How schooling investments facilitated the Middle East uprisings

I had pointed to this interesting articlefrom Mwangi Kimenyi of Brookings. He said the uprising was not because of poor economics/development failure. Infact these regions have shown decent performance in human development. The high social development was not in line with dictatorial regime.

Now, there is some empirical evidence backing his article. Filipe R Campante and Davin Chor of Harvard and Singapore University respectively have done some research looking at the relationship – Schooling, Political Participation, and the Economy ; The People Want the Fall of the Regime”: Schooling, Political Protest, and the Economy.

As always voxeu has good summary. In sum, Middle East autocrats themselves contributed to their own downfall by investing in education:

In seeking to explain the underlying causes of these protest movements, the popular narrative has pointed to the confluence of two structural forces, namely demographics and economic conditions. On the one hand, these were countries with a sizeable cohort of young, tech-savvy individuals with aspirations for the future. Combined with the simmering discontent over negative economic conditions – long-term unemployment, corruption, and the recent worldwide rise in food prices – this provided a powerful tandem that eventually motivated large numbers to demonstrate publicly for change.

Somewhat neglected in this picture – and eminently consistent with it – is the role of education. It is a robust and well-known fact in the political economy literature that more educated citizens display a greater propensity to engage in virtually all forms of political activity, ranging from more mundane acts, such as voting and discussing politics, to the more public forms of mobilisation at the forefront of the recent Arab episodes, such as attending political events, demonstrating, and presumably organising rallies through Facebook or Twitter (see for example Verba and Nie 1987, Putnam 1995, and Glaeser et al. 2007).

Their research findings:

From a micro perspective, we examine data from the World Values Survey on political participation at the individual level. Pooling together close to 200,000 survey observations from more than 80 countries, we first construct a measure comparing an individual’s income to that predicted by observable characteristics, such as age, gender, education, and occupation. More negative residuals from a regression of income on a comprehensive set of individual variables, including education, indicate a greater degree of income “under-performance” relative to what is predicted from the individual’s observable characteristics. In fact, most of the Middle East countries in the World Values Survey exhibit, on average, large negative income residuals for individuals with some secondary education, suggesting an unusually high level of income under-performance compared to the rest of the world.

As it turns out, we find very robust evidence that individuals with more schooling who exhibit large negative income residuals also tend to be especially likely to engage in political activities.

They then look further:

Our paper then asks whether a similar interaction between schooling and economic under-performance might be coupled with an increased threat to incumbent regimes in the aggregate. We therefore shift to a macro cross-country panel setting, and investigate whether increases in schooling, when coupled with poor macroeconomic conditions that detract from the returns to that schooling, are associated with a greater probability of incumbent turnover. Here we use data on country schooling from the widely used Barro-Lee dataset, as well as information on leadership turnovers compiled by Campante et al. (2009) and extended to cover 1976-2010. We show that the interaction of increases in schooling with deteriorating real GDP per capita raises the likelihood and frequency that incumbent rulers will be displaced.

Consistent with the popular narratives on the Middle East revolts, we do find that incumbent turnover is also more likely in countries with a combination of a large youthful population share and poor income per capita performance, but our findings on the role of schooling continue to hold over and above this “youth revolution” effect.

Simplifying it further:

How does the above analysis inform our view on the recent events in the Middle East? As it turns out, the Barro-Lee data reveals that many Arab countries have in fact witnessed aggressive increases in schooling in recent years. Egypt and Tunisia, for instance, all registered large gains in total years of schooling among the population aged 15 and above, respectively rising from 2.6 to 7.1 years and from 3.2 to 7.3 years between 1980 and 2010. Out of the top 20 countries in the world as ranked by increases in general schooling during this period, there were eight Arab League countries, not to mention non-Arab Iran. At the same time, the typical Middle Eastern economy is far from skill-intensive. For instance, Clemens et al. (2008) estimate that skilled Egyptians who migrate to the US earn almost nine times as much as those who stay in their home country.

In other words, the increasingly educated populaces within the Arab World have not seen a commensurate improvement in the labour-market returns to their newly acquired human capital. Investing in educating is of course a good thing in its own right, but in an ironic twist it seems that by doing so without providing sufficient economic opportunities, the Middle East autocrats appear to have contributed greatly to the situation that now afflicts them.


I was trying to interpret the results from Indian perspective. The authors do not say whether the results work in reverse but looks a bit intuitive. Politicians can actually underinvest in education and kind of ensure they are not really thrown by the educated class. This also explains why India (and many other economies) continues to be blessed with quasi-dictators who keep winning elections despite having done any work apart from amassing personal wealth.

Middle East politicians could have learnt something from their Indian counterparts.

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