Last Updated: Monday, 20 October 2014, 15:44 GMT

Middle East: Call for educational reform to create "knowledge society"

Publisher Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN)
Publication Date 15 March 2012
Cite as Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN), Middle East: Call for educational reform to create "knowledge society", 15 March 2012, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/4f67336e2.html [accessed 21 October 2014]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

The shooting of 16 civilians in the southern Kandahar province came a week after anger erupted at a Kabul conference when participants disputed NATO civilian casualty figures and accused western forces of failing to punish the perpetrators.

The March 4 conference held at the headquarters of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force, ISAF, was a chance for Afghan politicians and security experts to air long-held grievances about the actions of western troops in the country.

The March 11 killings, carried out by a US staff sergeant who then turned himself in, are likely to intensify the sense of resentment. (For more, see Taleban Backlash Feared After Shooting Rampage.)

Both NATO and UNAMA insist the Taleban and other insurgent groups are responsible for the overwhelming majority of civilian casualties.

In a report issued in February, UNAMA said civilian casualties in Afghanistan had risen annually for the last five years. It said insurgents caused 77 per cent of the 3,021 civilian deaths in 2011, often through improvised explosive devices, IEDs. ISAF troops and Afghan government forces were responsible for 410 deaths, while in a further 279 cases of civilian deaths in the conflict, it had proved impossible to determine who was responsible.

Speaking at the conference, Lieutenant-General Adrian Bradshaw, deputy commander of ISAF, cited NATO figures recording that insurgent groups were to blame for 958 – or 93 per cent – of the 1,030 civilian casualties counted in the previous four months.

The remaining 72 included casualties inflicted by ISAF and also by Afghan security forces when operating alongside NATO troops. The ISAF total of 1,030 does not include casualties cause by Afghan government forces when they are operating on their own.

General John Allen, commander of ISAF and US forces in Afghanistan said the figures showed that protecting civilians was a top priority for the NATO-led force.

"Everything ISAF does is focused on providing security for the people of Afghanistan. We have worked hard to take extensive measures to prevent civilian casualties, and those efforts are getting results," he told the conference.

Some of those at the event greeted such assertions with scorn, and the conference exposed the deepening rift between western troops and their Afghan allies.

Haji Amanullah Azimi, a member of the Meshrano Jirga, the upper house of Afghanistan's parliament, angrily dismissed ISAF's figures.

"How can we believe the numbers you are presenting?" he said. "The number of civilian casualties in Afghanistan has reached its highest level yet, and we have always heard from you during the past decade that they will decrease. Unfortunately, we've observed no reduction, and no change in your tactics."

Bradshaw told Azimi that ISAF regretted every civilian death, and that western troops were also paying a high price.

"Our forces are also killed in Afghanistan, and they have families and children, too," he said.

Asked about ISAF's figures after the conference, one participant told IWPR they were laughable.

"The foreigners think the Afghan people will blindly accept whatever they say," he said on condition of anonymity. "They need to understand that even children in this country know what they are up to."

If the Arab Spring is to have any lasting impact, education must top the priority list of post-revolutionary reforms in the Arab world, experts said yesterday at the launch of the 2010-2011 Arab Knowledge Report in the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

"[Arab countries] will have no alternative but to tackle this issue," said Amat Al Alim Alsoswa, assistant secretary-general and director of the Regional Bureau for Arab States at the UN Development Programme (UNDP). "If you talk about any kind of reform - political, judicial - education is an integral part of it. Otherwise, it will be an artificial reform," she told IRIN at the sidelines of the event in Dubai.

The Arab Knowledge Report (AKR), published by UNDP and the UAE-based Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Foundation, called for action to better enable the region's youth to participate in the so-called "knowledge society" and move beyond the poverty and unemployment that led to mass demonstrations and the toppling of several governments last year.

According to some estimates, more than 60 percent of the population of Arab countries is under the age of 25.

But the potential of Arab youth has so far been limited by weak corporate governance, high rates of corruption, weak indicators of freedom, absence of democracy, increasing rates of poverty and unemployment, restrictions on women's freedom and the failure of economic reforms to achieve social justice and provide youth employment opportunities, the report said.

The report found that the Arab world continues to lag behind, with a "sharp drop" in cognitive skills among youth, including problem-solving, written communication, use of technology, and the ability to search for information. The average student scored 33 out of 100 in these areas.

Other statistics are equally scathing: In 2007, 29 percent of Arabs above the age of 15 were illiterate, compared to 16 percent globally; in 2010, 19 percent of Arab children under 6 had access to public childcare centres, compared to 41 percent globally; and Arab students continued to rank poorly in international exams. The region has seen an exponential growth in internet use, but usage still remains below the global average.

The Arab Spring changed some of that - youth clearly used technology to communicate their message, and in many countries their protests have led to a freer and more democratic environment. (Broadening freedom of thought was one of the main recommendations of the 2009 Arab Knowledge Report.) But this year's report warns that Arab countries need to do more to take advantage of the openings provided by the Arab Spring.

The Arab world must develop the infrastructure for information technology; encourage innovation; create an investment-friendly environment; focus on social, political and economic reforms; and improve education.

Education neglected intentionally?

For a long time, observers say, many Arab governments intentionally neglected education because they thought that an uneducated public would be less likely to rebel.

Shortcomings in the education system were also due to a "culture of silence", Hassan El Bilawi, professor of the sociology of education at Helwan Unviersity in Cairo, told the audience at the launch. "We have before us a cultural challenge - we are suffering from cultural backwardness. Many changes took place in the Arab world but they have not been related to the methodology of teaching or the culture of schools. We have to make sweeping reforms," he said.

Past reforms have been seen as a "technical task" entrusted to bureaucrats in Arab ministries of education, without the support of state policies or civil society, said Moudi Al Homud, former minister of education of Kuwait. "Consequently, we have failed." She urged governments to move beyond the "cosmetics" of educational reform.

But Ghaith Fariz, director of the report, said the knowledge gap is due to more than just poor education.

"It's an issue that involves all sectors of the society. It's much beyond education. Civil society has a role. Family has a role," he told IRIN. Intellectual property rights is another area, for instance, in which "we, as Arabs, are basically absent."

Participants at the report's launch also highlighted the importance of youth being involved in finding solutions.

"If we take the lead, we will destroy what the youth have done," said one participant from Jordan. "The youth have to define the next steps."

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