This week, Arab and international leaders will gather in Jordan for the World Economic Forum on the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). Their discussions will centre on how to solve some of the region’s greatest challenges: grave humanitarian crises engulfing conflict-affected countries and their neighbours, wide income and gender inequalities, and growing numbers of unemployed youth. Education must be a central theme to all of these discussions. While the regional challenges affect education, education can also help solve these challenges. However, outstanding threats and weaknesses in the region’s educational systems are making it difficult to address these key issues.

Conflict is robbing young Arabs of their future

In the Arab world, nearly 4.5 million children are not in school. About 87% of them live in conflict-affected countries. Another 2.9 million young people don’t have access to secondary schools. The greatest education crisis is affecting Syrian children and adolescents: 2.8 million of them do not have access to school at home and in neighbouring countries. These children, along with others from Sudan, Iraq, Libya, the Palestinian Territories, Egypt and Yemen, face a bleak future unless a concerted effort is made to guarantee their right to quality education.

An alarming number of these out-of-school children and youth must work to provide for their families. Many of them are being forced into the worst forms of labour, including the smuggling of goods and sexual exploitation. Girls are getting married early to minimize risk of wider assault and to reduce the burden on their families. And, some of the most vulnerable children and youth are being recruited as workers and combatants in armed groups.

Education alone will not reverse the impact of the violence and trauma these children experience, but for displaced and refugee children, education is about hope. It is a form of perseverance and a bridge to a better life. Without education, there can be little promise for their futures and the futures of their countries. Every one of the countries destroyed by conflict can only begin the process of rebuilding and reconciliation if children and young people gain the education and skills they need to become productive citizens.

Providing access to education to children affected by conflict in MENA must become a global priority. The undeniable moral imperative is only matched by economic and security rationale. Yet funding for education in emergencies, including for the countries hosting refugees, has consistently fallen short. If the international community does not act, it risks losing a generation of children and youth to unemployment, hopelessness and radicalism. And the impact will be felt well beyond MENA.

Gender and wealth inequalities widen the education gap

Conflict is not the only barrier to education in the Arab world. Arab children’s gender and family income remain strong indicators of whether they have access to quality education. Educational barriers tend to be greatest for girls from low-income households living in rural areas.

More girls have access to primary education than a decade ago. But the region remains one of the furthest from having equal representation of girls and boys in primary schools. While countries like Morocco move closer to parity, gender disparities remain particularly significant in Djibouti, Sudan and Yemen, despite progress.

As demonstrated by Figure 1, overlapping gender, wealth and geographic disparities show the extent of education poverty in the Arab world. At the primary level, whereas gender parity has been achieved in some cases, mainly for the richest girls, the poorest girls still fall far behind the poorest boys. In countries like Morocco and Egypt, there is still a significant primary attainment gap between children from the lowest income and average incomes households, though it has narrowed in the past decade. And children in rural areas do not have the same access to quality education as their peers in urban areas.

FIGURE 1:Overlapping disparities in extreme education poverty: share of population age 17-22, 2006 to 2008 (source: GMR WIDE data, republished from Brookings AWLB)

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Education is central to reducing inequality and achieving the development goals of the region. Globally, for every year of education, an individual increases their income by 10%. In the Arab world, girls’ education is one of the best investments Arab states can make in their social and economic well-being. A girl who goes to school is less likely to marry early and more likely to delay childbirth and have healthier children. And, a one-year increase in maternal education is associated with a 23% decrease in the number of children under the age of five dying from pneumonia – the largest killer of children under five.

Low-quality education exacerbates youth unemployment

The large gaps in access to education for the most disadvantaged children and youth contribute to youth unemployment in MENA. But not all of those who are receiving an education are safeguarded against unemployment. The Arab world is facing a learning crisis. More than half of the region’s children and youth who are in school are failing to learn, as measured by literacy and numeracy scores on international tests.

In addition to foundational literacies, MENA’s learning crisis extends to competencies needed in the workforce, such as critical thinking, creativity and communication. In the Arab world, 40% of employers cite skill-shortage as a top constraint to business operation and company growth.

In 2013, MENA’s youth unemployment rate was double the world average of 14%. Even in resource-rich GCC countries with traditionally lower unemployment rate than the rest of MENA region, youth unemployment has always been a challenge. Higher quality education that helps young people in MENA better prepare for the world of work is essential to mitigating the region’s youth unemployment challenge.

Any forward-looking plans devised at the World Economic Forum or beyond for MENA must include providing access to quality education for all children and young people. Those plans cannot be the responsibility of any one sector. This meeting is an opportunity for business, government and civil society to begin developing much-needed multi-sector solutions and partnerships.

Education is one of the best investments all sectors in MENA can make. Education can restore hope to the millions of young people whose lives have been turned upside down by conflict, and can bring about greater equality and opportunities for the young men and women who aspire to a better future.

The World Economic Forum on the Middle East and North Africa 2015 takes place at the Dead Sea, Jordan, from 21-23 May.

Author: Maysa Jalbout is a  Non-Resident Fellow in the Centre for Universal Education at the Brookings Institution.

Image: Children attend a class inside a school in Old Aleppo January 3, 2015. REUTERS/Jalal Al-Mamo