Home Special ReportEducation A categorical imperative to not abandon the future


A categorical imperative to not abandon the future

Calls for structural reform have gone unheeded

by Thomas Schellen

Public goods are numerous. In the face of extreme perils, public goods exist to guarantee the very survival of a society. External and internal guardian institutions against invading powers, catastrophes and crime exist today in form of defense, the justice and police system, and fire brigades, but also in form of agencies for environmental protection, preservation of biodiversity and climate. They are safeguards that facilitate the survival of societies in present and future. As such, they benefit all and must be designed to be non-exclusionary by their reach and coverage. But they are not created equal. 

During a century of external peace, the public good of defense capabilities is less prominent. In a stable society with persistently low crime rates, police and prisons might become lower priorities, especially if other societal threat factors are intensifying. Established public goods of external and internal security may thus be overshadowed by new societal worries when for example simultaneous increases in population and economic activity are eroding environmental integrity, climate, biodiversity, global coexistence and social cohesion – until the moment when international tensions and internal social divergence burst again onto the scene. 

Education and health are universal concerns of the human species and in this sense less sensitive than other public goods to societies’ shifting priorities. However, they are subject to shifts of individual and collective priorities and perceptions. The perception of personal health is in part human self-perception informed by personal choice, individual folly, and cultural bias. But overall, measurable indicators and impartial science plays an ever-increasing role in our approaches to health. Education is a matter of projecting societal experience forward in time, imperfectly sourcing future productive contributions of a wide variety and anticipating impending societal needs, such as jobs. 

In being directed at a child and youth as formal education, the education system reflects in a significant part societal needs and priorities, to which it seeks to match the new member with tools of measurement and statistics. It significantly also is a matter of family perception where the dreams and biases of the parents are influenced by the biases of their parents, frequently going back all the way to various philosophical speculations of the so-called axial age that a more educated human being will have a better life for herself and at the same time contribute to a superior community with ever-growing quality of living. 

In this sense, education has presented itself with the underlying communities’ historic consent as a moral imperative aimed at reaching a communally-relevant quality of life that delivers on such ethereal human wants as happiness, honor, respect, benevolence, political honesty, sustainable development, peace, and love. Such are dreams of education – or, in the worst case, vain and expensive hopes. 

A weakening system’s disintegration

The current state of the Lebanese education system appears to have fallen from a popular utopian dream into a pit of depressiveness. Having disintegrated financially and sharply degraded in its capacities over the past four years, the education system’s internal divisions, which have been unabated since the country’s economic and societal reconstruction phase in the 1990s, seem to have descended further into a disorder where few learners achieve and the majority is left behind. In its genesis, this classical tragedy of education in Lebanon – where extraordinary efforts result in the opposite of the desired outcome – can be described in numbers that date back to the days when the country was still absorbed in its delusion of a stable currency and sustainable model for business and society. 

In one puzzling set of data, the ratio of pupils to primary school teacher in Lebanon was for a long time one of the lowest in the region and among upper middle-income countries. Compared with global averages that improved haltingly from over 28 to about 23 pupils per teacher in the course of five decades between 1970 and the mid-2010s, the value for Lebanon fluctuated – as per available data – between 12 and 17 pupils per teacher. By such data, and also by qualitative evidence such as the local tradition of Teacher’s Day, this society has over many years impressed as a positive outlier against several international peer groups in its cherishment of teachers.  


By another measuring stick, however, namely in terms of spending on education, the Lebanese state can be classified as spendthrift to the point of suspicion of non-sustainability in the short and the long term. A 2021 paper by World Bank staff claimed that “the government of Lebanon spends $1.2 billion on education (less than 2 percent of GDP).” Surprisingly, however, another World Bank paper by the title Lebanon Education Public Expenditure Review 2017 (LEPER) – which is referenced in the Foundations for Building Borward Better (FBFB) document of late 2032 – cites the same figure of about $1.2 billion in annual public spend on education but associates it with “approximately 2.45 percent of GDP and 6.4 percent of total public expenditure.” 

It is said in the FBFB report that the public expenditure on education in Lebanon dropped to less than 2 percent of GDP in 2020 but a data series for the 11 years from 2005 to 2015 cited in the Public Expenditure 2017 Review shows that public education expenditure through the Ministry of Education and Higher Education (MEHE) moved somewhat erratically between 1.6 percent and 2.4 percent per year, to which one has to note that Lebanon experienced significant fluctuations in its GDP growth rate over the period. In a vaguely correlated trend line, MEHE budgets as percentage of total public expenditure vacillated over the same period between a high of 7.7 percent in 2005 and a low of 5.2 percent in 2008 for an average of about 6.3 percent over the period. It further has to be noted that Lebanese households were estimated to have spent $1.5 billion annually – another tranche of GDP that would have the total public and private country spend on education trending well above the lower bound of the 4 to 6 percent share of GDP range that has been recommended in context of the United Nations’ sustainable development goals (SDGs). 

