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19 Jan 2023
Karma El Hassan

How Far are Arab Countries from Meeting SDG4 Education Targets?

In this NORRAG Blog, part of the series on Missing Education Data, Karma El Hassan, Professor of Educational Psychology Measurement and Evaluation at the American University of Beirut, Lebanon, addresses priority gaps within the education data systems across the Arab States. 

Despite Arab States’ efforts to meet Sustainable Development Goal 4 on education (SDG4), their progress was slowed down by civil wars, forced displacement, and the recent COVID-19 pandemic that started in 2020. The region’s progress is also hampered by weak educational data systems and is in need of a strengthened culture of data production, analysis, and use.

This blog provides an overview of priority gaps in education data related to SDG 4 through a review of data reported by Arab States to the UNESCO Institute of Statistics (UIS),[1] their voluntary country reviews, and their Educational Management Information System (EMIS). Priority gaps emerged for indicators capturing the affordability of education, inclusive and equitable education for all learners, and learning achievement and participation rates. Furthermore, various groups continue to be underrepresented such as refugees and internally displaced children, poor children, learners with disabilities, and young people who are not in employment, education, or training.

Underrepresented Indicators

Affordability of Education

Huge disparities exist between public and private schooling in the Arab world and the latter is expanding at an increasing rate. As an example, private schools in Morocco witnessed a threefold increase in their number of students. However, during the first five years of the SDG agenda, only 68% of countries in the Arab region reported any data on SDG 4.5.4 on educational expenditures.[2] Furthermore, the existing SDG 4 data architecture does not fully capture the range of educational expenses confronted by learners accessing private schooling.

Inclusive and Equitable Education

The global indicator for the target representing more holistic conceptions of schooling (SDG 4.7)—which addresses concepts like gender equality, human rights, peace education, and cultural diversity—is missing across the Arab countries. This more holistic understanding of education’s purpose is integral to its contribution to the broader Sustainable Development Agenda, but there remains a lack of clarity about how to measure progress on this target and indicators that are specified in global meta-data are still poorly covered in the region. Only 50% of Arab states reported a single indicator under target 4.7 during the first five years of the SDG agenda.

Learning Achievement

Where data are available, stark differences in learning achievement levels are observed across Arab subregions. However, only 59% of Arab states have any reported data in the UIS dataset for the first five years of the SDG agenda. This gap is further exacerbated by the fact that there are no regional learning assessments. As a result, any direct comparison of data on learning achievement is only attainable for the few countries participating in cross-national international assessments like PISA, TIMSS, and PIRLS.

Underrepresented Groups

Four groups of learners are particularly affected by data gaps and unequal access to education: displaced learners, children from low-income households, persons with disabilities, and young people who are not in employment, education, or training.

Refugees and Internally Displaced Children

Forced displacement has affected many students in the region which continues to experience some of the most intense humanitarian crises in the world. Prior to the pandemic, an estimated 15 million children were out of school due to conflict and protracted crises. The crisis in Syria has resulted in the largest displacement of civilians worldwide[3] and the situation in Yemen is considered the worst humanitarian crisis in the world with over three quarters of the country in need of humanitarian assistance.[4] Not only do learners who are displaced or living in conflicted-affected areas experience compounded challenges in terms of their educational outcomes, [5],[6] large gaps in educational data exacerbate these challenges for both refugee learners[7] and those who are internally displaced[8] in the region—with most data being disconnected from EMIS and national statistical system.

Poorest Children

Educational outcomes for children from low-income families remain low throughout the region. This is especially true for poor children in rural areas. Where data are available, poor children from rural areas are much less likely to complete primary education compared to their counterparts in urban areas. This difference is even more pronounced at the secondary level. In Morocco, for example, where the rural population has less access to and lower quality of education services and institutions, 26 per cent of children drop out in the last grade of primary (grade 6), compared to 1 per cent in urban areas.[9] Girls are particularly negatively affected in countries like Syria and Yemen. Unfortunately, the least developed countries with the largest proportion of low-income learners are also the countries with the worst data coverage.[10]

Persons with Disabilities

Data on learners with disabilities are often missing and when available are collected inconsistently using methods that are misaligned with current best practices. Girls and women with disabilities in rural areas remain as the most excluded group from education especially in post-primary cycles. For instance, in Oman, only 31.2 % of people with disabilities are literate compared to 87% of persons without disabilities.[11] Only a few data points are available on the proportion of schools that are disability-friendly at the primary level and fewer at higher educational levels. The information available for Gulf countries is that 5 out of 6 schools are adapted to children with disabilities. Morocco and Palestine are the only countries in their respective sub-regions (the Maghreb and Mashreq) with data on this indicator. Efforts to improve this situation involve the creation of a Regional Guidebook to improve Disability Data Collection and Analysis in Arab Countries, the creation of a disability framework by the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia, and the development of the first regional database on disability statistics.

