We must ensure better education for all

By Frank-Jürgen Richter

Gulf News, October 7, 2011

Good schooling may not stop a rebellion, but will make all involved critically analyse actions of others, instead of falling prey to mob mentality

The Arab world has relatively poor education systems rendering its large youthful population mostly unfit for work in the modern world. But we must remember that attitudes in Arab states differ throughout the 22 nations that comprise the Arab League. There are differing political stances and governance, educational policies and natural resources. Some nations, like the UAE, stress good education, including the education of women, though it is often light on critical thinking.

Yet, it is not the only region in the world that suffers an educational mismatch between the subjects that are taught and the needs of the government, commercial and manufacturing employers. The US, and nations in Europe and Asia have also seen an increase in Neet persons — those “not in employment, education or training”. These people constitute a pool of discontented youth who are willing to rise and revolt for many causes, no matter how irrational. The situation is at its worst when authorities suppress popular uprisings with guns and tanks.

The global Gallup Underemployment Index stands at 19 per cent — made up of 9 per cent unemployed and 10 per cent in part-time work who would like to work more. The International Labour Organisation says that about half the available workforce is in vulnerable employment (ie 1.53 billion people). We are at risk of widespread unrest, not only in Arab countries, but across the world.

The seeds of Arab unrest had been sprouting for years and came to fruition in December 2010 when in Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia, a young street vendor set himself on fire in desperation. His action caused others to show their solidarity for his cause; and they began to capture the proceedings on their mobile phones. Their images were posted onto the internet where they were discovered by more technically aware and better-educated guys in Tunis, who decided to support those protesters: the Arab Spring had begun. The tech-guys ensured that the small-town videos were diffused through the internet and the images were seen by the global press. Meanwhile in Tunis these educated guys were to develop a strategy of protest using the internet.

Business cycles

The world has never been free of unrest and discontent, but we think that uprisings are best when they happen within the “creative destruction” paradigm forwarded by Joseph Schumpeter. He was Czech by birth, briefly served as the Austrian minister of finance, a private banker and a professor. When the Second World War broke out, he became a US citizen and worked at Harvard as a professor. He put forward a theory of economic development that incorporated business cycles, circular flows that inevitably sees destructions and renaissances as time passes — and his hero was the entrepreneur who must keep aware of the ebbs and flows in business, and who must be able to reconstruct a failed process from time to time. Understanding business cycles demands a good education and the ability to freely discuss with others.

Good education, while not stopping a rebellion, might cause all involved to think and to critically analyse the actions of others instead of following as a mob. We all have our natural abilities that are developed through education so we reach our potential. Some truly lack intelligence, while others are brilliant. But it is the freedom to be taught a wide range of subjects, discussing these with able professors, that really develops a population. Of course, we do not need deep education to lead uprisings.

Many readers will be too young to remember the Solidarity movement in Poland led by former president Lech Walesa in 1980. He was employed as an electrician in the Gdansk shipyard, Poland, where he became a trade-union activist — an activity banned during the Soviet era. Nevertheless he persisted, and was arrested several times, and on each return again aided his activist friends. Eventually he secured the Gdansk Agreement (1980) allowing the formation of the Solidarity trade-union and the workers returned to work — a win-win situation for all concerned. But his trade union was outlawed by the Soviet Union when they felt they had to exert greater control on an increasingly resentful population. Eventually a semi-free election was held in 1989 in which he found himself leading a Solidarity dominated parliament. For this, and subsequent work he was given the Nobel Peace Prize in 1983, and became Poland’s first post-Communist president (1990-1995). He was only an electrician in the Gdansk shipyard, but think — if he had been better educated what might he have achieved by involving the authorities in deeper dialogue rather than confrontation? And what if the Soviet bloc had allowed better education throughout its federation of states? What might it have achieved instead of its collapse in 1990? The action of Poland was not the sole event initiating the Soviet collapse, but just as in Tunisia recently and now across the broader Arab world, others in Europe and Central Asia in the late 1980s saw hope in breaking the shackles of poverty and corruption. Education ‘does not grow on trees’ as it were. It has to be guided and nurtured over time. Take the example of the UK. From the earliest times, the Celts schooled their pupils in a wide curriculum, including natural and moral philosophy, so developing a widespread oral learning tradition. It was not until the 6th century that free education for bright young men could be attained in the newly established Grammar Schools using hand-copied books. Students were to study the grammar of the Latin language and to form a caucus of educated persons.

Hope for future

By the 13th century these schools fed into the universities, and many ordinary people could read. Broad and critical learning allowed the nation to develop its skills in government, commerce and manufacturing, ensuring much of the potential labour force was in employment even if some of the employment practices were very harsh. The people had both personal pride and hope for their future. In modern states, many live without hope as they are uneducated and no employer wants them. Poor or restricted education is the cause of long-term unemployment. The prospect of a job might be a positive solution; another might be enticing through a ‘call to arms’, to riot.

Education addresses both these issues. We think, as do many leaders in Arab governments, education and businesses, that more people in work performing meaningful tasks will make their countries better in many ways. They will see more growth and more wealth creation for the ordinary people. And there will be hope carried by these workers, not the growing resentment that afflicts the jobless globally. It will be very interesting at the Second Horasis Arab Business meeting to hear what delegates say about the Arab uprisings, and how it may promote the concept of educating the young and disenfranchised. This meeting will take place in Ras Al Khaimah on October 9-10.

Frank-Jürgen Richter is founder and chairman of Horasis, which hosts annual meetings for senior business leaders, including the upcoming Global Arab Business Meeting.