Social Innovation and the Arab Spring

It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.” Charles Darwin’s comments are perhaps more relevant now than ever before; adaptation to change is at the centre of building resilience for sustainability. Our planet is constantly changing and we have contributed a lot in altering nature’s vital eco-systems on which our lives depend. With climate change becoming one of the most important ‘security issues’, pressures for change for sustainability, transparency and inclusive governance are growing.

In the Arab world the change came in a form of a revolution against the governments in different Arab countries, of course the reasons for this uprising are plenty and complex and certainly can’t be attributed to one factor. The spark started with Bouazizi’s self-immolation in Tunisia his action was out of despair. He went to the streets and sent a message to the world saying it is time for a change. This catalysed the Tunisian revolution which caught the attention of the media and immediately became a changing point in the Arab world. This movement spread to Libya, Morocco, Egypt, Syria, Qatar, Bahrain, Yemen and other Arab countries. It was called the “Arab spring” as a demonstration of people’s awakening after long winter of hibernation and blind obedience. It seems that people needed to see first the misery and pain demonstrated in a public act before they were willing to demand change and put their questioning of authorities into action.

The causes of this movement vary and it has taken different forms. What these forms have in common, however, is that they have been started by “poorly educated” young generations who struggled in the employment market, affected by poverty, and with the inability to participate effectively in their respective communities. One in five people living in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region is between the ages of 15 and 24, a demographic group called “youth”[1]. In most of the Arabic countries illiteracy has decreased noticeably, as governments worked at making education at least primary school obligatory for both girls and boys. In Syria, for instance, Youth (15-24 years) literacy rate (%) 2008-2012 is 96.4% for male and 94.1%for female [2] . Most of the Arab youth had received education, and an increasing number have graduated from universities but “when it comes to student learning outcomes, most Arab educational systems have failed. They are not producing graduates with the skills and knowledge required to compete successfully in today’s global economy[3]According to Erin Millar reporting on the third annual World Innovation Summit for Education in Doha, Qatar, in addition to the hard skills missing in certain disciplines, Arab youth faces difficulties in obtaining jobs in areas of soft skills, or also called 21st century skills. Therefore, it has become a trend that the highest positions in companies are usually occupied by foreigners, leaving the locals unemployed and without the needed leadership experience.

The current educational system in most of the schools and universities in the Arab world is based on rote learning over critical thinking. The educational systems seek to train students to work in the public sector if they are lucky, if not they will have to seek jobs in the private sector. Governments in the Arabic countries did not invest in scientific research, nor in the field of humanities and political sciences. According to Isabel Menezes and Ibrahim Makkawi: “ there is a striking parallel resemblance between the vast majorities of the post-independence Arab regimes (with all that is imbedded in their continuing dependency on their previous colonizers”[4] these countries have relied on importing technology in exchange for oil or raw materials. As a result Arab youth have been brought up with imported readymade systems instead of creating ones of their own. In an article to the DW Loay Mudhoon explained the need for the Arab states to use social science and to try and build a new political structure by organizing the population in unions and parties. I would add to this the need for introducing education for sustainability (EfS) to help Arab society move beyond passive consumerism, as he puts it, to a more inclusive democracy and transparency in governance.

The change has started; Arab youth went to the streets, used social networks to organize themselves and they tried to change the system. The movement took different shapes in different countries. In some countries the governments were changed and the presidents were ousted, in others there have been changes in the constitution in response to protests or it remained frozen in a vicious circle of protests and blood shedding. In the case of Syria, what started as a Spring of Change unfortunately turned into a civil war, when extremism and violent oppression became the response to what started as a movement for change.

It is true that it was time ‘for change’ in the Arab area, but the cost of the ongoing Arab Spring has been elevated socially, economically, environmentally and culturally. It has been expensive on the Arab world and on the planet as a whole. People lost their lives, families, homes and many years of basic education. The ongoing conflicts have generated new trends of extreme groups looking to keep armed confrontations in the zone to keep the war industry in place. It has gotten out of control in Syria and Iraq and with elevating violence the future of the area is still unknown. Education has a vital role to play, and as yet has not been able to fulfill its right role. “Education presumably broadens men’s outlooks, enables them to understand the need for norms of tolerance, restrains them from adhering to extremist and monistic doctrines, and increases their capacity to make rational electoral choices[5].

Spring is one of the four seasons of the year, it is important, but it is not meant to last for years. The natural cycle of life is supposed to take its course, and we need summer, autumn and winter too. During spring besides the flowers and trees, unwanted weeds grow quickly and outcompete other plants around them; taking space for growth and removing vital nutrients from the soil. If weeds are not treated at the root-system, they reproduce quickly and will suffocate the rest of the plants. Therefore, in order for the Arab Spring to bear fruits, it is important that healthy initiatives are cared for through education (amongst others) and the invasive responses, such as using violence and extreme ideas, are addressed from the roots to ensure this does not overtake the ‘life-giving’ plants. In fact, Arab Spring can catalyse a new kind of education by changing the system of education to become more participative and inclusive and by making it safe and empowering for students to share their ideas and speak up.

According to Muhammad Faour the co-author of Education for citizenship in the Arab world: “Democracy will thrive only in a culture that accepts diversity, respects different points of view, regards truths as relative rather than absolute, and tolerates—even encourages—dissent.”[6] Therefore EfS can be used to facilitate this transfer and to motivate creativity, critical thinkers and cultivate conscious change makers that can find ecological solutions to their problems locally with understanding of global sustainability trends. This includes taking action to protect the environment from abuse of resources for rapid economic growth.

