Arab youth survey reflects ‘need for new social contract’
DUBAI - Beyond headlines about conflict and violence, the Middle East and North Africa region is a young one, with about 65% of the population under the age of 30.
The annual Arab Youth Survey, which provides insights into the attitudes of the region’s youth and their opinions on political, economic, social and cultural issues, is of paramount importance for governments and businesses.
This year’s survey data were compiled through 3,300 face-to-face interviews across 15 countries, split equally between males and females.
Sunil John, president of ASDA’A BCW, which began the survey more than a decade ago, said the study evolved from its original aim to provide data about the region’s youth “to a platform and important barometer of how this important demographic looks at their past, present and future.”
“Young Arabs who have grown up against a backdrop of extremism and geopolitical conflicts are tired of the region being defined by war and conflict,” John said.
“They want their leaders to focus on the economy and provide better services such as quality education and health care. Respondents, particularly in North Africa and the Levant, expect their governments to do much more to address these core concerns.”
John said new issues that were formulated this year, such as drug use and mental health, need to be urgently addressed.
Respondents said drug use was on the rise and drugs easy to obtain. The problem was particularly prevalent in the Levant (76%) and North Africa (59%).
John said it was important to bring this up because there were not many places where people could receive support and treatment. “It is also an opportunity for the private sector to step in,” he said.
The survey revealed that mental health was not an issue on the margins. Nearly one-in-three (31%) respondents said they knew someone suffering mental health issues.
Justin Thomas, a Chartered Health psychologist, in an article in the White Paper, commented: “Focus [on mental health issues] is timely because, despite remaining widely underreported, mental health problems have reached epidemic proportions in many nations.”
Thomas noted that the cost associated with mental illness is the largest of any health issue, projected to reach $6 trillion per year by 2030. “Problems that have an early age of onset and a chronic course are particularly burdensome from an economic standpoint. In short, depression costs way more than diabetes.”
Jihad Azour, director of the International Monetary Fund’s Middle East and Central Asia Department, said in a keynote speech following the release of the survey, that three words came to his mind when he read through the findings: “maturity, commitment and modernity.”
“It shows that the Arab youth believe in their institutions,” he said. “They want governments to be accountable and provide employment and economic growth. They care about the situation, aspire to peace and an end to conflict, showing great aspirations to the future.”
Azour said governments in MENA “must do more to provide opportunities to the youth,” stressing that “our biggest hope is within the region.”
Unlike elsewhere in the world, where economic challenges have often led youth to look inward and lose trust in government, this year’s survey shows that you (Arab youth) look to the state to facilitate solutions. You are not disengaging. You want governments that are accountable, efficient and provide you with opportunities for prosperity,” Azour said.
“You embrace technology and you have strong aspirations for a better future for the region. Your concerns and demands call for a new social contract that sees the state create an environment that unleashes your potential and allows you to thrive.”
The survey indicates growing frustrations among young people. More than half of respondents listed rising costs of living as their top concern, followed by unemployment.
“Reforms are under way but they take time to bear fruit. Faster progress is needed to create the jobs for the estimated 2.8 million young people joining the workforce each year over the next decade,” Azour said.
He warned youth to limit their expectations as to what governments can do to solve these problems. “Nowhere in the world can governments provide everything to all but the good news is there is a different way,” he said.
He said the International Monetary Fund last year set out the policies that would comprise a “pact for a better future.”
“This pact could become the base of a new social contract and would ensure greater dialogue and accountability between governments and citizens,” he said.
“The contract would see government enable the private sector to leverage trade and technology to grow and create jobs. Last, but not least, the contract envisages an e-government that leverages technology to deliver public services more broadly and cost-effectively,” Azour added.