only signs of development, but simply that exposure to culture is a source of positive inspiration. It gives a meaning to societies and personal lives.
The second missing element in the GCC landscape is a collective memory of entrepreneurship, innovation and business initiative. The history of the Gulf is filled with great traders but the current development phase has principally been about the management of an immense rent and its distribution to populations who wanted to import A/C, cars, televisions, etc.
Compared with Europe in the 19th century and many other countries around the world in the first half of the 20th century, the Gulf has not yet accumulated any significant long term industrial experience. Harvard professor and development specialist Alice Amsden argues that:
“On the eve of decolonization, manufacturing experience was greatest in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, China, Korea, Malaysia, Mexico, India, Indonesia, Taiwan, Thailand and Turkey. […] While not every country with prewar manufacturing experience succeeded, no country without it could create a diversity of advanced industries in the half-century after World War II.”
Only time and continuous effort can create the required experienced elite class with large cohorts of entrepreneurs, managers, engineers, lawyers and accountants.
While experience is indeed needed, there is one prerequisite: education is the absolute requirement for society to develop peacefully. There is probably no need to reiterate the importance of knowledge acquisition – awareness is actually quite high in this area – but it seems that the public attention regarding education is crystallized on a flawed debate.
Most of what we hear or read is about the inadequacy of rote-learning and other old-fashioned methodologies. It is as if children where going to learn mathematics through a series of modern, cool student-centered learning by doing. The time has perhaps come to go over this debate, which in any case will never be closed, and reorient the education strategy towards what is missing in the region. Not enough is done to inculcate the love of art and culture and not much is even attempted to foster a culture of innovation, research and entrepreneurship.
If that is what the GCC lacks, it is more than urgent that significant resources, efforts and commitments are aligned with the real challenges of the region. The Road Not Traveled? Indeed. And the journey is going to be long…
Olivier Renard is an advisor at the Secretariat General of the Research Council of the Sultanate of Oman.