Revolutions come as a reaction to an extreme situation but they are not the solution to the problem. Shifting the education system from transmissive to transformative will definitely prepare the younger generations to deal with the new realities of today and tomorrow, and empower them to create the necessary conditions for a better and more sustainable way to live. Actually by looking at the characteristics of each type of education described by Sterling (2002), we can see how EfS can provide the needed tools and awareness to help open new horizons for Arab youth to take responsibility of their own development. Sterling compares two types of educational systems side by side and shows, for example, that the control is kept in centre in the conventional transmissive educational systems, while transformative education focuses on local ownership and it reinforces problem-reframing and iterative change over time. Transformative educational systems supports youth to first learn to understand the underlying causes and interconnections of perceived problems. EfS encourages critical thinking and creativity, and is focussed on capacity building through bottom up projects that require cooperation between the members of one community as well as across communities. These are among the skills that the Arab youth are lacking to initiate and sustain a real and transformational change of the systems they no longer want to be controlled by.

An education that concentrates on teaching civic values such as tolerance and mutual acceptance of other ideas and religions, is very important especially in the context of the Middle East, but it can’t stand alone. Most countries after a civil war, like Lebanon, invested time and effort in focusing on these points. I believe, however, that it is not enough and it will not generate wellbeing for the population. There are other factors to consider, such as the environment and yes climate change has started to turn the table now that people realize how it can threaten their lives. The Middle East region is extremely water scarce and has low levels of renewable water resources. It has the highest per capita rates of fresh water extraction (804 m3/year) and exploits over 75% its renewable water resources.[7] It is vital, therefore, to teach people for example about the environmental hazards of cultivating cotton or wheat for textile and food industry. Besides environmental education we need to focus on the local economy. Reform in the educational system should thus not be limited to resolving an existing problem, but needs to include also how to think in a sustainable way about youth empowerment by giving them the right tools to accomplish their goals non-violently, and to take a leadership role in their respective communities.

It is important to understand that each of us can be a ‘Change Maker’. It is not sufficient to only change the regime of a country or its president; what really matters is that people know how to create change for a better tomorrow today. This is an ongoing process that requires far more than alienating ’threats’, or ‘importing’ a model of democracy to replicate in our own society. The Arab spring can be an opportunity to look at the way we have arrived here and what brought us to this day. Reforms that focus solely on foreign policies and a couple of changes in the constitution won’t bear the fruits that we all want for each other. Educating youth in a new and different kind of way by providing them with keys to co-create a sustainable and meaningful life, to grow with the seasons of life is what is needed the most.

Did the Arab Spring bear fruits? And can the seeds of those fruits be planted for further growth?

Written by Manar Shibly, submitted for the EFS Platform July 2014.

Author’s background:

Manar Shibly has a Masters degree in Sustainable Territorial Development. She has a Bachelor’s degree in English literature and is fluent in Arabic, English, French, Spanish and Italian. She is Syrian and has worked in development projects in her country until 2012. She worked as intern in our Education for Sustainability programme in 2014.


Faour, M. & Muasher, M. (2011) Education for citizenship in the Arab world key to the future. Carnegie papers, Carnegie Middle East Centre Retrieved from:

Adams, A. & Winthrop, R. (2011). The role of Education in the Arab world Revolutions, Brookings, Global Compact on Learning.

Kuhn, R. (2012), On the Role of Human Development in the Arab Spring. Population and Development Review retrieved from

Sterling, S (2002). Sustainable Education – Re-visioning Learning and Change. Schumacher Briefings, No. 6, Green Books, Devon.

Deenapanray, P.N.K, Smitsman, A., Chung Kim Chung, G. 2014. The Philosophical Foundations of the Education for Sustainability Programme. Studies in Applied Pedagogy, 3 (special issue), 17-36.

Roud, F. (2011) Youth population and employment in the Middle East and North Africa: opportunity or challenge? Population Division Department of Economic and Social Affairs United Nations.

Jägerskog, A. Granit, J. Löfgren, R. Bullock, A. Gooijer, G. Pettigrew,S (2009) Background Report to Seminar on Water and Energy Linkages in the Middle East (2009), Stockholm International Water Institute, SIWI


[1] Youth population and employment in the Middle East and North Africa: opportunity or challenge? UN expert group meeting on adolescents, youth and development, 2011

[3] Galal, 77–111; and UNDP, Arab Human Development Report 2003: Building a knowledge society, 2003. Quoted from education for citizenship in the Arab world Key to the Future. Muhammad Faour and Marwan Muasher October 2011

[4] Isabel Menezes, Ibrahim Makkawi Editorial: Youth Civic and Political Participation and Citizenship Mediterranean: Lessons from the Arab Spring, journal of social science education, 2013.

[5] Lipset 1959: 78). Quoted from Randall Kuhn Randall Kuhn on the role of human department in the Arab Spring last consulted 24/06/2014

[7] Background Report to Seminar on Water and Energy Linkages in the Middle East (2009)

Note of Acknowledgement: This article was first published on our Education for Sustainability platform on 7 July 2014.

Please follow and like us:


50% Complete

Two Step

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit, sed do eiusmod tempor incididunt ut labore et dolore magna aliqua.