Homemade weapons of our own mass destruction


If there is one reason above others that helps explain the many situations of armed conflict, political violence and state collapse across the Middle East and North Africa (Mena) region, it must be that tens of millions of hopeless young men wander through their own societies like ghosts, unable to enjoy either satisfying employment or meaningful citizenship.

The supply of young men, some as young as 14, who are eager to join armed groups, criminal cults, and extremist militias is staggering, as we witness in Iraq, Yemen, Syria, Sudan, Libya and pockets of other countries across the region.

Amongst the main reasons for this sad reality is that — since the 1970s when police state-minded families took control of many of our governments — Arab societies, for the most part, have failed to establish a productive relationship between its education systems and its labour markets.

Millions of primary and secondary school-age youth have never entered a school, and millions more are in danger of dropping out.

They create the pool of tens of millions of angry, fearful and mostly hopeless young Arabs who are easy recruits for the radical and criminal movements — and also the corrupt governance systems — that are the biggest threats to our countries these days.

These are home-grown threats, not invaders and colonisers from abroad.

New data released earlier this month by Unicef and the Unesco Institute for Statistics provides solid analysis of the magnitude and causes of this problem of “out of school children” (OOSC).

It shows that more than 21 million children and young adolescents across the Arab world are either out of school or at risk of dropping out.

What makes this more troubling is that the number of OOSC had decreased by 40 per cent over the past decade, but now the fortunes of our youngest citizens have started to decline.

This is due to a combination of reasons, including poverty, gender and other discrimination, poor quality learning, social attitudes, early marriage, a lack of female teachers, and conflict.


In school but not learning

We know very well what will be the dark fate of the 12.3 million children and young adolescents in the Mena region who are out of school, the over six million who are at risk of dropping out, and the three million children who have stopped going to school in Syria and Iraq.

The overwhelming majority of this cohort of over 21 million boys and girls will likely experience a life of poverty, vulnerability, marginalisation, poor health, degradation and pain, which is a sure recipe for permanent instability and violence.

The report’s most frightening finding, in my view, is that young adolescents drop out of school mainly because of poor education standards and low quality school environments.

The report does not go into this issue in detail, but I learned about how badly Arab children perform even when they do attend school, when researching the relationship between the education and the Arab uprisings for an American university.

Available data from worldwide tests that measure the numeracy and literacy abilities of students in primary and secondary school show that about half of all school children in the Arab world actually are not learning.

Let me repeat that to confirm that this is not an error: about half of all school children in the Mena region actually are not learning.

A powerful report issued last year by the Brookings Institution (Arab Youth: missing educational foundations for a productive life?) analysed available global testing data from 13 Arab countries.

It concluded: “We estimate, based on the average scores for literacy and numeracy for the 13 countries for which we have data, that 56 per cent of primary students and 48 per cent of lower secondary school students are not learning.”

These are average figures. The results for some countries are beyond belief, including from some of the wealthy oil-producing states.

The percentages of primary school students who did not meet basic learning levels (average of numeracy and literacy) in 2011 was around 90 per cent in Yemen, 77 per cent in Morocco, 69 per cent in Kuwait and 63 per cent in Tunisia.

The best performers, with 30-40 per cent of non-learning students, were Bahrain, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia, though in wealthy Qatar, for example, over 53 per cent of children at the lower secondary level were not learning.

These are not just early warning signs that our societies must take seriously to stop the haemorrhaging of our human talent and potential.

They are wildly flashing red lights telling us to stop building one-way highways to hell for tens of millions of our children who are denied the most important opportunity of their lives: to develop their maximum intellectual and creative potential, so that they can participate as full citizens in building stable and satisfying societies.

If this does not happen, these tens of millions of uneducated young Arabs will prove to be our own homemade weapons of our own mass destruction.


This article has been republished with the permission of Agence Global. Copyright ©2015 Rami G. Khouri.