Young People who are not in Employment, Education, or Training

Around 18% of Arab youth fit into this category. Despite this fact, the educational indicators for young people and adults continue to be forgotten and missing. For example, during the first five years of the SDG 4 agenda, only 9% of Arab states provided any data on the participation of youth and adults in non-formal education or training (4.3.1), only 18% provided any data on tertiary enrolment (4.3.2), and only 59% provided any data on youth participation in technical and vocational education and training (4.3.3).[12] The importance of data on this group is illustrated by those countries with information available: A large disparity is also witnessed among Arab countries in terms of youth who have basic skills for employment like information communication technology skills (e.g., 60-90% in Bahrain, Jordan, and UAE vs 20% in Djibouti and Sudan).

Challenges of Regional Comparability and National Data Systems

Comparability of data across the Arab countries is difficult due to the divergent development patterns in the region, the absence of a unified systematic and reliable data collection system and monitoring framework across the countries, and the lack of data availability for multiple indicators for SDG 4 especially at the disaggregated level.

The Way Forward

As the proverb says: “if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it”. To achieve the desired outcomes of SDG 4, Arab countries should find a solution to these data challenges. They should assess the existing sources of data and prioritize the production of high-quality, timely disaggregated data tailored to relevant characteristics in national contexts. Without robust data, progress towards SDG 4 will continue to be slowed. In addition, without quality data that is put to appropriate use, it is not possible to adequately plan and allocate the resources necessary to ensure that programmes and services achieve their objectives and reach the intended population groups—especially the most underserved. However, we must remember that although data is essential for deliberate and transformative change, it is a tool that must be put to proper use in order to achieve progress towards the achievement of SDG 4.


Karma El Hassan is Professor of Educational Psychology Measurement and Evaluation at the American University of Beirut, Lebanon; the Director of the Office of Institutional Research & Assessment at the University; and a frequent consultant for United Nations agencies and government entities working on education in the region.


[1] UNESCO. (2021). UIS.Stat.

[2] This and subsequent coverage percentages are calculated using UNESCO Institute of Statistics Data as of 2021.

[3] UNHCR. (2022). Population Statistics. Geneva: UNHCR.

[4] OCHA. (2022). Humanitarian Needs Overview: Yemen. New York, NY: United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

[5] World Bank. (2018). World Development Report 2018: Learning to Realize Education's Promise.
Washington, DC: World Bank.

[6] Piper, B., Dryden-Peterson, S., Chopra, V., Reddick, C., & Oyanga, A. (2020). Are Refugee Children Learning? Early Grade Literacy in a Refugee Camp in Kenya. Journal on Education in Emergencies, 5(2), 71-107. doi:10.33682/f1wr-yk6y

[7] Buckner, E., Smiley, A., & Cremin, S. (2019). A New Way of Thinking About Education in Emergencies Data. Norrag Special Issue (02), 19-21.

[8] Shephard, D. D., Buckner, E., Smiley, A., & Hatch, R. (2021). Mapping of the Ecosystem of Education Data for Internally Displaced Persons in the Middle East and Beyond: Issues, Challenges, and Recommendations. Washington, DC: USAID.

[9] UNESCWA. (2020). Arab Sustainable Development Report. Beirut: United Nations Economics and Social Commission for Western Asia (UNESCWA).

[10] UNDESA. (2022). The Sustainable Development Goals Report. New York: United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UNDESA).

[11] UNESCWA. (2018). Disability in the Arab Region. Beirut: United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (UNESCWA)

[12] This again is the proportional coverage for Arab States during the first five years of the SDG 4 agenda based on the UIS data as of the end of 2021 from

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