€‹With weight added from helping a neighbor in crisis, there is an opportunity and international support for Lebanon to overhaul its education sector for the benefit of all students.
The UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which are the second iteration of global ambitions for development following the targets set by the eight Millennium Development Goals from 2000-2015, are an impetus for improving Lebanon’s education sector. The SDGs, while criticized for being too lofty to be attained, nonetheless bring together multiple stakeholders in the push for more action toward a more sustainable, peaceful, and developed future.
Things have been kicked up a gear in Lebanon because of the effects of the Syrian war on Lebanon and its economy. And one of the most noticeable effects of the influx of Syrian refugees is in the classroom. Minister of Education and Higher Education Marwan Hamade expected the number of Syrian refugees would fall, but according to figures from the Ministry of Education and Higher Education (MEHE), the number of Syrian children residing or born in Lebanon actually increased. As mentioned in an exclusive interview with TBY, Minister Hamade details, “We currently have some 250,000 Syrian children in formal education and 70,000-80,000 in non-formal education. Of these, 25,000 were born in Lebanon in 2011 and 2012, thus reaching for all the age to attend school.“ The ministry is taking several measures to ensure quality education despite the burgeoning number of students. Amongst these initiatives, MEHE hired 12,000 teachers and introduced Law 46 in 2017 to increase salaries for educators. With the help of a both a loan and grant from the World Bank and the UK, respectively, the minister is optimistic about the progress MEHE and Lebanon can make toward reaching it’s 2030 vision, “… a vision that matches the objectives of the UN and international community.“
Summarized in a UN Development Program report on progress toward SDG targets, Lebanon has made notable progress in improving the enrollment rate and increasing the literacy rate, which was already “high.“ The report mentioned strong institutions and well-trained teachers as key stepping stones toward quality education.
Sister UN agency, UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) helps to provide education during times of crisis, and this is the agency’s main focus in Lebanon. The UNESCO Beirut regional office is responsible for the coordination and monitoring of SDG 4, which is the goal pertaining to education, in the region’s member states. Indeed, it was neighbors Saudi Arabia and Kuwait that provided Lebanon the financial support for a program to increase enrollment—of both Lebanese and non-Lebanese—in secondary education. The program was implemented in partnership with MEHE.
Private players in the education sphere are also getting involved, many of them through additional UN initiatives. The UN Global Compact and the Lebanon SDG Council brings together leaders from throughout the private sphere, including from American University of Beirut (AUB) and several leading banks, to collaborate on the SDGs. AUB hosted a conference on this topic, and the conference hosted the university’s president, business school dean, and several other faculty and staff. Students were also in attendance to talk about SDGs and Lebanon’s collaboration to attain these national and international targets.
AUB’s president, Dr. Fadlo R. Khuri, pointed out that the UN Global Compact is helping spur investment from the Lebanese diaspora, and moreover, the diaspora invests in trusted institutions—banks and universities. Lebanon claims one of the region’s top universities, AUB, and the level of education of the workforce is one of the country’s strongest advantages for receiving FDI. Maintaining this position will be key, not only for tertiary institutions, but for education and the economy more broadly.
While certainly a challenge, the influx of students and added burden on an already strained system may just be the impetus Lebanon needs to direct its attention and financing toward education.