London, Asharq Al-Awsat—Since leaving 10 Downing Street in May 2010, former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown has sought to put his political experience and financial know-how to use in issues that he championed while in office. His appointment in July 2012 as UN special envoy for global education has allowed Mr. Brown to focus on the issue of education and efforts to secure educating children around the world, especially those who are most vulnerable.
In an exclusive interview with Asharq Al-Awsat, Mr. Brown highlighted how education is an essential factor in trying to plan for a better future for the Middle East and North Africa. This will be one of his key messages as he co-chairs the World Economic Forum Middle East and North Africa meeting in Jordan next May. While he spoke candidly about the challenges facing the Middle East and North Africa, he did not want to discuss the upcoming UK elections, slated also for May, preferring to focus on his international role.
Last December, Mr Brown announced his intention not to stand in the next elections, which will mean his exit from Parliament after becoming an MP for the first time in 1983 at the age of 32. It is expected that his international efforts and his role as UN special envoy will take up an increasing amount of his time after this spring’s elections.
Asharq Al-Awsat: You will be co-chairing the World Economic Forum on the Middle East and North Africa meeting in Jordan in May. At a time when the region is facing such instability and changes on the ground, can a meeting like this actually make a difference?
Gordon Brown: It’s true that we’re dealing with instability; we’re dealing with conflict, a large amount of insecurity and probably one of the biggest population flows of refugees that we’ve seen. But it’s also true that if you’re planning the future then you’ve got to concentrate on what could make the region a better place. This is about economic opportunity, it’s about the potential of the region, it’s about a fast changing region—this is North Africa as well as the Middle East—where 350 million people live and that figure will be 500 million soon. It has one of the fastest growing populations of young people in the world after sub-Saharan Africa. Urbanization is taking place very quickly. This is a time of opportunity, particularly when we’ve got to focus on young people. About a third of young people in Jordan itself and maybe a quarter of young people in the region don’t have any jobs at all while the population is still expanding. So, we want to focus on infrastructure. How we can build a better infrastructure, whether it be water—which of course is a huge issue—or road, rail, power, hospitals or schools. We want to focus on employment and providing educational opportunities for young people. We’re aware of the great services that are being done in the region proving that young people in the region are more entrepreneurial than young people in America, which is classified as one of the most entrepreneurial and dynamic countries in the world. So infrastructure and education are absolutely crucial both to the future of the region and the plan that I think the region needs for its own future development.
Q: But can this plan come to fruition at a time when we seem to find leaders in a reactive state because events are so fast-changing, as you said? How do you get ahead of the curve rather than just constantly reacting to events?
That’s why I’m happy to chair this forum, because I think it can point the way to the future. It’s not someone coming from outside the region to tell people what to do. It’s actually bringing together all the best brains of the region, the public and private sectors working together to see what can be done. We’ve already got the World Bank’s project for infrastructure development in the region as well as the new role for the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development—it is focusing on Egypt, Tunisia, but also on the Middle East. Finally, we’ve got the World Economic Forum’s Global Strategic Infrastructure Initiative which I’m actually chairing and I see huge opportunity. There is a 100 billion US dollar gap between the infrastructure that’s been provided each year and the infrastructure investment that we need. This can only be bridged by the public and private sectors working together. Governments in most countries don’t have enough money to do it. The private sector has money but it’s been reluctant to invest, and we’ve got find a way to bridge that gap by bringing the public and private sector together. This is particularly required for the feasibility studies, the project planning works that are often costly at the beginning of a project but which are absolutely essential. We can see the potential for road, rail, power, water, and environmentally friendly infrastructure projects in the region and we’ll be discussing that in Jordan. Therefore, you’re really trying to build the region of the future.
Q: For the oil producers in the region, the hit on oil prices has made a lot of people reconsider their future commitments, and we’re not just talking about the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states but also Iraq, Libya and others who have changed their budget predictions for at least the next year. Instability is making it unlikely that the private sector will want to invest so much, while governments are worried about oil prices . . .
There’s actually a surplus of savings around the world. There is no shortage of potential investors even with the fall of oil prices in the region. The problem is that the conditions have not been right; people think that the risks have become too great and some of the problems that people have identified like political risks and currency risks have not been satisfactorily solved to the betterment of these projects. So, I think that even though the oil price is down there are plenty of resources available if we have the will to do it. What has been missing was not the money, and still is not the money, but building these links between the public and private sector where we can actually mitigate the risks that people sense have held them back from investing in infrastructure to deal the water problem, then deal with the road and rail problem, then deal with the general problem of the provision of hospital and schools. Now these are things that I think you can plan for the future, and even when there are conflicts and even when there is worry about stability, you can plan for the future.
