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Are Arab countries on track for UN education goals?

Education for the common good

by Hamed al-Hamami

A region of renowned civilizations and contribution to humanity, the Arab region has become one of paradoxes in recent times: Young, highly educated, dynamic nations, on the one hand, and multiple protracted armed conflicts, high levels of youth unemployment, volatile and vulnerable states of existence, and extreme inequalities and disparities, on the other.  

 While the region indeed has made tremendous achievements toward development goals, many countries have unfortunately seen their developmental gains significantly reversed, primarily due to the protracted nature of multiple conflicts, while others struggle to improve the quality of education and achieve nationally set goals.

Available evidence shows that national education systems face significant challenges. Children, youth, and adults in the region are facing unprecedented challenges in terms of learning, employment, and social cohesion. More than 20 million Arab children are out of school or at risk of dropping out. This is coupled with a growing number of youths in the region who are not in education, employment, or training (NEET). In some countries, NEET accounts for up to 45 percent youth. 

In addition, the quality of education needs major improvement. For example, results in the 2015 TIMSS (Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study) for grade-8 mathematics indicate that while some countries have shown improvement, as compared to 2011 results, six out of the bottom eight countries surveyed are in the Arab region. When it comes to literacy, the number of adults possessing low literacy skills is relatively high in the region (more than 50 million adults) and appears to be on the rise, particularly in crisis-affected countries. In most Arab countries, the expansion of educational opportunities has yet to translate into economic growth. The average rate of youth unemployment in the Arab region is the highest in the world, reaching 30 percent, which is more than double the world average.

Steps taken on a long road

Cognizant of the above, all governments in the Arab region embraced Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 4 – Education 2030 as a prime opportunity to transform national education systems into those of resilience, and to contribute to the realization of national development goals and the Agenda 2030 for Sustainable Development as a whole. In this regard, evidence points to three broad-based issues and priorities of common concern: First, migration, displacement, and education—ensuring access to safe and conducive learning environments at all levels, providing opportunities to gain life-saving and enhancing knowledge and skills, supporting teachers and educators, and building resilient education systems; second, quality and relevance of education—ensuring coherent, holistic, systematic, and sector-wide approaches to addressing the dimensions of quality and relevance in education; and third, financing of education—increasing, optimizing use of, and accounting for, investment in education.

Almost five years after adopting Agenda 2030 for Sustainable Development, countries have demonstrated a number of key achievements. Arab states have led and remained engaged in policy and technical dialogue at national, regional, and international levels as well as corresponding actions through elaboration of, commitment to, and implementation of, successive roadmaps and commitments.

 With the Agenda 2030 being country-led, all countries in the Arab region have taken their own initiatives toward achieving SDG 4, and contextualizing, mainstreaming, and integrating countries’ commitments into national processes. An ‘Arab Regional Support Group for SDG 4 – Education 2030 Agenda’ consisting of  23 member states and organizations have been working together since early 2014 and have met five times to take stock of the implementation of the regional roadmap, and to jointly plan for and finance the continuation of initiatives in 2019.

 The region is confronted with multiple crises that heavily affect the state of education and has been implementing humanitarian response plans for over a decade.  While acute educational needs must be met for millions of out of school children, long-suffering teachers, and a dysfunctional education system, countries in crisis and those affected by it equally recognize the need to combine both humanitarian and development interventions. Therefore, SDG 4 provides an excellent opportunity to position itself as the long-term goal toward which countries plan to rebuild national education systems. 

 In spite of numerous challenges confronting many countries in the region, all are determined to realize education as a fundamental human right, and as the main vehicle for individual, societal, and national development. It is, therefore, the role and responsibility of UNESCO to accompany each and every country in the region toward the 2030 target and beyond.

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Hamed al-Hamami

Hamed al-Hamami, PhD, is the director of UNESCO Beirut.

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