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The deterioration of human capital in Lebanon

Stalled potential

by Talal F. Salman

Economic and social prosperity in a country is measured by assessing the standard of living of its people. Those born in a country with high levels of poverty and corruption have a higher risk of living in a state of deprivation and suboptimal prosperity. Those born to wealthier nations with a more equitable distribution of that wealth will, in contrast, have a more prosperous life—developing the skills, knowledge, and experience (i.e. human capital) that will allow for more economic and social productivity.

Economic theories might differ on the best approach, but all schools of economic thought agree on the importance of investing in infrastructure, education, and healthcare as prerequisites for development and advancement. These three pillars allow citizens to live a full life. Yet development efforts over the past few decades have been geared toward the infrastructure rather than the human being. 

The human link

The end result of forgetting to place human beings at the heart of development goals, according to the World Bank, is that 56 percent of all global newborns today will, at best, be 50 percent as productive as they could have been as adults, had they received the necessary education and healthcare. To counter this, the World Bank launched the Human Capital Project, creating a human capital index (HCI) for countries, and offering support in designing strategies to tackle deficiencies in education and healthcare. The project’s underlying principle is that investing in human capital—in particular in healthcare and education from a young age—is  essential for eventual adulthood success and prosperity. 

The HCI—which ranges from 0 to 1—measures the amount of human capital that a human born today is expected to accumulate given available education and healthcare. Based on 2017 metrics, the new index placed Lebanon 86th out of 157 countries with a score of 0.54, meaning Lebanese productivity is just 54 percent of what it could be. This is below the MENA average of 0.57, and it is low compared to other upper-middle income countries such as Turkey (0.63), Bulgaria (0.68), and Serbia (0.78). By this metric, Lebanon has failed to design and implement developmental policies for its own population. 

Education, education, education

On the healthcare front, the results of Lebanon were in an acceptable range, as the index by nature targets the poorest countries, which are mostly in the African continent. On the education front, however, the average Lebanese student completes just 10.5 years out of the required 14, compared to a MENA average of 11.5, and a world average of 11.2. For standardized tests—scored between 300 and 600—Lebanon’s score was 405, under the regional average of 408, and lagging behind the world average of 431.

Due to low-quality public education and limited years in school, the HCI estimates the effective school years for Lebanese students is just 6.8 years, compared to the regional average of 7.6, and world average of 7.9. In developed countries this average rises to 11 years, meaning that Lebanon suffers from an alarming learning gap of 3.7-years.

The global preliminary findings of the HCI found that the lack of quality public education and healthcare were due to two things: First, politicians think short-term by investing in infrastructure over people; second, bureaucracy tends to get in the way of transforming efficient policies to actionable implementation programs.

A future vision

Chile focused on early investment in human capital by mixing education, healthcare, and social protection programs for children; Pakistan focused on using technology to reach children in need of vaccines. This is to say that ideas are as diverse as every society is, and as diverse as every country’s capabilities are. What matters is to diagnose the problems, and then design policies with a long-term vision that increases living standards by improving the capabilities of humans, so they can become healthy and productive adults.

It is not acceptable for Lebanon to continue to boast about its past, its diaspora, and its private education, while the level of education overall has lowered and continues to worsen. What is needed is an emergency plan to diagnose the real challenges, develop our curricula, improve teaching quality, and link education to health and to an overall economic plan, because society is not a sum of the parts—it is a whole to which success is as good as that of its weakest member.

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Talal F. Salman

Talal F. Salman is UNDP project director for fiscal reform in Lebanon

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