Q: As the UN envoy for global education, you spoke quite strongly at Davos in January, and on previous occasions, about the failure to invest in education. There is concern about Syrian refugees, Iraqi refugees and even Palestinian refugees not receiving the education that will equip them to build that future. Is it a lack of political will that is stopping that investment and aid going to education?
It’s the absence of money. This has been the central problem that has prevented us from catering for these refugees, particularly those who in the greatest number have gone from Syria to Lebanon. There are many refugees in Jordan, there are many on the Turkish border, and there are people displaced within Syria. There are about half a million young children of school age who are now in Lebanon. We have worked with the Lebanese government and we’ve devised a project of double-shift schools. So the schools would be open for the Lebanese in the morning and for the Syrian children in the afternoon. And, of course, they’re being taught in different languages at the moment so we have got the use of existing schools rather than having to build new schools for a population of refugees that is essentially dispersed in Lebanon around the country and is not just concentrated in one camp or one place. We’ve got the teachers and the government of Lebanon supporting this, but what we’ve found very difficult is to raise the money from the international community. So it is the absence of political will and that is a problem that we’re trying to solve at the moment.
If a young person leaves Syria and is in Lebanon then they may be there for years. If they are not being educated, then they are very vulnerable to child trafficking, child marriage, child labor. All these problems make life very difficult for them. But it is important that we provide them with education. While shelter and food and healthcare are crucial and prevent people dying and give people the chance to survive, education is what gives people hope. If you’re in school you can plan for the future. If you’re in secondary school you can think of a career ahead. And even in the most difficult situations you can plan for a better future if you’re getting education. And there is a more general point: there is no country in the world that is going to be a high-income country in the long-term and [do so] sustainably unless it does invest in education. So we’ve got to remember that the key to the economic future of Syria’s children is education. The key to giving them hope in a situation which is full of despair is ensuring that they can actually plan for the future by knowing that they’re going to get the skills that will allow them to plan for their employment prospects for the future, or their business prospects for the future, and simply to plan ahead with some confidence that they can actually do something even in the most difficult situations.
Q: You make a compelling argument; so why is there this failure to get that support?
The humanitarian demands in the region are so huge at the moment and unfortunately education has been neglected. Only 2 percent of the humanitarian aid budget goes to education. We’re now trying to create a humanitarian fund for education so that instead of having to send a begging board around the world after the crisis develops you should be able to have money available once the crisis is known and so you can act quickly. We are trying to learn the lessons from our experience in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon to create a long-term fund which will allow us to immediately take action when a crisis is upon us. At the moment we’re trying to persuade a number of countries [to contribute] and we’ve raised 100 million dollars over the last few months but we need to raise about 230 million dollars. This is essentially 500 dollars a year—which is not a huge amount—to educate a Syrian refugee who is in one of the other countries. If we can actually do that then the chances are that we could have half a million [Syrian] children in Lebanon who are currently out of school into school.
Q: The Syrian war will enter its fifth year at the end of this week, while it’s been 12 years in March since the Iraq war. We see the region is at a point where international governance has failed to calm or solve these conflicts. What would you say about the international role in governance in trying to ease these conflicts?
It’s clear that there are many people, great and good people, who are trying to bring these international conflicts to an end. There is a huge amount of activity by the UN and by negotiators of peace whether in Gaza or Iraq or Syria. Of course, there is a huge worry about the spread of terrorism and we now see ISIS [the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria] having tentacles into Nigeria; so it’s a huge issue. What I can concentrate on in the job that I have is the future and to point the way to a more optimistic picture for the region that’s got tremendous potential. The region’s young people are incredibly dynamic and entrepreneurial. The region is going to be one of the fastest growing regions of the world if it can escape conflict and even with the present fall in oil prices it’s not a region where the resources are exhausted or are running down. There are still huge resources for the future. So our job, and I can do this through the World Economic Forum as the chairman of this event but also as UN education envoy, is to point the way to the future and show people that things are still possible, to see the light at the end of the tunnel, to see that there is an opportunity that people can seize ahead, and to make that opportunity possible through developing the infrastructure and partnerships and encouraging the investment in education that can make this happen. I haven’t lost sight of the idea that the huge oil-producing countries that are in a position to do more in the region should combine with the other countries in the region to invest substantially bigger sums in infrastructure and education in the years ahead, and that may be the long-term guarantee of peace and stability. But it is also a necessary means by which you deal with this fast-rising population of people, too many of whom have been left unemployed or are out of education or not in high-quality education, and too many of whom will become discontented if we don’t do something to bridge the gap between what opportunities they see other young people having through the media and through the Internet and the opportunities they desire and have a right to expect they could have in the future. So I think even in a tragic set of circumstances it is also important to point the way to what could be a far better future.