Addressing the problem of youth unemployment is still a priority for the MENA region
Baghdad - Last Labour Day was no different from any other day of strife and war in the Arab world. Ongoing turmoil in the region, mostly stemming from the 2011 uprisings, should not, however, distract attention from the lingering problem of youth unemployment, which plagues the region. If unaddressed, this major problem could be the cause of further instability in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA).
According to the International Labour Organisation (ILO), youth unemployment in the MENA region is the highest in the world. The regional ratio is, in fact, double the global average. In 2013, the percentage of youth unemployment was estimated at more than 27% in the Middle East and 29% in North Africa. In places like Tunisia and the occupied Palestinian territories, the ratios hovered around the 40% mark.
Instead of being a blessing in terms of economic productivity, as it has been for South Korea a few decades ago, the current “youth bulge” has been a curse for MENA nations. Inadequate educational systems have led to a chronic mismatch between supply and demand of skills. Young graduates are often either over-qualified or under-qualified for available positions in the job market. At least one-third of the unemployed today are university-educated.
The business climate in many of the Arab countries is often not amenable to the creation of jobs for young people. International reports show that red tape and other restrictions are increasing not decreasing in many Arab countries. Only three Arab countries are ranked among the top 50 of the World Bank’s Doing Business report.
The implications from the problem of youth unemployment are broad for the countries concerned, the wider region and beyond. Unemployed young men and women are easy prey for the criminal elements, including human traffickers and jihadist recruiters. They are candidates for any acts of despair.
The current crisis has also had disastrous effects on social status of women in the Arab world. The unemployment rates for young women are on average twice as high than for young men. In these precarious times, opinion polls are showing a tendency among Arab populations to believe that men should have priority in being hired. This trend reflects a worrisome step backwards in social mindsets.
The issue of youth unemployment in the MENA region deserves the immediate attention of leaders in the region and the world. On it will depend the stability and security of most Arab countries and their neighbours.
There has to be a concerted effort at creating value-added jobs for young people. This would require educational reform, streamlining of business regulations and greater foreign investment inflows. Foreign direct investment (FDI) has declined in many parts of the region since the “Arab spring” with the mounting insecurity climate created by civil strife since.
Ignoring the problem of youth unemployment will only be a prescription for further instability and chaos in the MENA region.