MESSAGES ABOUT SCHOOL REFORM IN THE MIDDLE EAST: EDUCATIONAL RESEARCHERS ADAPTING TO THE ARAB SPRING
Education-related think tanks, research disseminators, and policy advocacy organizations exist in the Arab world within complicated political environments. Caught in between either international or nationalistic funding streams, autocratic and/or precarious and changing governments, conservative populations (and in the case of Gulf Cooperation Council, or GCC, countries, large expatriate populations), and great disparities of development, these organizations struggle to (a) know what to convey that will not jeopardize funding or support; (b) know who to convey it to, considering the changing administrative landscapes; and (c) know how to convey it given rapidly changing beliefs, assumptions, and aims within Arab societies.
Education policy serves as a unique focal point, as it is not a direct and immediate issue of country governance and political participation in the Arab Spring. Instead, it is a basic function within governments that reflects wider societal values but does not instantly stand out at the top of legislative or presidential agendas, except perhaps in GCC countries. Nonetheless, education has very real political consequences, as it involves all families within a society and demonstrates underlying political, economic, and social philosophies. Think tanks have contributed to reform ideas in the past, many of which were implicated with foreign funds that set certain countries on very unique courses of change and reform. Others have provided political parties—some of which are very new in the political arena—with ideas about education. Many promote ideas that are synonymous with Western educational reform, but researchers and advocates are not sure how to sell those ideas to specific constituencies. Furthermore, as the Arab world haltingly embraces democracy, think tanks will become more prominent and important in politics and educational practice. Additionally, as the long-term effects of post-colonialism continue, think tanks have strategic influence in the expansion of foreign-based institutions, firms, and NGOs providing various educational services to Arab countries.
In this paper, we present an examination of specific current efforts of existing think tanks in the Arab world that have, in the past three to four years, produced research, advice, advocacy, conferences, or other materials on education reform or development. Additionally, we consider multi-national and foreign organizations that have produced materials within the Middle East, as these organizations (though not think tanks, technically, such as USAID) have influenced educational policy. We also review reports, policy recommendations, networks of scholars, linkages to international and local universities, and so forth, in order to understand the ideas that have been promoted, the methods of promotion (particularly given the recent autocratic and centralized governments, each of which has had centralized education ministries), and the sources of ideas.
Ultimately, the purpose of this exploration is to understand the complexities, contradictions, commonalities, challenges, and successes of think tank research and advocacy for educational reform. Our intent is to decipher how the shaping of messages can take into account the complicated regional changes and still promote positive and productive educational reform.