Time bomb of unemployment among Arab youth

February 26, 2017
UNDP Director Helen Clark speaks during the World Government Summit in Dubai. (Reuters)

London - Unemployment among young people in the Arab world is on an “alarming scale”, delegates at an international governance summit in Dubai were told.
Mari Kiviniemi, deputy head of the Organisation for Economic Co­operation and Development (OECD), speaking at the World Government Summit in mid-February, said the region’s rate of jobless youth was the highest in the world.
She warned that Arab youth also had lower levels of trust in govern­ment than their parents, while they were “more educated and connected than ever and represent one of the biggest assets of [the] region”.
Her comments echoed re­cent research that has shown young people in the Middle East and North Africa falling dangerously behind on sever­al development scales across all but a handful of regional economies.
It is not uncommon to have nation­al leaders and politicians proclaim that the future of their people rests in the hands of its young. These rhetori­cal nods to the centrality of youth are universal but in some times and plac­es, the challenges are greater than in others.
On the margins of the OECD sum­mit, UAE Deputy Prime Minister Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed al-Nahyan told a youth forum that young Arabs were “an emblem of hope” and the “makers of the future”.
But he also outlined the major fac­tor underlying the youth challenge — demographics.
Statistics indicate that young peo­ple between the ages of 15 and 29 make up nearly one-third of the Arab population and another one-third are under 15.
Helen Clark, who heads the UN Development Programme, recently summarised a range of challenges facing young Arabs. Introducing the United Nations’ Arab development report, which came out in November, she said many young people receive an edu­cation that fails to reflect the needs of the labour markets.
Many, particularly young women, were either unem­ployed or excluded from the formal economy.
“Young people without livelihoods find it difficult to estab­lish an independent home and form their own family units,” Clark cau­tioned.
“The risk for these young people is that instead of exploring opportu­nities and discovering future pros­pects, they experience frustration, helplessness, alienation and depend­ency.”
Much of the Arab world would be struggling to catch up with meet­ing the demands of a growing youth population even without the past decade, which has brought political upheaval, wide-scale violence and dislocation to much of the region.
A legacy of statism and autocracy in some countries and of economic dependency on single commodities such as oil or gas in others has fuelled the growth of large and often under-employed bureaucracies that looked to the state for income.
Just as economies across the re­gion began to address the challenges of diversifying their economies to meet the needs of the general popu­lation, including the young, along came the “Arab spring” and the dis­ruptions that have followed for many societies.
Clark acknowledged that “young people across the Arab states have been severely affected by the recent crises.
“Large numbers of them were swept onto the front lines of conflicts they did not start. Many died and many more have lost family mem­bers and friends, livelihoods and prospects and hope in the future.
“In the face of such challenges, some have joined extremist groups,” she said.
A recent development report by the Commonwealth Secretariat in London said many young people in the Arab world were in a state of “waithood” — a period of delay in achieving full adult rights and re­sponsibilities.
“The delay of ‘adulthood’ is thought to be both a symptom and driver of armed conflict and in the MENA (Middle East and North Africa) region was one of the triggers for the ‘Arab spring’,” the report said.
Governments have recognised the need for greater youth participation in the economy and policymaking — the initiatives announced by Sheikh Mansour reflect that — but the ben­efits have yet to filter down to the re­gion overall.
The “Arab spring” was seen in one respect as a reflection of the rejection by an educated yet unrepresented youth of existing governing struc­tures. In the five year since the move­ment exploded in Tunisia in 2010, youth participation in politics has fallen in most of the region.
The Commonwealth report noted that the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region was the only part of the world where such engagement by young people declined from 2010-15, down by 9%.
On a wider range of development goals, including education, jobs and welfare as well as political engage­ment, only Bahrain, Iraq and the United Arab Emirates saw any signifi­cant improvement.
The largest decline was in Algeria, largely driven by falls in political and civic participation among young peo­ple.
The statistics make bleak read­ing but they help define the goals as summarised by the United Nations in its report in a call to Arab countries “to invest in their young people and empower them to engage in the de­velopment process as an urgent and critical priority in its own right and prerequisite to achieving sustainable development”.