With one of the highest youth populations in the world, the Middle East has the potential to be the main beneficiary of one of the biggest UN-led initiatives to improve education around the globe. The details are outlined in a highly aspirational UN Resolution: “Transforming our world: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development” is committed to addressing the greatest global challenges, including poverty reduction, hunger, the improvement of education and safeguards against war and conflict. In total, 17 sustainable development goals (SDGs) were agreed by the international community to be attained by 2030.
Different nations and multiple stakeholders from the private sector and civil society, as well as members of the public, were united “to take the bold and transformative steps,” as described by the UN General Assembly, that are “urgently needed to shift the world on to a sustainable and resilient path.” The SDGs were seen as another layer of commitment and further affirmation of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) which were signed by 191 UN member states in 2000, along with at least 22 international organisations.
In a meeting at the UN in New York last week, all of the partners gathered to review their commitment and the progress made on one of the most important SDGs: “Ensure inclusive and quality education for all and promote lifelong learning.” Quality education (SDG4) was placed fourth on the list. A commission headed by a number of former heads of state, including former British Prime Minster Gordon Brown, was installed to set out the vision for what was called the “Learning Generation”.
UNESCO, which is the lead coordinator of the SDGs, pledged to “work with all constituencies to fulfil the 2030 Agenda’s promise of ‘leaving no one behind’.” As the secretariat for the SDG 2030 education goal, the UN organisation was given responsibility for “housing” how things moved on SDG4 and documenting the progress that was made towards the aspirational goal.
One member of the Education Steering Committee, Dr Mary Joy Pigozzi, spoke to MEMO about many of the different local implementation models adopted in delivering SDG4. Pigozzi, who is the executive director of Educate A Child (EAC), which is a programme of the Qatari charitable foundation Education Above All (EAA), spoke about the way in which the initiatives she’s been heading worked on “transforming pledges into action”. She told MEMO of the 7.1 million out-of-school children who are from some of the most marginalised communities in the world; they have been offered quality education through the EAC programme. “We look forward to sharing our methods and demonstrating the obvious: education is a driver of human development,” she told me.
Dr Pigozzi described her work and that of the EAC, which has a good track record of providing education in parts of Cambodia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar and Thailand. “Our work there positions us to be part of the global education architecture,” she explained. “This is an honour and opportunity for EAA.” The Qatari foundation works, inter alia, to develop a global initiative to provide safe schools in areas of conflict. “However, this brings with it responsibilities as well,” she added, before mentioning the important role that EAA plays in representing all the different foundations in the UNESCO steering committee, which includes member states and civil society organisations.
Pigozzi revealed that there was a strong focus on the financing of education during the latest meeting, which, she pointed out, was significant ahead of the G20 meeting in Hamburg later this week. “Global leaders,” she hopes, “will reaffirm their commitment to ensuring that all children have access to quality education, especially as education is the driver of several SDGs.” She stressed that this can only be achieved through “appropriate funding, protection of education as a human right, and collaboration.”
Discussing specific challenges in the Middle East-North Africa (MENA) region, it was pointed out that political instability and conflict, as reported previously by the World Bank, has undermined the progress made by countries in the region over the past decade. Reporting at the height of the Arab Spring in 2014, the international financial institution and one of the sponsors of the SDG4 vision said: “[The region] has taken great strides in education. It has quadrupled the average level of schooling since 1960, halved illiteracy since 1980 and achieved almost complete gender parity for primary education.”
However, these impressive achievements, the World Bank pointed out, are marred by an uncomfortable fact: “For too many students across the region, schooling has not been synonymous with learning.” The organisation raised specific concerns over trends which demonstrated “that school systems in MENA are generally of low quality. Basic skills are not being learnt, a fact most clearly captured by international standardised tests, whose results reveal that the Region is still below the level expected given MENA countries’ per capita income.”
The low quality of education was exacerbated further by concerns over the region’s youth bulge which is predicted to surge by about 10 million between 2015 and 2030. This sudden growth in the youth population will create an increased demand for educational services at all levels and will place immense pressure on existing institutions. It is also possible, though, with careful planning, coordination and the will to capitalise on the visions of SDG4, to direct the youth in the region by turning them into the driver for regional growth.