If there is one reason above all others that helps explain the many situations of armed conflict, political violence and state collapse across the Arab world, it must be that tens of millions of hopeless young men are wandering through their own societies like ghosts, unable to enjoy either satisfying employment or meaningful citizenship. The supply of young men, some as young as 14, who are eager to join armed groups, criminal cults and extremist militias is staggering, as we have witnessed in Iraq, Yemen, Syria, Sudan,Libya and pockets of other countries across the region.
Among the main reasons for this sad reality is that since the 1970s when police state-minded families took control of many of our governments, our Arab societies for the most part have failed to establish a productive relationship between the education systems and the labor markets. Millions of primary and secondary school-age youth have never entered a school, and millions more are in danger of dropping out. They create the pool of tens of millions of angry, fearful and mostly hopeless young Arabs who are easy recruits for the radical and criminal movements – and also the corrupt governance systems – that are the biggest threats to our countries these days. These are homegrown threats, not invaders and colonizers from abroad.
A new report released this week by UNICEF and UNESCO provides solid analysis of the magnitude and causes of this problem of “out of school children” (OOSC). It shows that more than 21 million children and young adolescents across the Arab world are either out of school or at risk of dropping out. What makes this more troubling is that the number of OOSC had decreased by 40 percent over the past decade, but now the fortunes of our youngest citizens have started to decline. This is due to a combination of reasons, including poverty, gender and other discrimination, poor quality learning, social attitudes, early marriage, a lack of female teachers and conflict.
We know very well what will be the dark fate of the 12.3 million children and young adolescents in our region who are out of school, the over 6 million who are at risk of dropping out, and the 3 million children who have stopped going to school in Syria and Iraq. The overwhelming majority of these over 21 million boys and girls will likely experience a life of poverty, vulnerability, marginalization, poor health, degradation and pain, which is a sure recipe for permanent instability and violence.
The report’s most frightening finding, in my view, is that young adolescents drop out of school mainly because of poor education standards and low-quality school environments. The report does not go into this issue in detail. However, I learned about how badly Arab children perform even when they do attend school, when a few months ago I researched a presentation I made at an American university on the relationship between education and the Arab uprisings.
Available data from worldwide tests that measure the numeracy and literacy abilities of students in primary and secondary school show that about half of all school children in the Arab world actually are not learning. Let me repeat that to confirm that this is not a printing error: About half of all school children in the Arab world actually are not learning.
A powerful report issued last year by the Brookings Institution – titled “Arab Youth: Missing Educational Foundations for a Productive Life?” – analyzed available global testing data from 13 Arab countries. It concluded: “We estimate, based on the average scores for literacy and numeracy for the 13 countries for which we have data, that 56 percent of primary students and 48 percent of lower secondary school students are not learning.”
These are average figures. The results for some countries are beyond belief, including from some of the wealthy oil-producing states. The percentages of primary school students who did not meet basic learning levels (average of numeracy and literacy) in 2011 was around 90 percent in Yemen, 77 percent in Morocco, 69 percent in Kuwait and 63 percent in Tunisia. The best performers, with 30-40 percent of non-learning students, were Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia, though in wealthy Qatar, for example, over 53 percent of children at the lower secondary level were not learning.
These are not just early warning signs that our societies must take seriously to stop the hemorrhaging of our human talent and potential. They are wildly flashing red lights telling us to stop building one-way highways to hell for tens of millions of our children who are denied the most important opportunity of their lives: to develop their maximum intellectual and creative potential so that they can participate as full citizens in building stable and satisfying societies. If this does not happen, these tens of millions of uneducated young Arabs will prove to be our own homemade weapons of our own mass destruction.