The Road Not Traveled : Education Reform in the Middle East and North Africa
Education is at the crossroads for the future of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). It plays a crucial role in promoting poverty alleviation and economic growth, both at national and at household levels. It reflects the aspirations of the people for a successful integration into the global economy in an ever changing world.
Education is also a strategic priority for the World Bank in the MENA region and worldwide. The preparation of this report has benefited from the experience accumulated from Bank collaboration with the region in education—a relationship that has lasted for more than 40 years. This report traces the successes and the challenges facing the development of education to identify promising education reform options for the future.
1. Investment in Education
How much have MENA countries invested in human capital through education over the past four decades? What has been the impact of this investment on thelevel, quality, anddistribution of human capital? What has been the impact on such human indicators as fertility and infant mortality rates as well as life expectancy? How well did the region perform in accumulating human capital compared with other developing countries?
What the development outcomes of this investment have been? Have improvements in human capital contributed to economic growth, better income distribution, and less poverty in MENA countries? The discussion is organized in three sections: the first covers the relationship between education and economic growth, the second addresses the relationship between education and income distribution, and the third section examines the relationship between education and poverty.
3. New Challenges Facing the Education Sector in MENA
So far, we have argued that the impact on development of the considerable education progress recorded in the region has been less than expected in terms of economic growth, the promotion of equality, and reduction of poverty. How much of this outcome is the consequence of particular characteristics of the region’s education systems and how much is due to weak linkages between education and labor markets is difficult to discern.
If past investment in education in the MENA region has not generated the maximum economic returns to individuals and society, it’s reasonable to ask why it has not done so. Answering this question requires an analytical framework on which past education reform efforts can be assessed and future reforms can be drawn.
Has the MENA region adopted education reforms that combine measures to improve the engineering of their education systems, along with measures to improve the incentives facing the main actors involved and enhance public accountability? Has their reform approach evolved over time? What were the justifications for the approach they adopted historically? Finally, what are the implications of these actions for the course to be taken in the future?
While the MENA region as a whole may have focused too much on the engineering of education and too little on incentives and public accountability, this observation does not apply equally to all countries. MENA countries vary among themselves in the reform approach they followed, as well as in the education outcomes they have been able to achieve.
Individuals and governments invest in education expecting, among other things, to obtain higher economic returns. Individuals make schooling decisions with an eye on the types of employment choices and earnings they will garner over their working lifetime. Governments expect a more educated workforce to contribute to higher rates of economic growth and improved productivity, leading to improved living standards for all. However, these expectations may go unfulfilled if the labor markets do not fully absorb the educated workforce and allocate them to their most productive uses.
When domestic labor markets cannot fully absorb an increasing level of educated labor force, migration is an important channel for resolving local market imbalances with potentially large benefits to the individuals and nations involved. Labor movement is particularly important for the MENA region because one of the region’s main characteristics is excess labor in a subgroup of countries and excess capital in another.
It is time to discuss the title of this report: “The Road Not Traveled.” This is obviously a provocative description that may elicit some protest. Is it meant to assert that little educational development has occurred in the region? That the region has not done any education reform? That graduates have not been put to productive uses to any degree? Or that the expansion of education has not had any social impact?