In Conversation with Said Bilani: Can Education Be a Powerful Force Against Political Crisis and Corruption?

In the last few months, the world has witnessed a scenario of the political crisis caused by endemic corruption at the hands of the highest political officials in Lebanon. This has deepened the consequent concern of citizens to establish ways to prevent and deal with situations of corruption. At the helm of this concern over the future of the country and of the beleaguered region is Global Goodwill Ambassador, Said Bilani, an activist, philanthropist, humanitarian and founder of The Bilani Foundation, who’s extensive outreach programs in Lebanon are the talk of the town. We are fortunate that he sat down with us for an exclusive interview to offer his thoughts on the road ahead for Lebanon, where a nation with a once proud and prosperous history of trade and commerce is starting to crumble into permanent poverty.

The Global Goodwill Ambassador who advocates on issues of education, ethics, public health, social inclusion, and reform, spoke with us and pointed out some critical insights regarding the role education, in particular, plays in shaping the crisis to the advantage of the Lebanese people plagued by this corrupt political class that no longer serves the interests of its people.

Here is our interview on how general education practices can work to improve the conditions of the current Lebanese state:

  • To what extent does the education curriculum currently, cover the issues necessary to understand and deal with corruption?

It does not contemplate nor reconcile them. Corruption is not even a topic that is addressed frontally in schools, and, without a doubt, what is happening in democratic institutions throughout the world has had a considerable impact on the educational system, just as the educational system also has an influence in the short and long term—on democratic institutions. It is clear, we are in a very precarious political crisis because the bonds of trust and the sense of authority that is required for a political community to function have been broken. However, this crisis may also be an opportunity to think about what type of education we are proposing as a society.

  • What do you think this model could be?

In recent years, utilitarian notions of education have been imposed, more aimed at training efficient producers and consumers than people tending towards business success. Thus, this type of training has not required further reflection on issues of social justice, the common good, and social solidarity, but has been mainly focused on developing a series of skills and capacities to be individually competitive, a “winner” in terms of profitability. In fact, many schools now promote themselves in this very way. I have personally seen posters on the streets that say, “we educate for success,” and being successful in a system with so many inequalities, which was already a problem before these educational models were proposed, also means breaking away from ethical dilemmas associated with this short-sighted model for education that forsakes the larger role education plays merely for the profitable gains it produces.

  • What needs to be reinforced?

If we really want education to respond to what our needs are as a society, we need to reinforce citizenship and human rights education that allows us to recognize our own dignity and that of others in their diversity of genres, traditions, cultures, languages, social class, religions and origins. Moreover, confront without fear of corruption.

  • What is preventing these changes from taking place?

Corruption is fuelled by discriminatory practices at the economic, cultural, linguistic, and gender levels. In a way, all these discrimination practices, entrenched by the colonial heritage of our society, facilitate corruption because discrimination already diminishes our ability to recognize the equal rights of other people. From this precarious vision of civil rights, it is easier to run over them through corrupt practices. Many times, these systematic abuses force good citizens to look for the wrong ways to obtain recognition of their rights to health, education, justice, work, etc. In that sense, corruption and discrimination feed each other. Just as we face corruption, we must face social discrimination.

  • How do we prevent a ‘lost generation’?

It is in the best interest of Lebanon, the region, and the international community for that matter to avoid a situation where over a quarter of a million displaced Syrian refugees are deprived of a quality education and are thereby less able to coexist with their Lebanese hosts, contribute to Lebanon’s fragile economy, or play a positive role in the reconstruction efforts of their homeland, as well as their eventual return to it. Unfortunately, many who wield power over the public, co-opt these vulnerable communities, and the role of Syrian and Palestinian displaced refugees as a cause for the country’s economic crisis. When in fact, the real source of corruption in the country is a corrupt elite who have pillaged the nation and its people, and are now pointing fingers at others, in this case, susceptible and poor communities in the larger homeland.

To prevent a lost generation, Lebanon needs international financial support to adequately address the educational needs of Palestinian refugees who lack a quality education, Syrian displaced youth who lack education altogether, as well as other poor communities who are crumbling under the poverty line due to the dire economic conditions of the country. Furthermore, this international aid ought to be transmitted to democratic educational institutions, as opposed to being funneled to government ministries who would either misconstrue or misuse the funds appropriately. Furthermore, practices such as the expansion and rehabilitation of public underperforming schools, investing in quality education, the inclusion of youth with disabilities and the resources to serve the needs of disabled children, training, re-training, and hiring more educators, as well as subsidizing school services, such as transportation, school meals, supplies, etc, all work towards bridging the gap for students who may lack these necessary resources and services.

  • How do other countries handle these issues where the corruption rate is much lower?

In general, they are countries where education is mainly public. Often, you will find that employers’ and workers’ children go to the same schools, and this imposes, in a certain way, a quality imperative in the management of public education. For this to be so, they promote educational vocations among the most qualified students. In this sense, part of this stimulus also has to do with salary and labor expectations and a whole system that focuses on improving educational services. They are countries where it is likely that their social organization is a sort of fusion of certain socialist and capitalist aspects. So, while other areas of social life are subject to free markets, some areas may be subject to policy measures such as taxes, subsidies, and social welfare programs, both of which aim to achieve similar goals through varying patterns of enterprise ownership and management in education.

  • How can corruption be mitigated in political and economic crises?

Using Lebanon and its prevailing economic crises as a case study, a country like Lebanon needs to change and institute new approaches for policies that have long inhibited youth’ access to education, and while doing so, must ensure that displaced youth can enroll in primary school, smoothly transition to secondary schooling, and have a realistic option of pursuing a higher education or some sort of vocational training. These practices need to be changed so that these already challenged youth and communities do not become a generation lost due to the economic and political conditions of the nation-state. For communities where formal education is not possible due to the circumstances of their disadvantaged conditions, the Ministry of Education should sponsor non-formal education practices in conjunction with democratic non-profit government and non-government organizations, all of which serve a temporary need until a system of formal education is possible and accessible for all in the country. This is a crucial way of ensuring that displaced refugees have the necessary requisites to change the conditions of their host country, as well as contribute to the redevelopment processes in their native homeland and ensuring that students have a viable pathway to a formal and higher education.

We thank Said Bilani for giving us a chance to learn his important insights on a major crisis facing the world. If you want to learn more about the efforts and campaigns supported by The Bilani Foundation, follow @SaidBilani on social media and keep an eye on Mr. Bilani’s philanthropic activities, initiatives, and future interviews.