Schools Not Bombs

Long-Term Stability in Yemen Begins with Fixing Education

Long-term stability in Yemen must begin with an overhaul of its notoriously inadequate education system, writes Sarah Jacobs.

Homeless Yemeni children play in a courtyard. School is compulsory in Yemen, yet 20 percent to 30 percent of children do not attend. (AP/Bryant MacDougall)
Homeless Yemeni children play in a courtyard. School is compulsory in Yemen, yet 20 percent to 30 percent of children do not attend. (AP/Bryant MacDougall)

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton testified yesterday and today before Congress on using development assistance as a key component of advancing U.S. national security. There is possibly nowhere that this administration’s comprehensive strategy could be more useful than in Yemen.

After years of neglect, Yemen re-emerged as a country of concern after the failed Christmas Day bombing in Detroit. Clinton has called Yemen “an urgent national security threat,” yet we still lack a coherent and integrated development and security policy that addresses the immediate security threats and the underlying causes of Yemen’s instability. A close look at the many problems facing Yemen reveals that Yemen’s notoriously inadequate education system should be a primary point of focus for the United States.

The United States is preparing to send $106.6 million to Yemen as part of the fiscal year 2011 budget—up more than 60 percent from $67.3 million the previous year. But we must reconsider our long-term policies for eradicating terror and ensuring peace and prosperity in the region. Security force training and building good governance and strong institutions will help ensure that Yemen is an impermissible environment for Al Qaeda. But defeating Al Qaeda militarily in one country will only force it to migrate to the next ungoverned area.

The Middle East is already vulnerable to extremist ideology, and its large, young, and uneducated population magnifies these vulnerabilities. The United States must create a long-term strategy that results in a capable, educated Arab population. This approach will require more than building schools and sending textbooks. Yemen, and the region, is in need of an education overhaul that must begin with training well-educated teachers.

Yemen is a paradox when it comes to education. The Yemeni government spends an average of 30 percent of its $9 billion yearly budget on education, while the United States will spend 16 percent in FY 2010. Yet only about half of Yemen’s population can read and write. School is officially compulsory, but 20 percent to 30 percent of children in Yemen do not attend school and are instead forced to work as child laborers.

One explanation for this disparity is the corrupt relationship between the central government and tribes. About 20 percent of what the government spends on education is in fact given as patronage to tribes. This patronage-as-tribal pacification policy is credited with the relative peace in Yemen over the last 30 years. But today these tribes are utilized by Al Qaeda and recruited as foot soldiers against the United States. Education spending in Yemen is essentially subsidizing terrorism in the country.

Yemen has a vibrant and well-established civil society that could create an environment of resistance against terrorism. We have an opportunity to work with these groups to help them establish a more educated society. Increasing the availability and quality of education in Yemen will serve to reduce poverty and help make Yemen a more productive, educated society resistant to Al Qaeda’s propaganda.

The current education system in Yemen does not teach independent thought and encourages the group mentality that allows for vulnerability and tribe exploitation by Al Qaeda. The United States should utilize local Yemeni organizations to create curriculums focused on math and science, critical thinking, and independent thought. The U.S. Department of State’s Middle East Partnership Initiative, or MEPI, has worked with local organizations throughout the Middle East to create educational opportunities. MEPI should increase the number of local grants given to Yemeni nongovernmental organizations to help create better solutions for education at the local community level.

Private sector involvement will be important in reforming Yemen’s education system but the basis for change will come from rehabilitating government policies. A recent review of Yemen’s progress in achieving its millennium goals, which includes revamping education and achieving gender equality, shows that Yemen would need $1.2 billion a year to meet its goals by 2015. The World Bank is encouraging donor countries to follow through with pledges so that the Yemeni government can establish broad reforms that promote an inclusionary education system in a more efficient, less corrupt manner.

The United States should use part of the more than $100 million budgeted for Yemen to build physical school buildings in the country. Yemen’s infrastructure is particularly insufficient in rural areas and is greatly lacking in the necessities for a solid education system. But the largest problem is not a lack of books or school buildings. Yemen needs teachers. Some 65 percent of Yemeni schoolteachers only have a high school education. The U.S. Agency for International Development worked in Yemen in the 1970s and 1980s to provide opportunities for higher education at western universities. Yemen needs such a program again now. The United States can utilize programs already in place such as the Woodrow Wilson Scholars Program and the Fulbright Program to provide math, science, and critical thinking education to Yemenis with the contingency that they return to Yemen and teach in Yemen’s schools upon completing their degree. Having well-educated teachers is the key to nurturing a well-educated society.

The United States is dealing with an adversary that has an expanding geographic reach, superb propaganda, and a keen ability to evolve with our every tactical shift. The broader Middle East is a prime space to attract Islamic salafi-jihadi ideology because a vulnerable, uneducated population inhabits the already permissive region. Developing a solid education system in the Middle East will gain back much of the goodwill squandered in recent years and serve as a foundational plank for a national security strategy targeted at staving off extremism and preventing future threats.

Sarah Jacobs is an intern with the National Security team at American Progress.

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