By time of this writing in 2023 however, assessment of Lebanese education expenditure has been massively impacted by the continuing economic crisis, and it must further be taken into consideration that data on population, GDP, and private and public expenditures in view of purchase power losses, rising economic informality, wild currency fluctuations and uncontrollable price inflation are presently even more tenuous than in the previous decade. The fiscal misery nonetheless suggests that Lebanon will over the first half of the 2020s – and possibly far longer than that – be allocating significantly less to education in percentage terms of GDP than the 4 to 6 percent range that was recommended as means toward achieving SDG4 by a World Education Forum in 2015. 

Missing education targets

Named the Incheon Declaration after the Korean city where the forum was held, the event’s concluding statement advised that countries provide 12 years of free public education and urged them to adhere “to the international and regional benchmarks of allocating efficiently at least 4 to 6 percent of GDP and/or at least 15 to 20 percent of total public expenditure to education.” World Education Forums were organized as global-level initiatives in 2000 (Dakar, Senegal) related to the Millennium Development Goals, and in Incheon, Korea, in 2015 related to the SDGs. UN agencies and the World Bank were the organizing entity. 

However, for discussing mores, modes and models of education for the future, it is hardly self-evident that primacy of public education and state finance is optimally tailored to all rapidly evolving education mandates such as remote learning in a digital future and lifelong learning on individual level. Moreover, in hindsight of a world that has experienced an unprecedented education crisis in the pandemic years of 2020 and 2021 (which was an education-related observation of “Our Common Agenda”, a September 2021 UN event and report whose top recommendations included the renewal of the social contract and the protection of global public goods), the Incheon Declaration’s context was programmatic. It was not necessarily immune to tinges of top-down, pro-state policy orientation – one article in the declaration took a decidedly pro-state position in insisting that education is a public good “with the state as main duty bearer in protecting and fulfilling the right to education.”

Moreover, on the scale of Lebanon, the World Bank’s LEPER of 2017 noted that “higher educational attainment corresponds to higher earnings in the labor market” and that education investments consequently deliver “high returns” to Lebanese households. It cannot be disputed that the majority of society was embracing a high share of private education finance in an outlier country such as Lebanon, given that the extraordinary tripartite education system of public, private, and not-for-profit private provision was delivering results in form of annual cohorts of graduates. This is also expressed in enrolment numbers at private education providers up to the level of tertiary education, embraced by society during the post-conflict reconstruction period and into the 2010s. 

However, a diminishing performance against education benchmarks, long-standing deficiencies in qualifications and inefficiencies in allocation of teachers, and a frighteningly high degree of education inequity are indisputable factors in reviewing of the trajectory of the Lebanese education system in the years before the pandemic and financial and economic and policy crises. 

“Learning outcomes in international assessments are low and have been declining for the past decade,” notes the World Bank FBFB paper of 2021, which in its executive summary prominently references the World Bank’s Human Capital Index in suggesting that children born today would, on average, at adulthood reach not more than 52 percent of their productivity potential. The paper further cites decade-long declines in results of assessments such as the Trends in International and Science Study (TIMSS) and below-average performance of Lebanese students in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) where test results revealed worryingly vast distances between scores for best and worst performing schools. 

A set of long-term outlook speculations by the World Bank’s Human Capital Project – which constructed and published its first Human Capital Index (HCI) at the end of the 2010s – drew on education outcome measurements such as PISA and TIMMS in allocating an unexpectedly low HCI ranking to Lebanon in its assessment of a newly born Lebanese child’s capacity to achieve optimum economic productivity by age 18. 

Although any such multi-decade prediction of human productivity by necessity will be heavily programmatic, be unable to account for influences that go beyond a small number of increasingly tenuous data projections, and be co-dependent on unknowable factors that are impossible to quantify for impacts upon national and global economic dimensions, the low HCI ranking of Lebanon – dating to the time when the roots of the long crisis period were still hidden – is yet another urgent alarm signal for education and health institutions and policy makers in the country. The human economic resource is perceived as a rare national treasure, often named in analyses and public speeches as the country’s most significant asset.   

With regards to education opportunities, the 2021 FBFB paper admonishes as the first statement of its medium-to-long term reform recommendations that “the Lebanese education sector is highly inequitable.” This is consistent with the 2017 LEPER observation that “inequity associated with socio-economic status exists in terms of access to quality private and public schools.”

This high inequity has negative implications for an efficient labor supply and for the ability and effectiveness of the Lebanese education system. In this context, also the pupil to teacher ratio, which on the face of it looks like an advantage of the Lebanese system, has a very dark side. According to the LEPER report, the salary cost in the Lebanese education system was above that of many developed economies and the utilization of teachers per student “low and inefficient by international standards”. Partial explanations for the discrepancy between teacher numbers and learning outcomes according to the report were firstly that a significant portion of the teaching cadre are working in administrative roles rather than in the classroom and secondly that some rural schools have a full complement of teachers for comparatively few students. 

Additional indicators for the – prior to the economic crisis – inefficient Lebanese education system’s need for reform and development were cited across international reports in wide mismatches of graduates’ qualifications and labor market needs. School system brick and mortar infrastructures showed regional differences in quality, which in turn were reflected in student performances. 

