Fixing the education crisis in the Middle East and North Africa region

Solving this problem will require a bold and multifaceted approach, in which technology and new methods are embraced to teach the skills the economy needs

Moroccan children attend a kindergarten school, in Sidi Moumen, a low-income suburb of Casablanca.
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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.

It is paramount that education systems reach all children, regardless of gender, race, ability or background, not only through access to schooling but through quality learning. Education systems also need to recruit, train, and support those men and women with the greatest potential to be effective teachers and school leaders. Motivated teachers and administrators are the foundation of well-functioning education systems, and they need opportunities for ongoing professional development.

Egypt has launched a programme for updating skills, registering 10,000 teachers for its Teachers First programme and is now scaling it up nationwide. It is also important to teach to the level of the child, using modern instructional practices, and to measure learning through regular assessments. Technology is an effective tool that has large untapped potential in education and can be leveraged to deliver, support, measure and manage learning.

The pull for skills must come from the private sector. If schools and the private sector work hand in hand, students will have a clearer idea of the skills that are needed in today’s labour markets. Students can then exert pressure on schools to re-orient away from training youth for government jobs, and instead offer courses on skills that are more in demand. Governments must do their part by creating the conditions for the private sector to grow and generate opportunities.

The pull for skills also requires modernised curriculums that reflect the skills students need for social and economic life. Curriculums should serve as a nexus for the labour market and the education system, where skills taught should match the skills needed.

Finally, improving education is not the responsibility of educators alone. It requires a pact to mobilise everyone with a stake in effective learning. This requires strong leadership to align interests among the various groups around a common vision for education, and shared responsibility and accountability.

In 1963, Tunisia made history when it convinced the World Bank to help it finance, develop, and promote its education system. This set off a trend in the developing world of investing in education. Fifty-five years later, the Mena region has an opportunity to resume its leadership role. The goal of education reform is not to just catch up, but to leverage new technologies and the immense potential of its young people, in order to leapfrog into the digital economy of the future.

Ferid Belhaj is World Bank Vice President for the Middle East and North Africa