Education as a strategic deterrent in a backward society (Yemen as a case)

by Mohammed al-Maitami

Professor of Economics, Sana'a University
Visiting Professor at Georgetown University

The American-British invasion of Iraq and the quick collapse of the Iraqi regime have revealed the failure of the Arab state to defend and protect its people and even defend its existence and assert its usefulness. It is clear today that there is no single country in the Arab and Muslim world whose national security is safe from international or regional powers. 

These threats are a reality that could readily lead to direct colonization in the interests of superpower geopolitical goals, but at the moment the critical question is how to cope with these threats: what are the means and institutions on which Arab countries can rely to repel these threats from the external world. Currently the Arab world has no strategy to deter external aggression. This is a result of a long accumulation of undemocratic and unpatriotic political systems which have generated profound chasms in the internal structure of the state and which are not capable of reform. Poverty, hunger, unemployment, misery, desperation and other social and political sicknesses prevailing in these countries are products of these political systems. The failure of the nation-state in many MENA countries is readily apparent. Local violence and conflicts, social and political exclusion, civil wars, poverty and famines, illiteracy and unemployment, prevalence of contagious diseases, absence of real democracy and human rights, absence of equitable and independent judiciary, absence of security and equality, tyranny, despotism and covetousness and so forth are all prevalent in the MENA countries despite some variance between countries. Such circumstances and situations always provide - in any time and any place- a prime opportunity for outside intervention to exploit. As the local Yemeni saying goes, "those who make themselves into a bone, dogs will not hesitate to eat."

Education here is the key variable in the formula for a modern strategic deterrent. There is no single country in the contemporary world that has achieved real development, welfare and security without effective, generous and planned investment in education. Investment in human resources will not only bring fruits in increasing individual ability to get or create a job and generate a household's income, to decrease poverty and increase aggregate economic resources of the nation, but also to enhance and strengthen the defensive capability of the nation in an effective and constructive manner.

Americans have realized the importance of education in the international competition for progress, well-being and world leadership as evidenced in the report entitled "Nation at Risk" published in 1983 by the commission of education and edited by David Gardner. This report, written two decades ago, aimed to bring the attention of the American people - politicians, scientists, intellectuals, businessmen and the common people - to the harm the deterioration of education might cause. The writers of this report issued a call for help: "our nation is losing a carelessness war". This carelessness was manifest, in the view of the authors, in the deteriorating level of education in the United States compared to the educational achievements of other advanced industrial countries. People who were in childcare in 1983 are after two decades high school graduate students. Half of them are enrolled in universities and institutes or working in remunerative jobs, whereas the other half are either unqualified, working at low wage jobs, unemployed, or depend upon governmental subsidies. Many of them are vagrants and many are involved in crime. All this happened because they did not get a good education. The danger warning sounded by the nation-at-risk report marks a relative danger to which the American nation, sitting at the peak of modern civilization, might be exposed. Hence, the type of danger which the report describes is only a relative danger, meaning that the American nation might lose its leading position in the international race of nations. It is not comparable to the threat that the Yemeni nation faces, a threat of destruction so complete that it will make such a great and deep rooted civilization as Yemen’s and its people no more than stories in a history textbook and CDs.

After four decades of reversing the long and dark isolation imposed by Imams’ theocratic regime, illiteracy in Yemen is still shackling almost half of the population. The number of illiterates today is more than nine million out of a total population of twenty million and more than 70% of education-aged women remain at home and do not receive any education. In spite of the expansion of the number of schools and the increase in the budget for education, 41 children out of every 100 do not receive basic education. Among those who are lucky to be enrolled in schools, a large percentage of them are compelled by economic and social reasons to leave school. School dropout rates are highest among females: 70% of women do not complete basic education.

The educational institutions in Yemen from kindergarten to universities are jammed with students. The curriculum, teaching methods and philosophy of education are so miserable and backward that education in Yemen is almost a complete farce. The university professor in Yemen may find in their class students who are not able to write their own names. Many of them graduate from the university without real skills, they are neither able to join the labor market nor create a job for themselves and then their fate is to join the army of unemployed, which is already huge and accounts for 35-40% of the labor force. The unemployment rate among university graduates is more than 50%. As majority of university students prefer enrolling in liberal arts and humanities due to the poor education they receive from basic and secondary education (90% of university students are enrolled in the faculty of arts and humanities which provides a poor quality of education), the contribution of Yemeni education in general and university in particular to economic development and social advancement is almost nonexistent.

