Some Thoughts on “MEPI” and Alternatives

Some years ago, the U.S. government started a hodge podge of initiatives to bring about democracy in the Muslim world. Several of these initiatives were collectively known as the Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI).

MEPI’s objectives included reform of the education systems in Muslim countries in ways that would help produce democratic / progressive leaders and tolerant societies. But the programs have not been on a perfect track thus far.

In my opinion, the original idea of investing in progressive education systems in Muslim countries is not assailable. There are indeed schools in Muslim countries that teach the opposite of tolerance and subject kids to rote learning.

To its credit the MEPI programs have funded such things as girls’ education, helped provide books to schools that needed them, and started some vocational training programs. But many of the MEPI programs focus on such ethereal things as digital classrooms in relatively poor countries, or student exchange programs, while overlooking more thoughtful initiatives that could get to the heart of the issues: unfavorable economics, a.k.a. poverty, paltry government investment in schools with progressive curricula, or in schools in general.

Key problems with education systems in Muslim countries lie with the rarity of quality public education and the popularity of Saudi-funded Wahhabi madrassas in places like Pakistan, Bangladesh and Indonesia.

It is worrying that several thousand madrassas in these countries teach rigid and extremist brands of Islam to kids between 5 and 21. While madrassas may not always graduate terrorists, many do graduate pupils who empathize with acts of terror. In political and social arenas of Muslim countries too, there is a stark divergence of views of modernists and Islamists.

The education systems in Muslim countries, as well as the problems with them, are similar. Public schools tend to offer unmotivated instructors, disorganized curricula and poor educational materials. Private schools, modeled after colonial era institutions have slightly better standards, but cater mostly to moneyed classes. In the meantime, madrassas are a cheap or free alternative–most even offer free room and board–and the strict educational leadership of zealous clerics often gives the appearance of structure and organization.

U.S. efforts, instead of relying solely on book donations, wired classrooms and exchange programs should look for smarter ways to reform education. They could focus first on building trust and collaborating with reform-minded local citizens and educators to demand far-reaching curricular reforms that promote exploratory learning.

Also needed is big money to expand the availability of public education in remote, rural areas, combined with a push to get governments to commit more resources and funding to public education. There should be greater push for accountability so that no institution is allowed to operate without licenses, and minimum standards for teaching certification must be set for instructors.

Overarching efforts, though, should focus on addressing poverty in ways that don’t necessarily involve sweeping changes. For example, one great way to go could be to expand school lunch programs in existing public schools, e.g. check out the McGovern-Dole program.

For interested U.S. citizens, a campaign for McGovern Dole is in full swing and a vote is coming up soon in Congress.