“At least we’re number one at something, even if it’s from the bottom,” quipped one of my friends in Cairo. We had just finished reading the recently issued World Economic Forum Global Competitiveness Report 2013-2014, which rates Egypt as the worst country in the world in the quality of primary education. The report is based on the WEF’s Global Competitiveness Indicator, an aggregate of 114 indicators grouped under 12 categories of “drivers of productivity and prosperity,” including institutions, financial markets, technological readiness, and health and education, among others.
Egypt is listed 118th overall, a full 11 places lower than last year. Egypt is at the bottom among almost all other countries in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region — far behind Qatar and the UAE, which are among the top 20 most competitive nations. It’s even behind the rest of North Africa, including Morocco (77th), Tunisia (83rd), and Algeria (100th). Only Yemen ranks lower (145th).
Naturally there is more to the Egypt section of the report than the dismal statistics on elementary education, but that was the ranking that drew the most attention from the media and the public. Extremes, whether best or worst, have a particular appeal. And while every Egyptian knows that elementary education is rather abysmal, it was a shock to see just how low it scored compared to the rest of the developed, developing, and underdeveloped world. (The photo above shows children peering through a public school gate in Khosoos.)
Though this particular data point quickly became a matter of public conversation, most people have a standard reaction: they agree, lament the times, and shrug their shoulders.
There was no public statement or reaction from the Egyptian state — even though we well know that the government monitors such rankings closely in the event there might be something to brag about. But there’s clearly no chance of that here, so they seem to have opted for silence instead.
Behind closed doors, however, some government officials could be heard casting aspersions on the report’s methodology. And they’re not necessarily wrong: the Competitiveness Report’s methodology is far from perfect, relying on a mix of objective data gathered from international and local statistical sources as well as well on surveys the report’s authors conduct within each country. The survey respondents are not experts in all of the fields they’re asked about: topics can range from business facilities and primary education, to the risk of terrorism. So respondents are sharing their more-or-less-educated impressions. And while the sample is large enough to drown out any particularly biased opinion, it does not take into account the generalized demoralization of a country in crisis or an economic downturn, which would drive responses even farther below a more objective perception.
This is not to say that Egypt’s elementary school system isn’t terrible. But is it really the very worst on the planet? Actual data might paint a different picture. In the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) report, an international achievement test that allows comparison between countries and over time, Egypt ranked 38th out of 48 countries in the 2007 edition of the test, the last time Egyptian students participated.
Aside from the elementary education indicator, there are many other alarming areas where Egypt lands at the bottom of the rankings. Egypt also ranks in the bottom 10 percent of the planet in labor market efficiency, for example. This is a serious cause for concern. Egypt’s poor rankings in areas like talent retention (or “brain drain”), where Egypt ranks 133rd, and redundancy and employment termination expenses, where it scores 136th, suggest that labor regulation will top any serious reformer’s agenda.
Indeed, the report offers a few recommendations for change. Besides labor market reform (increased flexibility and efficiency), which is one obvious way of boosting employment, the report’s authors point out how the country’s relatively high fiscal deficit and public debt are weighing down on the macroeconomic environment. Yet Egypt continues to cling to its expansionary policies, accelerating borrowing even as it spends more and more. It’s obvious that this can’t go on indefinitely.
Underlying all of this is a climate of intense political instability and poor security, which undermines economic development and drastically affects Egypt’s rankings. Here, understandably, the WEF has little advice to offer: continuing violence leaves dozens of victims every week, and the absence of any real local and international pressure means that it is unlikely to subside any time soon.
The curfew imposed by the military government since early July — which, incidentally, destroyed the summer tourist season — has not been making things easy for Egyptians. The national house arrest lasts six hours every night, and a full 11 hours on Fridays, the national day off. Meanwhile the Muslim Brotherhood has launched its “traffic paralysis” plan to block main roads and intersections. All of this angers people and disturbs their lives — not to mention their livelihoods. While nearly half the population has stated that the curfew affects their income, its effects go even deeper. “The effect of a curfew is mostly in the signaling value it gives,” the World Bank chief economist for the MENA region, Shantayanan Devarajan, told me. “The fact that there is a need to put a curfew sends a negative message” to the rest of the world and international partners.
Just as the forced, self-deprecating laughs began to subside, the U.N. Sustainable Development Solutions Network (UNSDSN) published its World Happiness Report, which informed us — surprise — that Egyptians aren’t enjoying life much these days. Egypt ranked 130th, well below Somaliland (100th), Iraq (105th), Burma (121th), and even the war-torn Democratic Republic of the Congo (117th). Of the 156 countries surveyed, Egypt also had the greatest fall in happiness levels year-to-year. The report points out that this loss is greater than a mere loss in income: “freedom to make key life choices” is an equally important factor.
This is a freedom that Egyptians are not likely to gain any time soon. Improvements in happiness, just as in competitiveness, will have to wait.
First published at Foreign Policy: Transitions.