By DAVID WESSEL in Washington and CHIP CUMMINS in San’a, Yemen
Protests erupting across the Middle East are fueled by frustrations ranging from the lack of political freedom to police brutality. But in countries wracked by protest and those that have remained peaceful, a common thread runs: Governments have expanded universities and educated a swelling cohort of youth, without laying the groundwork to employ them.
“Surprisingly,” International Monetary Fund economists Yasser Abdih and Anjali Garg wrote recently, “unemployment in the [Middle East and North Africa] region tends to increase with schooling.” In the U.S., the opposite is true.
In Egypt, where the region’s protests are at their most pitched, the ranks of the college-educated have grown steadily in the past few decades. In 1990, according to World Bank, 14% of college-age Egyptians were enrolled; in 2008, 28.5% were. Egyptian schools expanded, and a crop of European universities opened campuses there. The Egyptian government doubled the funding for higher education in its 2007 five-year plan and sought international advice on revamping the system.
Trying to provide schooling to the largest number of people, many Arab countries spent heavily on higher education.
“The objective was to boost economic growth, boost employment and realize equity in society,” says the World Bank’s Mourad Ezzine, a former Tunisian education expert who worked on the report. “It didn’t work out well. For two reasons. First, the education system delivered quantity, not quality…. And, second, on the economic side, the creation of employment to meet the profile of those graduates didn’t happen. Why? Because the reforms in these countries did not go far enough, fast enough.”
Differences between the Middle East and other developing economies the world are telling:
• Fertility rates stayed higher longer in the Middle East than in East Asia or Latin America. …
• Economies haven’t grown nearly fast enough to absorb these new workers….(because??)
• Unemployment among the young, of all education levels, is particularly pronounced. In Egypt, according to the most recent IMF data, overall unemployment was 8.9%—but stood at 25.4% among those under age 25, the IMF says. In Tunisia, overall unemployment was 14.2%; youth unemployment was 30.3%.
Mohamed Refaat, a 24-year-old Egyptian who followed his brother to the U.S. in 2008… “You don’t have to be educated there,” Mr. Refaat complains about his hometown, 30 minutes outside of Cairo. “It’s not worth your skill. It’s all about the connections.”
While China and other booming economies were cultivating private sectors, Egypt clung stubbornly to a state-dominated model. Outside of agriculture, 70% of Egyptian workers work for the government. Few college grads sought, or even were offered, courses aimed at landing private-sector jobs.
In Amman, Jordan, Ibrahim Taya is the youngest of 12 born to Palestinian refugees. Mr. Taya, 33 years old, didn’t go to college, but took technical training courses, first by correspondence in Jordan and then by going to Canada and China to learn how to maintain pieces of equipment.
Today, he is unemployed and seething. For about a dozen years, he bounced around, working as a technician for mobile-phone networks in Sudan, Morocco, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Iraq. He returned to Jordan in 2008, started a business that collapsed, he says, when a partner absconded with company funds. (no institutions to help hold people to Contractual Agreements??) He started another last year.
The contrast between his life and those of his older brothers is striking. Four received military-sponsored university scholarships. One became a internist, and found work in Saudi Arabia; another other served as an eye doctor for the Jordanian Army and then began his own practice. A third taught high school in Saudi Arabia, and the fourth became a computer programmer.