Imagining a MENA ‘moonshot’ approach

Limited opportunities at home are leading well-trained young cadres to look for greener pastures abroad.
Sunday 14/10/2018
A young woman applies for a job in Germany. (AP)
A young woman applies for a job in Germany. (AP)

High unemployment rates and frustrated ambitions are among the main reasons for instability in the Middle East and North Africa region. To overcome this, the World Bank says, Arab governments must take a bolder approach, one that embraces a vision of the future driven by digital economies.

The World Bank’s “A New Economy for the Middle East and North Africa” report states that the region would need fully integrated efforts to reap the rewards of the digital era. The efforts would include eliminating bureaucratic hurdles to innovation, modernising educational systems and development of technology and communication platforms.

Graduate unemployment remains very high in the region. It is, in fact, one of the highest in the world. Digital technology could be the backbone of the new economy that would generate value-added jobs.

This is all the more pressing because young men and women are pinning their hopes on education as a force for advancement, the ultimate social elevator. That elevator will go nowhere if educational content does not include a digital shift that spurs economic activity.

Rabah Arezki, World Bank chief economist for the Middle East and North Africa region and lead author of the report noted: “The key is making sure young people are taught the skills needed for the new economy, have access to tools such as digital payments, and that obstacles to innovation are removed.”

The economies and societies of the MENA region should be driven not by the frustrations of its youth but by their vigour and ambition. Social pressures are causing governments to pursue policies that mean more big spending and more borrowing. But as Ferid Belhaj, World Bank vice-president for the Middle East and North Africa region, said, the challenge “must be turned into an opportunity... The focus should be on building a modern economy that leverages new technology and is driven by the energy and innovation of young people.”

Somehow the region has become complacent based on its sense of what it has accomplished in terms of technological development and administrative reform but tangible efforts are needed on both fronts. So, for instance, access to the internet has improved, as has the rate of connectivity. However, the quality of service has not kept pace. It is unacceptable that the MENA region keeps the dubious distinction of the lowest bandwidth per subscriber and that it lags behind many sub-Saharan African nations in terms of internet speed and business use.

Governments must do more to ensure the availability of high-speed internet to their youth. They also must do away with obstacles to innovation, which keep young people’s dreams and ambitions hostage to bureaucratic considerations.

Until this changes, the internet will be more a social media platform than a project incubator. Limited opportunities at home are leading well-trained young cadres to look for greener pastures abroad.

There is a need for tangible reforms and a different notion of the time frame in which results must be achieved. The World Bank report is probably right to insist that “a gradualist approach to change is not viable.” Instead, it advocates for a “MENA moonshot” approach, an “all-in effort akin to the one the United States undertook after it decided in the early 1960s that it wanted to land a man on the moon.”

What the World Bank is advocating is akin to the United Nations’ view of developing countries’ abilities to “leapfrog” their current status. The United Nations’ “World Economic and Social Survey 2018” states that new technologies can help the developing world jump directly to a more efficient and more technologically advanced way of doing things.

The UN report, however, also talks of the “great technological gap” that separates billions of people in developing countries from the rest of humanity.

The Arab world is mostly in the technologically disadvantaged part of the world, the part that could miss out on what UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres calls “frontier technologies.” These range from DNA sequencing to 3D printing, from renewable energy technologies to biodegradable plastics, from machine learning to artificial intelligence.

The transition to digital economies is a transition to youth-powered societies in the way a transition to youth-sensitive systems is bound to be a transition to digital economies. Such a transition would be the Arab world’s equivalent of landing on the moon. One having been achieved, there is no reason the other cannot.