Social IssuesFeb 22, 2023
ARTICLE | Disequilibrium in Lebanon’s Knowledge Economy: A Weakened Driver for Reform and Recovery
- Bassel Akar
This article is supported by the Friedrich Naumann Foundation Beirut Office. The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the donor.
A knowledge economy can be described as the intellectual infrastructure of knowledge production and usage for reform, aid, and progress. Rather than material resources, a knowledge economy relies more on “intellectual capabilities” to produce “knowledge-intensive activities that contribute to an accelerated pace of creative, technical and scientific advance” (Powell & Snellman, 2004, p. 201). Indeed, the production and usage of knowledge becomes sustainable when knowledge production is inclusive and aligned with the needs of people’s initiatives. This alignment is determined by the dynamics of supply and demand of knowledge across sectors, including education, business, health, agriculture and energy, among others.
Within contexts affected by crises, conflicts, and emergencies, a knowledge economy analysis becomes integral to identifying and examining how societies prepare for, respond to, and recover after crises.
Since 2019, virtually all sectors in Lebanon have experienced degrees of collapse, devastation, and heightened vulnerability. Activists led political uprisings against government corruption by closing roads and organizing mass protests. Responses to COVID-19 closed schools and countless businesses for nearly two years. The Lebanese currency (LBP) crumbled from the official rate of 1,508 LBP/USD in June 2019 to the street-level exchange rate of 62,000 LBP/USD by January 2023. The rate of multidimensional poverty “doubled from 42% in 2019 to 82%...in 2021” (ESCWA, 2021, p. 2). The Beirut port explosion on August 4 as a result of corrupt governance killed 218 people, displaced nearly 300,000, and damaged infrastructure (Human Rights Watch, 2021).
Hence, bouncing back from compounded crises requires public discourses that critically examine how, why, and for whom does the production of knowledge serve for economic and social recovery.
Fragile and absent foundations
In an initial knowledge economy analysis, Maddah and Akar (2023) illustrate how the crises diminished intellectual resources critical for economic recovery, but outline various reforms instrumental to strengthening the inputs and outputs of sustainable knowledge production.
Innovation, for example, is one variable that determines the quality of ideas and approaches used and produced.
Lebanon recently lost spots in the Global Innovation Index (GII) rankings. Lebanon fell from 74 out of 141 countries in the 2015 GII rankings to 92 out of 132 in 2021. The scores rely on measuring various economic dimensions, including infrastructure, creative outputs, human capital and the research, education, and political environment. Moreover, Lebanon’s information and communication technology adoption and infrastructure services consistently rank amongst the lowest countries in the world, including the Global Knowledge Index 2021, Global Innovation Index 2021, Global Talent Competitiveness Index 2022. These have hindered the participation in not only innovative and globally competitive markets, but also access to basic human rights to education and information.
Misaligning knowledge supply and demand
Government agencies, universities, and non-governmental organizations form a tripartite of knowledge production and usage for humanitarian aid and post-conflict recovery and social reconstruction. However, the drivers, outputs, and approaches to knowledge production rarely meet the needs for reform, progress, and recovery. Below are a few illustrations in the education sector.
During the compounded crises, the approaches that these establishments took to produce and share knowledge barely addressed the needs of teachers and school administrators. With virtually no consultations with teachers or their unions, school leaders or parent councils, the Ministry of Education and Higher Education (MEHE) closed schools end of February 2020 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The MEHE then spent the first months issuing decrees to guide schools in managing distance learning, while the network of aid agencies (Inter-Agency Coordination Lebanon) mobilized their resources to gather information from schools and families to publish the “Learning Readiness Assessment: Analysis Report” by April 2020. However, it was apparent that the findings of this report did not inform responses by MEHE, as teacher testimonies regarding initiatives spanning nearly a year that they took to ensure their students continue learning did not refer to any of MEHE’s responses. Indeed, teachers referred to MEHE’s position as neglectful (Chinnery & Akar, 2021).
Moreover, there is almost no evidence available showing attempts or intentions to draw on published research or gathering formative input from consultations with teachers and learners in education reform. Information used to inform the “Lebanon Five-Year General Education Plan: 2021-2025” was mostly drawn from reports published by donor and international agencies.
Past experiences from the Citizenship Education for Action and Reform project, CEAR (2013), documented resistance from MEHE towards qualitative studies on teacher and learner experiences and visions of a new citizenship education curriculum. In addition, among the shortcomings of the current national curriculum published in 1997 was the exclusion of input from teachers and learners (BouJaoude & Ghaith, 2006). During response to and recovery from COVID-19 school closures, most plans and policies at MEHE “lack reference to lessons learned from response to previous crises, and/or lack evidence gathered by other stakeholders on the current crisis” (Chinnery & Akar, 2021, p. 26).
Indeed, teachers in Lebanon are rarely approached as curriculum-makers and producers of pedagogical knowledge. Less than a quarter of teachers hold written qualifications (CERD, 2019) and teachers’ wages are among the lowest in Lebanon (Bahou, 2015). The hiring of teachers without written qualifications also resulted from selection to meet sectarian quotas or preferences (El-Amine, 2004). The absence of drawing on teachers’ pedagogical knowledge to improve provisions of education have positioned teachers as messengers of a national curriculum.
Democratizing the politics of Lebanon’s knowledge economy
The fragility and even absence of factors essential for a sustainable knowledge economy for growth and disaster recovery are, to a great extent, correlated to governance and government institutions riddled with systemic corruption and political authoritarianism. Under the Corruption Perception Index in 2021, Lebanon ranks in a poor position of 154 out of 180 countries (Transparency International, 2021). Moreover, the Economic Intelligence Unit (2022) demoted Lebanon in the Democracy Index 2021 from “hybrid” to “authoritarian.”
The consequences of corrupt and authoritarian governance plagues and impedes innovation and growth when laborers are contracted through nepotism or religious or political identity rather than merit. Such practice is evident and often institutionalized across public and private sectors. Moreover, political disputes over the interests of confessional groups have gridlocked the advancement of mechanisms to support entrepreneurship in numerous sectors and education reform.
Through authoritarian governance, knowledge production and usage focuses on providing instructions to people. They rarely draw on knowledge from partners, stakeholders, or published work. There is an evident disequilibrium in the supply and demand of knowledge. In the education sector, for example, this imbalance demonstrates a social injustice in the marginalization of stakeholders’ active participation in the knowledge economy. For instance, education authorities dictate information that is necessary to recite in school.
We also observe an education system of governance that neither encourages innovative learning and teaching, nor inclusive participation in reform, which makes it more prone to authoritarian tendencies. Such tendencies in governance stagnate a knowledge economy for recovery and reform. Those in positional power have easier (or exclusive) access to resources and, thus, participation, in the production and usage of knowledge for innovation and growth. In the business sector, for example, three cartels powered by sectarian leaders monopolize concrete manufacturing and have set market prices for decades without government regulation (Boswall & Wood, 2020). Furthermore, highly skilled laborers not in advantageous positions of wealth or political rank are, to a great extent, structurally marginalized.
Furthermore, when those in positional power find initiatives threatening to personal or confessional interests, the production and usage of knowledge for reform becomes vulnerable to stagnation. For instance, the integration of diverse narratives in learning and teaching history is deterred from history education curriculum reform by political leaders competing for their single historical narrative (Akar, 2021).
Therefore, democratizing Lebanon’s knowledge economy requires multi-dimensional interventions, including investment in (1) accountability of government agencies, (2) empowering stakeholders as knowledge-producers, (3) public documentation and dissemination of knowledge produced and used, and (4) increasing state and private investment in research and development as an engine for future growth and employment.
These transformative measures can mitigate tendencies and practices of an authoritarian system of governance. Hence, jumpstarting a knowledge economy for sustainable reform and recovery is likely to only take fruition through risk-takers and enablers. These are individuals who use their resources to co-produce knowledge with stakeholders and demonstrate sustainable growth through practice on the ground.
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Transparency International. (2021). Corruption Perceptions Index 2021.Bassel Akar is an Associate Professor of Education at Notre Dame University - Louaize, Lebanon and Research Associate at the Center of African Studies, University of Porto, Portugal.