Saturday,17 November, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1121, 8-14 November
Saturday,17 November, 2018
Issue 1121, 8-14 November

Ahram Weekly

In search of human capital

Without solid education, the country’s youth can achieve little. If we want a new Egypt, we must build and multiply effective educational institutions, writes Sameh Fawzy

Al-Ahram Weekly

Suppose you are well educated, intellectual and a patriot, but the government dismissed your merits and appointed a less qualified person in a public post instead. You would understandably feel aggrieved.
This situation is not unusual in autocratic states, where people are recruited for political loyalty rather than their qualifications. Democracy, which acknowledges the concept of competition more than anything else, bears a better chance for qualified people, but only if they are genuinely qualified.
This means that you should be first qualified in a democratic setting to find a foothold in the public domain, remembering that democracy itself doesn’t add more capabilities to people who decidedly cut themselves off from cultural, scientific and social streams. In sum, democracy introduces an opportunity for change rather than a definite gift of change.
In our political rhetoric, Egypt is portrayed as a mother who has been heavenly destined to give birth to an endless number of capable, talented and experienced persons, always ready to shoulder responsibility in government positions successfully and promisingly. It is amazing. How fertile is our beloved country!
When opponents, years ago, launched their constant campaign against Hosni Mubarak and his cronies, they resorted to this discourse only to prove that the regime’s nepotism had drained Egypt’s capabilities and stripped the fertile country of its qualifications through imposing unqualified corrupt persons at the top of public institutions.
Since Mubarak’s ouster, politicians have been speaking the same language without critical thinking. Some shift has happened and the blame was transferred from the ousted “elite” to the newly descending “group”. The problem now is associated with the Muslim Brotherhood, whose goal to infiltrate the state apparatus has led them, opponents argue, to rely upon incompetent and unprofessional loyalists to occupy key state positions, ostracising qualified expertise in the opposition camp.
Apart from the debate over the innate desire of the Muslim Brotherhood to monopolise the whole polity, Egypt is not that rich a country, enjoying a surplus of qualified, competent and experienced politicians, technocrats, bureaucrats and researchers. Experience shows the opposite.
Mubarak was indeed an autocrat and dragged the country into a black tunnel of favouritism, disintegration and maladministration. If the ongoing bleak and blurred situation remains, the Muslim Brotherhood may eventually end up with the same fate. But it is unfair to place all the blame on the regime’s mistakes. Regardless of the regime’s democratic commitment, the store of human capital is almost empty. This is the problem.
To get out of this crisis we should remove what is blinding our eyes to reality. Egypt doesn’t have a rich and renewable source of human capital. Instead, educational institutions push into society every year millions of half-illiterate persons who can’t meet the demands of a changing market.
Let us be honest with ourselves. In terms of human development, Egypt rates a low ranking in all relevant international reports. Education is in an awful and miserable downward spiral. Poor institutions, archaic curricula, an absence of civic education, unqualified teachers, ignorance of foreign languages, lack of student participation and the disconnection between education and the market all result in low-quality education and low-quality results in terms of human capital.
Lack of professionalism has become akin to an octopus stretching its tentacles to all fields — political, cultural and educational.
University professors, who have been the main source of political recruitment since the 1950s, barely know the meaning of academia. They start their careers, get regular promotions and occupy high-ranking positions within educational institutions without achieving anything in particular. Not surprisingly, the knowledge of most professors in the human and social sciences hasn’t gone beyond what was published and debated in the 1960s or 1970s at best. Look at the references listed at the end of their badly printed books and you will realise that the world of the Internet and TV screens hasn’t yet invaded their overcrowded and impoverished classrooms.
What does society expect from university professors who rarely write for or have regular access to recognised international journals in their areas of specialisation?
What does society expect from university professors who lack foreign languages to an extent that drastically diminishes their potential participation in international events or their effective contribution to the progress of science worldwide?
The demise of the Mubarak regime uncovered the poorly educated Egyptian elite. Looking at public debates in newspapers, on satellite channels, and over the draft constitution, clearly proves that Egypt is not as fertile intellectually as we claim, while our political, cultural and scientific cadres are alarmingly detached from what the modern world has long realised.
Please don’t mention international Egyptian figures such as Magdi Yacoub, Farouk Al-Baz, Ahmed Zewail, Hani Azer and Ismail Serageldin. Successive governments have not invested in any of them, and minimally benefit from the distinguished expertise they all hold in different fields.
Is it the curse of the Pharaohs?
Mubarak was not known for his respect for or appreciation of the role of science in changing the nation. Mohamed Morsi, in power for four months, hasn’t shown yet any divergence from his predecessor’s unapologetic approach.
Let’s not talk about what Morsi did in his first 100 days in the presidency. It is ridiculous and unfair to expect an elected president to play with the country’s conundrums like a magician. Nevertheless, as a president he is obliged to work out a plan to address national problems, including expected outcomes in both the short and long term. If he doesn’t have such plan, it means that Egyptians elected someone who is not aware of the persisting problems, or at least is lacking the know-how to correct missteps taken before. In all cases, it is not enough to hear from the president every Friday prayer that he wants to revamp the country. The overt verbal commitment is good, but Egyptians are thirsty for deeds to overcome the depressing effects of uneven political and socio-economic development. Indeed, repercussions of the election of a new president have not been felt across the country, although Morsi is roaming the country’s governorates, visiting mosques and preaching to the people.
Back to the role of knowledge. Glorifying the status of science in Egypt today doesn’t mean reallocating land and buildings owned by a university only to translate Zewail’s private towering ambition into reality. The boastful attitude shown by Zewail in his battle against Nile University is unlikely to be remembered as a successful example of development. If the existing regime is willing to enhance the role of science, it must work on multiplying genuine scientific institutions across Egypt.
Yacoub started his project from scratch and has marvellously and humbly built a landmark association to serve poor people and educate physicians and young heart surgeons on the latest scientific achievements. Mohamed Ghoneim, driven by the same philosophy, has achieved remarkable results in the field of kidney diseases in Mansoura.
The recipe for change is not complicated; erecting centres of excellence in every part of the country based on the knowledge and experience of Egyptian scientists who have a scientific record and profound international recognition. Admittedly, if qualified Egyptians are not available in certain fields it is a must to depend on foreign scientists. Dismissing this stems from a narrow-minded local perspective. Science is science, not a debate over patriotism.
The government is only expected to provide scientists with needed infrastructure, encouragement and funding. When the regime has such ambitious nationwide plans for planting science in the Egyptian soil, businesspersons are welcome to contribute through making endowments similar to ones made by their socially responsible counterparts in advanced Western countries.
If the businesspersons who fund politicians and political parties united in building advanced universities in order to provide better learning opportunities for promising poor and middle class Egyptians, they would definitely change the face of the country. I’d like to send this message to Naguib Sawiris, who is so intent on building a new Egypt. Science can do it better than politicians. Money is always important, but it is not enough. The post-World War II Japan, as Francis Fukuyama once noted, was not rebuilt by money only, but by qualified politicians and technocrats who took on responsibility in state-owned enterprises and dedicated themselves to public service. This is what Egypt really needs.

The writer is a political analyst.

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