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Great Unity, Great Diversity
twenty-one Arab States, along with the Palestinian Autonomous
Territories, share a common language and culture and a sense
of belonging to one nation. When it comes to educational provision,
however, the similarity ends.
of the great disparity in development levels, education in the
region resembles a rich mosaic that is impressive but incomplete.
The brilliant, shining pieces are countries whose educational
development is right on track (such as Kuwait or Lebanon). Other
pieces need repair, as in countries where education has suffered
from conflicts or economic hardship (such as Iraq, Somalia,
Sudan and Yemen).
Arab States have the world's highest percentage of children
under 15. One out of four of them are out of school, representing
a total of some 10 million children in the region. Educating
these children is vitally important if they are to avoid becoming
tomorrow’s illiterate adults. The overall total of adult illiterates
is currently 67 million, ranging from 5.5 per cent illiteracy
in Lebanon to as high as 53 per cent in Mauritania.
for the female literacy rate, it lags behind other regions at
only 50 per cent, compared with over 70 per cent for males.
Women’s involvement in civil society is correspondingly low.
About 25 per cent of Arab women have jobs, and four per cent
are involved in political life. In other parts of the developing
world, these figures are 39 and 10 per cent respectively. Nearly
half the countries in the region have not yet ratified the Convention
on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women;
this denial of women’s rights affects girls’ education and women’s
1990 et 1998, the net primary school enrolment rate
in the Arab States went from 74 per cent to 76 per
out of four children are out of school, which represents
a total of 10.3 million children in the region.
gender gap has slightly narrowed from 65 per cent
of girls in school in 1990 up to 71 per cent in 1998.
Half of all women are literate whereas the male literacy
rate is over 70 per cent.
than 10 per cent of 3- to 5-year-olds in 8 out of
15 countries are in early childhood programmes. Only
two countries, Lebanon and Kuwait, have 70 per cent
Jordan, the United Arabs Emirates or Kuwait have achieved
close to 90 per cent literacy. However, at least 67
million adults are illiterate in the Arab States.
countries are overcoming cultural taboos to empower their women.
Jordan, Lebanon and the Syrian Arab Republic have considerably
raised their female literacy rates, thanks to strategies developed
in the last decade. “It was no overnight success, though,” remarks
Victor Billeh of UNESCO Beirut. “Improving literacy required
a plan of action and regular monitoring. But the results are
there.” He adds that factors like the democratization of public
life, a free press and a variety of media create the conditions
for greater equality.
education in the Arab States has come a long way when one considers
that, back in 1970, roughly half of the primary age children
in the region were enrolled. Today, three out of four children
are in school. A handful of countries have almost reached universal
primary education. Oman, which had no education system at all
prior to 1970, now has some 85 per cent of primary school-age
children in school. The United Arab Emirates, the Palestinian
Autonomous Territories, the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, Jordan and
Iraq have made great progress, while Mauritania’s rate of increase
is high because, like Oman, it started from a low point. Djibouti,
however, occupies the bottom of the list with less than 40 per
cent net enrolment.
70 per cent of primary-school-age girls are enrolled. The gap
between girls’ and boys’ rates is more than nine percentage
points. Yemen has the greatest gender gap, with only 33 per
cent of girls in school compared with 73 per cent of boys. Programmes
in Egypt, Morocco, Sudan, Tunisia and Yemen are now leading
the way in bringing education to girls in poor areas through
community schools located closer to their homes.
only 50 per cent,
the female literacy
rate lags behind other regions.
About 25 per cent of Arab women have jobs,
and four per cent
are involved in political life.
In other parts of the developing world,
these figures are 39
and 10 per cent respectively.
countries do not consider early childhood education a government
responsibility, despite its proven effectiveness. The average
figure for the region is below 15 per cent. “Even relatively
well-to-do countries do not consider it an issue,” explains
Billeh. Lebanon again leads the way in this department, along
with Kuwait, with 70 per cent of young children in early childhood
programmes. The Palestinian Autonomous Territories and Morocco
also have good coverage at 50 per cent.
conflicts in Algeria, Somalia and Sudan have disrupted education,
and sanctions against Iraq have led to school closings, loss
of teachers and more children dropping out. In the early 1990s,
Qatar and Yemen spent about twice as much on the military as
they did on health and education; the Syrian Arab Republic spent
almost four times as much.
only we could reduce military budgets to encourage education
and investment in humans,” says Aicha Barka, founder of the
Algerian Literacy Association. Today, civil society is gaining
ground in the Arab States, notably in Morocco, where women’s
groups have mushroomed. “The great task of fighting against
illiteracy is a battle that the state cannot win on its own,
and neither can we,” she insists.
number one in the Arab States is now improving the quality of
education. The UNESCO/UNICEF Monitoring Learning Achievement
project found achievement levels unsatisfactory in nine Arab
nations. Modernizing curricula is also an area of concern. “We
must teach our children how to learn and how to think about
what they learn,” says Egypt’s Minister of Education, Hussein
Kamal Bahaa El-Din, “using such modern technology as the computer,
which is the blackboard of tomorrow.” Performance is lower than
expected in most countries considering the spending levels,
according to Billeh. “We’re not saying more money should be
spent but that it should be spent more efficiently,” he says.
“Good governance and good management are now needed.” Priority
number two, therefore, is improving the efficiency of educational
shared language, culture and sense of belonging to one nation
is the great strength of the Arab States, providing possibilities
for co-operation in education between countries. It is a strength
to build on.