Students in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) are not seeing a return on their education, despite massive investments by parents and governments, as they are graduating without the necessary skills to find gainful employment. Having achieved universal access to education in most countries, the region shifted its focus from expanding access and coverage of education services to investigating its quality. Over the past decade, curricula have been reviewed and revised. Teacher training and pedagogical approaches explored and improved. Communication Technology (ICT) has been introduced to expand the range of learning materials. Yet, learning outcomes remain among the lowest internationally and unemployment is highest among graduates.
One area that has not received much attention in MENA is early childhood development (ECD) and its impact on education, work and life outcomes. The early years of children’s lives are a critical foundation for their development into healthy and productive adults. Early childhood experiences strongly influence a person’s learning, schooling, health, employment, and social engagement throughout his/her life. Early childhood is also when the conditions that perpetuate cycles of poverty and inequality are transmitted across generations. ECD in MENA has been slow to emerge as a policy priority; it is frequently absent from political agendas, insufficiently researched, and under-resourced. As a result, although the region is categorized as middle-income, ECD indicators in MENA more closely resemble those of Sub-Saharan Africa than other comparable middle-income countries.
When I was part of the World Bank education team, we analyzed the status of Early Childhood Development in 12 MENA countries using household surveys under a program entitled “Early Childhood Development for a Better Chance “ or ECD-4-ABC. Our objective was to provide evidence that would help governments identify the key issues in a child’s development in terms of health, nutrition and education and the factors that determine these outcomes for young children. Our goal was to help policy-makers design targeted interventions that would put their nation’s children on the right trajectory for healthy growth and development and better and more equitable opportunities in life. The team hopes to make the results available within the next few months as a way to inform policy-makers, raise public awareness and encourage action.
In the words of President Obama “Let’s do what works, and make sure none of our children start the race of life already behind. Let’s give our kids that chance.”