There is no real prospect of making essential change in education in Yemen, even though the latest government program presented to parliament in July 2003 devoted a large part of its content to educational issues. This program was characterized by nonspecific and vague objectives, which did not address the issue of education in an appropriate and effective manner, and it lacked a new vision of educational philosophy to replace the existing one, which might be described, at best, as money and time consuming. Education in Yemen since the revolution has been the object of political maneuvers and a captive of backward and extreme ideologies at the same time. For instance, the Marxists institutes established in South Yemen by the leftist ruling party and the religious institutes established in North Yemen at the beginning of Al-Hamdi ruling regime have propagated the values and beliefs of extremism and backwardness over several Yemeni generations. The religious institutes continued to receive financial and political support from the Yemeni government and neighboring countries up to the moment when president Saleh decided to close them 3 years ago. In spite of the official hubbub around solving the chronic educational problems, the practical results do not reveal any seriousness or a clear vision of how to revive these stagnant institutions. All the high Yemeni officials in charge of the educational system in Yemen during the last three decades are either unintelligent, shallow or lacking the broad philosophical vision required for leadership in the field of education. Those few who are intelligent and enlightened have been manacled by the corridors of powers. When change is proclaimed, the change never affects those officials who are responsible for failure. On the contrary, they are often rewarded for failure and for mistakes that have been perpetrating in the name of their government. This is the change under the game of "pulling the wool over your eyes."

Even though Yemen spends more than 20% of its budget on education or 8% of its GDP, which is equivalent to the level of expenditure of Sweden or Denmark, the outcome of this educational expenditure is very discouraging. In spite of Yemen’s relatively high level of expenditure, the absolute number of illiterates has increased and educational outcomes have dramatically deteriorated. Education in Yemen has been transformed from an instrument for a progressive change and advancement to a station for reproducing the backwardness in its various forms. This was a result of the backward nature of the educational philosophy and curriculum, bad governance and widely prevailing corruption, and also because of the inefficient nature of public expenditure on education. For example, more than 90 % of total expenditure on education is current expenditure. This is a very large percentage which leaves only an insignificant portion for investment in new buildings and institutes, maintenance of existing buildings and increasing the scientific and technical capacity of Yemeni educational and academic institutions. Within the last three decades, for instance, only 12000 schools has been built in the whole country including private's ones, while 72000 mosques had been built in the same period.

The annual average expenditure per student on basic and secondary education in Yemen is extremely small. It barley amounts to $US105 and this is 1/15th the international average, 1/29th the Swedish average, 1/30 the Danish average and 1/45 the average in the United States. And if we take into consideration the gap between Yemen and these countries in terms of level of infrastructure development we will see how far Yemen is from development and advancement, how difficult it will be for Yemen to integrate successfully into the globalized world. This is why the human capital in industrial advanced counties is the main source of the wealth and power and the main factor for strategic deterrent. These facts should make the Yemeni officials, who argue that Yemen spend on education as much as the developed industrial countries do, feel obliged to rethink their arguments. This means they should rethink and recalculate the way they design and spend the budget for education, how to extricate the educational sector from corruption and bad governance and, more importantly, how to adopt a new philosophical approach and curriculum of education for modern civilization.

Indeed, in terms of financial resources, Yemen has enough money to improve the level of education. This money could be deducted from defense budget and transferred to the education sector. We could go further in our suggestion to decrease the defense budget to the minimum possible. However, defense expenditure as a deterrent is a political myth, because no one can exactly tell us how much defense is enough defense? How much money must a country spend to achieve a sound and sustained defense? These are among the most difficult questions in economics and there is no real answer. Finding the appropriate level of military preparation for sound deterrence is not a science, as has been shown in Iraq recently and in the former Soviet Union previously. It is more a mixture of rational action, insight and acumen on one hand, and prudent preparation for emergent contingency on the other hand. In many case in the third world, military expenditure is simply a respond to the personal inclinations and desires of leaders to accumulate wealth. Military leaders generally tend to exaggerate the potential threat against which they seek to be prepared, whereas wise and shrewd politicians tend to question the necessity and usefulness of these preparations and are inclined to increasing defense capabilities through enhancement and improvement of the social, political and economic structures of their countries in which the highly educated citizen is the foundation.

Yemen today, more than any other time in its modern history, is enjoying relative peace with its neighbors. And this will enable it to reduce its defense budget to a minimum. By decreasing this expenditure to 2.5% from about 7% of GDP, Yemen will save almost 47-50 billion Rials that it could invest in education and health. The continued weaknesses and deficiencies of these two sectors represent the greatest threat to economic and social development in general, and to national defense in particular.

Failure spawns change, and the need for change in the failed and useless educational sector in Yemen is vital and critical and cannot be postponed. Change is what has been implemented by the Americans, Japanese and Koreans and they nowadays enjoy the fruits of the radical change in curriculum and philosophy of education they made. Yemen determinately should follow their lead.