U.S. officials are concerned that growing populations in the Middle East, where they say 50 percent of the people are under age 20, do not have adequate educational and job training opportunities and thus may be lured to join extremist groups.
That is an important consideration in dealing with the war on terror, according to principal deputy assistant secretary of State for Near Eastern affairs, Elizabeth Cheney, who is also Vice President Dick Cheney's daughter.
"I think that means focusing on reforming schools so we are sure they teach tolerance, so we are sure that they guarantee that people have the skills they need to compete in the 21st century economy, ensuring that economic systems are open and growing enough so they can create jobs, and ensuring that political systems are open so people can have a voice in determining their own destiny, their own future and how they are governed," she said.
Ms. Cheney told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the State Department is using programs aimed at boosting literacy rates among willing nations in the Middle East and South Asia, providing citizenship training in schools, and offering student exchange programs.
The assistant administrator for Asia and the Near East at the U.S. Agency for International Development, James Kunder, underscored the importance of education in promoting a stable society.
"Democracy and participation lead to moderation across societies," he said. "Tolerance and democracy and moderate behavior come from participation in democratic principles. Education - public education, private education, primary education, secondary education - all contribute to democracy and participation."
Mr. Kunder and Ms. Cheney noted that a number of programs seek to empower women in the region, to ensure that they have access to the same opportunities that men and boys do in their communities.
Javed Burki, a consultant on educational issues at Nathan Associates, says the importance of empowering women should not be underestimated.
"I am of the view, which everyone shares in the development field that a country that condemns its women to backwardness condemns itself to eternal backwardness," he said.
Also testifying at the hearing was Bassem Awadallah, vice chairman of King Abdullah II Fund for Development, who is promoting educational reform in Jordan.
"Our ability in Jordan to transform into a knowledge-based economy and to join the ranks of more advanced nations will be significantly determined by the contribution capacity of the young and growing population," he said. "There is only one way to do that, and that is educational reform."
Jordan will host a regional ministerial meeting on education next month. Among those attending will be Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings.