Education as a strategic deterrent in a backward society (Yemen as a case) (Part 2) [Archives:2006/996/Reportage]

November 6 2006

Mohammed Al-Maitami
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.

Mohammed Al-Maitami is Professor of Economics, Sana'a University and a visiting Professor at Georgetown University.