BEIRUT – Report after report from the World Bank, United Nations Development Program, and the Arab League emphasize that the education deficit in the Arab world is among the main causes of its underdevelopment. With 5% of the world’s population and the bulk of the world’s oil and gas, the Arab world nonetheless lags behind most of the rest of the world, and suffers from what can best be termed “educational poverty.” Without dramatic improvement at all educational levels, unemployment, illiteracy, and income inequality will continue to worsen, and the region will remain a danger to itself and its neighbors.
Even before the current economic recession, unemployment in the Arab world was estimated at 14% – the world’s highest average outside sub-Saharan Africa. Among young people and recent graduates, the figure is more than double.
The Arab world also has the highest population growth rate in the world, with almost 40% of its population now below the age of 15. According to some estimates, the Arab world accounts for one-quarter of the world’s unemployment among the 15-24 age group. Just to keep up with the inflow of young people into the labor market, Arab economies will have to generate 100 million new jobs over the next 10 years, which will be impossible if education remains impoverished.
Enrollment ratios in the Arab world have improved over the past decade, but Arab countries still have one of the lowest average net enrollment ratios in the developing world. About one-fifth of eligible children, more than seven million, are not in school, and 60% of these are girls. The average years of schooling for Arabs is less than half that for the East Asian countries. Not surprisingly, despite progress in recent decades, illiteracy remains at around 30% on average, and in some Arab countries reaches 50% and 60%.