Yemen’s bleak education picture

Summary: the damage done to Yemen’s education system by 8 years of protracted war is deep and will be lasting, scarring the country’s youth while denying them the possibility of productive work and meaningful careers. 

We thank Helen Lackner for today’s article. A Yemen expert, Helen works as a freelance rural development consultant and is a visiting fellow at the European Council for Foreign Relations. She is the author of Yemen in Crisis, the Road to War published by Verso, a seminal study of the current war and what lies behind it; a revised edition with additional material Yemen in Crisis: Devastating Conflict, Fragile Hope is out now. In July 2022 Routledge published her new study Yemen: Poverty and Conflict. Helen’s most recent Arab Digest podcast is available here.

Military and political events receive most of the limited public attention given to the Yemeni crisis. The hundreds of thousands of deaths from indirect and direct impact of the war are tragic. Reconstruction of destroyed infrastructure and effective water management will be essential to restore Yemen to some semblance of a liveable environment. However given the country’s limited natural resource endowment, addressing the dire state of the education sector is indispensable if Yemen is to achieve any long-term socio-economic viability providing its people with a successful economy based on quality employment in modern sectors. Without giving serious attention and funding to an education sector that requires complete transformation Yemen’s future is bleak.

Prior to the war, the education sector was already in a pretty bad state, its Islamist influenced syllabi unadapted to a modern economy at any level, the majority of teachers inadequately trained and physical facilities of very low standards. Illiteracy remained significant, particularly for women, with 35% of adult women illiterate; this was a self-perpetuating situation as only about 60% of girls attended school, most only briefly thus ensuring that adult female illiteracy remained an issue for future generations. In 2013, a year before the crisis blew up, just 670,000 girls out of the then 9.5 million school age youth were in education. At that time only 8% of the labour force had any kind of university degree, 17% were illiterate and 33% were barely literate or with primary school education (Ref Yemen in Crisis: Devastating Conflict, Fragile Hope, 2023, p 290). The majority of employment in Yemen was in agriculture and low-skilled casual activities.

Houthi school
A school in Yemen full of posters of students and teachers who died fighting for the glory of the Houthi militia [photo credit: @alkumaim_m]
In eight years of war, the situation has worsened dramatically, with a quarter of schools (more than 2900) either damaged, destroyed, or used for other purposes ranging from housing for displaced families to facilities for military forces. Since September 2016 teachers have only very intermittently been paid their state salaries, both in areas under Houthi and IRG rule/governance. Even paid in full, these salaries would not sustain households above the poverty level. Lack of salaries have partly been compensated with ‘incentive’ payments from the international community, usually via UNICEF projects financed through the Humanitarian Response Plans (HRP) or from World Bank and other projects. But given the shortage of funding this support has only covered a small proportion of staff.  In 2022, UNICEF intended to provide such incentives to 100,000 of the country’s 170,000 teachers but reached a mere 44, 000 or under a quarter of them. Funding for education through the UN’s HRP covered 12% of requirement, a particularly shocking figure, even in the context of the overall low of 52% for the HRP last year. In 2023 more than 2 million of the now 10.5 million school age children are out of school; to some extent at least this is because payment is now required, either officially in Houthi controlled areas or unofficially elsewhere.

Funding, however abysmal, is far from being the only, or even arguably, the main issue concerning the education sector. The past eight years have witnessed  a deterioration that goes far beyond salaries and equipment. The most egregious development has come in the Houthi-controlled areas where that movement has, for now close to a decade, made fundamental changes to the syllabi of the entire education system. These changes are designed to indoctrinate children into the fundamentals of Houthi ideology: belief that political supremacy of sada (descendants of the prophet) is a tenet of Islam. Schools also teach children that fighting and dying in support of the Houthis is a direct road to heaven, thus encouraging them to join the Houthi armed forces. What happens in schools is supplemented in Houthis’ ‘summer camps’ where the same ideology is promoted with the addition of physical and military training. So, among the 70% of Yemenis living under Houthi rule, there is now a generation of youth who have been systematically indoctrinated with these beliefs. Some of them, at least, genuinely believe what they have learned, thus ensuring that they lack the skills necessary to operate in the world economy of the 21st century, while further jeopardising the future of a country already torn apart by war.

While not as extreme, similar things are going on in other parts of the country. In areas under their influence, southern separatists have rewritten history to justify their determination to re-establish a separate southern state. Salafis are also encouraging increased focus on religion in education, something which was already a major element in the period of President Ali Abdullah Saleh (1990 -2012.) This  education by indoctrination is done at the expense of time and energy that otherwise could be spent in developing skills necessary to build a modern economy.

Since the war started, what limited support there is in the education sector has focused on short-term issues: salary payments and additional training for teachers, provision of teaching materials, books and equipment for students and, of course, rehabilitation and construction of school premises. There is no doubt that these are essential, but a long-term approach is at least as urgent.

Enabling a population to flourish in the modern economy is a process that takes about two decades as it requires designing new educational programmes at all levels, starting with primary school and ending with  post-secondary, whether university or vocational. Not only do new syllabi have to be developed but teachers have to be trained in the new skills and materials produced. In Yemen, this is likely to be an expensive process. Many existing schools don’t have electricity, computers are a rarity, and teaching still sometimes takes place under trees with no more than a blackboard. There is a long way to go: on the IRG side what educational reform exists is divided ideologically, while the Houthis are busy focusing on their own long-term work to persuade the population to follow their ideology. The crisis in education is yet another aspect of the increasing fragmentation of Yemen, with divergent tendencies and the absence of an effective education strategy further damaging the country’s long-term future while denying its youth the possibility of productive employment and meaningful careers.

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