In terms of teacher pay, training, motivation and performance, by international comparison high salary entitlements of some teachers and weak qualification levels of others, stood in contrast to the lack of training, incentive, and performance evaluation systems. According to several reports also in need of addressing were the lack of regulatory frameworks, need of curriculum reform, absent governance and quality control. 

To draw a concluding impression of all this, the high number of reform proposals and remedial recommendations that have been published since the 2000s, including many proposals for curriculum reform and delivery system reform, is juxtaposed with very little evidence of effective systemic changes.

The education system of Lebanon has performed better than many expected when confronted with unexpected challenges such as the influx of Syrian refugee children in 2012 and 2013 and with the lockdowns and Covid-19 challenges in 2020. Yet, the many calls for structural reform seem to have gone in one ear and out the other. The brokenness of the education system in the 2020 to 2023 period is in this sense the pinnacle in a cycle of education system shocks and crises. In this downward spiral, reform needs discovered in the 2000s were exacerbated by the very high impact that the Syrian refugee crisis had on schools in Lebanon and forced into a yet more severe state of shock by the pandemic and collapse of livelihoods. 

Beacons of betterment 

This picture taken on March 28, 2022 shows a view of Mufti Hassan Khaled School in Lebanon’s capital, which was restored as part of a UNESCO project to rehabilitate 280 educational buildings damaged by the 2020 Beirut port blast. – Lebanon is grappling with an education “emergency,” said Maysoun Chehab of the UN education and culture body (UNESCO), as years of economic collapse weigh heavily on students and teachers. Chehab spoke on the sidelines of an event on March 28 celebrating the completion of the $35 million UNESCO project. The explosion caused by haphazardly stored fertiliser at the port killed more than 200 people, disrupted the education of at least 85,000 youths and sparked international outcry. (Photo by ANWAR AMRO / AFP)

Going forward, structural education reform plans without political and financial viability can hardly be expected to deliver during the latter stages of the systemic crisis what they did not deliver in earlier stages. While the inequities and problems on the systemic level must be expected to increase in most aspects of the education system, attempts to confront the problems can perhaps draw energy from a look at solutions. 

One beacon of hope for development has been erected by the thought and strategy leaders at top universities, which are addressing the challenges they face with the support of their networks that reach around the globe (see their comment pieces in the Dec/Jan issue of Executive). However, the top educational institutions, although deeply woven into the social and economic fabric of this country, need a functional education system to stand upon. 

On that side of the education equation, with only the faintest traces of trust in the state as guardian and provider of this public good being visible in society, the risk of a further spike in inequity and privatization of education in Lebanon has to be considered. Viable solutions might not reach to the scale and scope of strategic reform but momentum of change to the better might be found through meaningful steps on the ground while not abandoning the state as stakeholder. 

An extant party to the education development issue that can be viewed through this bifocal lens, is the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund, known by its acronym UNICEF. The organization has according to Ettie Higgins, UNICEF deputy representative, been present in Lebanon since the middle of the 20th century but has achieved a huge leap of impact in the context of the Syrian refugee crisis of the 2010s when it helped addressing the emergency needs of children. 

Support mechanisms for children that the organization has initiated in context of Lebanon’s education crisis include a fund by name of transition resilience education fund (TREF), which according to Higgins allows for the direct payment to the public sector, to schools, and to teachers for the work that they have been doing, as soon as the delivery of services to students is verified. Support of the formal education system accounts for a huge chunk of the organization’s budget in Lebanon. “UNICEF really sees the job that the public sector does for education as irreplaceable,” Higgins tells Executive. 

Other current programs coordinated by UNICEF comprise a project to create as many as 100 community centers in coordination with about a dozen NGOs that will deliver an integrated package of education, child protection, and youth services. There also is an innovative “school bridging program” to children who have been out of school for one year or more. The program, which is currently in its pilot phase, is designed for collaboration with private schools in providing learners with “multiple flexible pathways” to improve their societal and economic productivity. 

“We focus our integrated interventions where we have a high number of children out of school and where we have high pockets of vulnerability, regardless of nationality,” Higgins describes the strategy behind programs that are currently being rolled out. Addressing needs of children, including the debacle of Lebanon’s education system, at the points of greatest vulnerability appears to be deeply ingrained into the institutional DNA of UNICEF whose acronym still reflects that the intergovernmental organization was originally tasked to act as emergency fund. 

Another strand in the UNICEF DNA is collaboration with state institutions.  “Working with the public education system remains our primary logic. We are not an NGO. When we come into a country, we are coming on the invitation of the government and our primary focus and mandate is on supporting the public system,” Higgins emphasizes. 

“When we speak with donors and design programs, we want to make them as multi-year and flexible as possible. This allows us to plan ahead so that we don’t start the school year and run out of money and have children lose out on their education. We also do a lot of awareness raising because the important thing about education is that it is not just education but also a protective environment,” she explains and concludes: “The scale of challenges for education in the country are so acute that it requires for all stakeholders to come together and try to jointly mobilize resources to do better programs that give children better results in their education.” 

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Thomas Schellen

Thomas Schellen is Executive's editor-at-large. He has been reporting on Middle Eastern business and economy for over 20 years. Send mail
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