Measuring human capital has been a significant challenge for economists because the main variable of interest is intangible and not directly observable. In the Middle Eastern and Northern African region the task is further complicated by the general scarcity of comparable and reliable data.
This study overcomes these challenges by relying on a unique international survey that covers most of the region and by deriving a market-based measure that uses returns to education and various labour market factors as guidance. The results show that private returns to schooling are relatively low in most southern Mediterranean countries (SMC). Israel and Turkey are clear outliers, surpassing even the EU-MED averages. In Algeria and Jordan, the returns are almost flat, implying that earnings do not respond significantly to education levels. Despite high attainment levels, Greece, Spain and Portugal also perform badly; only marginally surpassing some of the bottom-ranked SMC, providing evidence of problems in absorption capacity. The baseline scenarios for 2030 show substantial sensitivity to current estimates on returns to education. In particular, improving attainment levels can produce measurable gains in the future only when the returns to education are already high. Such is the case for Egypt, Morocco and Turkey, which substantially improve their human capital stocks under the baseline scenarios, surpassing several EU-MED countries with little or no room for improvement.
Emrah Arbak is Researcher at the Centre for European Policy Studies (CEPS) in Brussels.