This column has often discussed the role of the private sector in our modern Arab polities, and it has often tackled the question of our urgent need for the launching of creative and forward-thinking initiatives.
The recent announcement by the UAE’s Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak al-Nahyan, the minister of higher education and scientific research, of a private sector initiative in the field of public education, is a noteworthy event. The Bin Hammoodah Group is contributing a hefty sum of money to create an endowed chair, in the specialization of public health, at Zayed University.
Sheikh Nahyan, who serves as the university’s president, was understandably full of praise for the initiative, which will see the Bin Hammodah Group cover operational costs for this endeavor. In our region, key public institutions, such as a country’s educational system, are often left to languish or deteriorate, due to bureaucratic inertia and funding problems.
The UAE’s state-run education system could, obviously, be taken care of by the state budget, but the Zayed University-Bin Hammoodah initiative is an example of the state letting the private sector enrich the critically-important field of higher education.
The private sector has a role to play in building their societies through fields such as education. Harvard came about largely because of the donation of half an estate, and a rich library, by an individual benefactor. Over 200 years, business interests in the US have helped schools and universities, and the society has reaped untold benefits from this positive interaction.
Businesspeople can, of course, assist the private sector’s education institutions, but the public sector can’t be neglected.
Early next month, Beirut will host Naguib Sawiris, the chairman of Egypt’s Orascom Telecom, to discuss the role of large firms in national and regional politics in the Arab world. As part of the Beirut Spring Festival organized by the Samir Kassir Foundation, we hope that the event will give us an opportunity to hear something positive and forward-thinking by Sawiris, who heads a dynamic company.
Our public education system graduates tens of thousands of young people each year, and is an underperformer. An element of the country’s private sector – the banks, for example – could make a smart and beneficial public investment by providing funding and initiatives for, say, the Lebanese University.
Our banks can invest in LU – say, in engineering, math and business fields – and participate in the boards of newly-funded programs and institutes, while bringing to the table their capacity for dynamic management. They would thus help us upgrade the quality of our graduates, which will in turn upgrade our labor pool, and economic performance.
By investing in public education, Lebanon’s private sector could spur along the process of reform, instead of waiting for the political class to produce creative answers to our problems.