A new plan to build the human capital of the Middle East & North Africa


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Lebanese student looks through microscope during STEM program.
Lebanese student looks through microscope during her STEM program.

 MENA countries are facing a human capital gap. While there are many factors holding back the region’s outcomes, employment, and productivity, chief among them are the poor learning outcomes.   Despite higher average public spending on education than that of OECD countries, the World Bank’s Human Capital Index (HCI) shows that MENA’s children are not learning at levels commensurate with their years of schooling. Based on the latest calculations, MENA’s children are expected to receive 11.4 years of schooling by age 18 yet they only obtain 7.6 years of actual learning, with boys underperforming girls. Closing the learning gap is an urgent priority for the region.  

Launched a year ago at the World Bank Annual Meetings in Bali, the Human Capital Project is an ambitious global effort to accelerate more and better investments in people for greater equity and economic growth. As part of this effort, the HCI was developed to quantify the contribution of health and education to the productivity of the next generation of workers.

The next generation of workers in MENA are currently on pace to achieve only half of their economic potential – if current policies remain.   And with high levels of unemployment, particularly among well-educated youth and women, the current generation represents vast untapped productive potential.

To their great credit, governments in the region understand the fierce urgency of the challenge, and many are stepping up to take corrective action. Of the 68 countries world-wide that have joined the Human Capital Project, 13 are MENA countries that have put forward human capital acceleration plans aimed at raising productivity for the current and future generations.  

So today, one year later, the World Bank is launching the MENA Human Capital Plan. Building on country priorities, the World Bank has developed an ambitious program to improve human capital outcomes in the region by proposing a set of priority interventions for countries to pursue.

These priority interventions include: 1) expanding investments in early childhood development to prepare learners, 2) addressing learning poverty and improving 21st century skills, 3) reducing the burden of non-communicable diseases and illnesses caused by environmental factors, 4) protecting vulnerable groups (refugees, IDPs, migrants, and urban and rural poor) and improving resilience to crises, and 5) closing gender gaps (improving learning for boys and labor force participation for girls).

However, the above interventions will not have an impact unless accompanied by strengthened governance. These include increasing efficiency of public spending, reforming public sector administration to align incentives so quality teachers and health workers are recruited and retained, and promoting accountability and citizen engagement to improve service delivery.

The best results are achieved when governments pursue a “Whole-of-Government” approach and when the private sector is brought in to both help provide human capital services and incentivize higher efficiency and quality. The MENA Human Capital plan identifies targets, both high-level outcomes for countries and intermediate results for the World Bank, to be realized starting with the 2021 Annual Meeting in Marrakech, Morocco, and continuing until 2024.

The good news is that it’s never too late, and major progress can be made with the outlined interventions from the MENA Human Capital Plan.   Egypt, for example, has already launched a major education reform program to focus on “learning” and not just “schooling.” It is working to revamp the student experience, improve readiness for school, and redirect the secondary graduation system with a new curriculum and new assessment system. And the World Bank is contributing to Morocco’s Education Support Program by helping to establish an enabling environment for quality Early Childhood Education service delivery, supporting improved teaching practices in primary and secondary education, and strengthening management capacity and accountability along the education service delivery chain. We look forward to working with different countries to help the region’s dynamic young people fulfill their potential and unlock the great opportunities of the future.




Anna Bjerde

Director of Strategy and Operations, Middle East & North Africa, World Bank

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