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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 September 2018

Illiteracy in Arab world can be a dangerous tool, experts say

More needs to be done to improve the region's literacy rates

Arabic has a more complicated relationship between spelling and pronunciation than English, a factor that could affect the way the eye behaves when it recognises words. Silvia Razgova / The National
Arabic has a more complicated relationship between spelling and pronunciation than English, a factor that could affect the way the eye behaves when it recognises words. Silvia Razgova / The National

Illiteracy in the Arab world can be a dangerous instrument for the region’s safety, experts have said as they seek to tackle the root of the issue.

They said more work is needed across various fields to bring the region’s youth up to par with their peers' education.

“There are tens of millions of students who are suffering without education,” said Michael O’Neill, assistant secretary-general at the United Nations and director of External Relations and Advocacy at the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

“There are huge numbers of young people in this region which is fantastic for the potential and capacity that offers the future but it also creates a challenge - how can governments work with the private sector and organisations like UNDP to help ensure there are opportunities for education, employment, women, men and what needs to be done to address that in terms of policies and regulatory framework? It seems to me we have to work together across all of those areas if we’re going to tackle those challenges.”

According to Unesco, 25 per cent of Egyptians and 20 per cent of Iraqis are illiterate - a rate worse than those of countries such as Sri Lanka and Kazakhstan.

“It’s culture,” said Dr Hany Torky, chief technical adviser at the UNDP. “If you have a family and no money, the father will send his children to work and not to school. Sometimes even at the same time. So if we imagine a new solution, we can solve this problem.”

He suggested night schools for children who cannot afford to stop working, for a few hours every evening.

“The so-called Arab Spring made it worse but the problem was always there,” he said. “We talk about knowledge and the fourth industrial revolution but we need to solve the basis of the problem first because it will divide societies into two parts and this gap is growing because of conflicts.”

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Illiteracy is particularly dangerous when children are lured into extremist groups, such as Al Shabab, Al Qaeda and ISIL.

“One of the areas UNDP has done a lot of work recently is around challenges that draw young men towards violent extremism,” Mr O’Neill said. “We launched in September a major report based on a two-year study done around these challenges in Africa and it was based on interviews with several hundred men attached to different movements.”

The report showed that young men felt alienated from society and the government. "There may be some common elements [in the Middle East] so there’s a fundamental point of good governance which is a foundation for good progress in any area,” Mr O’Neill said.

“Building effective institutions able to deliver better services including education is the foundation of all the work we need to do together for sustainable development and to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals. The shift to a knowledge-based economy is the ultimate destination but the question is what steps can we take to get there - the UAE is on the right path but other countries are much less advanced,” he said.

According to Reem Marto, head of the Middle East and North Africa at Teach For All, the problem is global. “Every child is born with enormous potential,” she said. “But around the world, millions of children can only dream of realising that potential, simply because of where they were born or how much their family earns. The obstacles they face, from poverty, hunger, discrimination, trauma, to school systems that do not provide them with the education they need to thrive, are overwhelming.”

She said the root causes of inequity were both entrenched and complex. “No single solution can address the multiple factors that contribute to this inequity,” Ms Marto said. “We need many people pioneering many solutions and working together to change the status quo. We believe that local and regional authorities and policymakers can foster such an environment by investing in the leadership necessary to reshape education systems, strengthen the broader set of services that support healthy development, and challenge the systemic and social injustices that perpetuate inequity.”

The global network of 46 independent, locally led and governed partner organisations works to accelerate the progress.

“Each network partner recruits and develops promising future leaders to teach in their nations’ under-resourced schools and communities and, with this foundation, to work with others, inside and outside of education, to ensure all children are able to fulfil their potential,” Ms Marto said. “One such programme is Teach For Lebanon. To date Teach For Lebanon has received more than 2,500 applications and fielded more than 100 teaching participants in rural areas. These teachers, as well as now 60 programme alumni, have helped expand opportunity for over 12,700 children - including orphans, street children, Syrian and Palestinian refugees - whose futures are clouded by social and economic factors.”

To address the significant number of Syrian refugees, Teach For Lebanon has partnered with several charities, including the UK-based TheirWorld, and has collaborated with Ana Aqra’s Children’s Literacy Centre, to educate out-of-school children.

“Teach For Lebanon has also prioritised an instructional focus on global citizenship and democracy as a way to empower students,” she said. “Teach For All is also working with several social entrepreneurs in countries across the region to explore the development of new organisations that can channel their countries’ outstanding talent towards ensuring all children have the opportunity to fulfil their potential," Ms Marto said.

“The greatest problem we see is that children do not have access to the kind of education, support, and opportunity that will equip them to not only navigate the world they’ll inherit but lead it. But it is going to take an enormous amount of leadership capacity to tackle this [and we must] prioritise the cultivation of this collective leadership throughout the region and channel the energy of these diverse, outstanding graduates and professionals toward this.”

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