June 24, 2008
A New York Times article this week explored the choices faced by young Algerians as the government attempts to reform the education system and prepare them for a changing economy. The overhaul is aimed not just at reducing the high dropout and unemployment rates, but also at curbing the appeal of Islamist militancy. Unfortunately, the effort may be doomed to failure if it neglects broader governance problems that continue to stifle public debate, block democratic accountability, and deter private investment. As noted in the Times story and other recent articles, Algerian schools and universities were long designed to produce public-sector workers for a largely socialist economy. When the education system was Arabized after independence from France, a turnover in personnel damaged math and science training, and new instructors from countries like Egypt brought an emphasis on Islam. These and other factors left the schools poorly equipped for current conditions, in which some 70 percent of the population is under age 30 and the state can no longer provide employment to all young graduates. Male students in particular are dropping out in large numbers, judging that education is unlikely to help them get a job. According to a World Bank study released in February, about 20 percent of the workforce has more than a secondary education, and that group accounts for 40 percent of the unemployed. This is partly due to the fact that many educated Algerians are unwilling to take blue-collar or informal-sector jobs they consider demeaning. Even the striking success of women in professions like law and medicine is to some extent a consequence of the overarching dysfunctions, since female students are more likely to pursue higher education when jobless men are forced to postpone marriage. The government has responded with attempts to encourage critical thinking, French-language instruction, and a renewed focus on math and science. The hope is that the changes will arm students with the skills they would need in the globally linked private sector. The program could also undercut the attraction of radical Islam, either directly or through increased employment. Militancy had already lost much of its appeal in the country, which is emerging from a decade-long civil conflict in which some 200,000 people were killed by government forces or Islamist guerrillas. However, a recent spate of terrorist bombings has revived concerns about the problem. While some sort of education overhaul is no doubt in order, it will be difficult to track the results or make course corrections in an overall political environment that suppresses the free flow of information and discourages public criticism. As the World Bank report points out, successful education reform requires the involvement of parliamentary committees, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), independent professional groups, and other actors who can contribute to policy formation and hold administrators accountable. The last parliamentary elections, in May 2007, indicated Algerians’ lack of confidence in their political system, which remains dominated by the executive branch and powerful military officers. The official voter turnout for the polls was less than 36 percent, and the actual turnout may have been less than half that figure. With opposition parties boycotting, banned, or otherwise restricted, the ruling coalition captured 249 of the 389 seats in the lower house. The parliament is in any case regarded as a rubber-stamp body; in its last session, 98 percent of the legislation it considered was reportedly initiated by the executive. This impotence stems in part from the civil war. The conflict began after the military intervened to halt landmark multiparty parliamentary elections in which an Islamist group, the Islamic Salvation Front, was emerging as the winner. As detailed in the Countries at the Crossroads 2007 report on Algeria, the government of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika—installed by the military in 1999—has since maintained restrictions on NGOs and independent labor unions, limited free speech with broadly worded criminal libel laws, and exercised political control over the judiciary. The regime has also resisted privatizing state land and assets, and audits of state companies and contracts are not made public, leading to widespread corruption. Given these circumstances, and the government’s failure to fully address the human rights abuses of the civil-war period, it seems unlikely that the authorities will go very far in encouraging critical thinking in the education system. Doing so could simply add to the frustration of young graduates as they encounter the sclerotic reality outside the classroom.