The future for many young people across the Middle East and North Africa looks bleak. The World Bank records that 54% of the working age population in the Middle East and North Africa is unemployed with little prospect of any positive immediate change. An average of 28.7% of 15 to 24-year-olds in the Middle East and 30.6% of those in North Africa are unemployed according to the International Labour Organisation.
Much of the world’s response to this chronic problem has been to intervene financially: in the form of aid or debt restructuring. But through supporting economic recovery by giving generations of young people new skills and new opportunities to improve themselves, the world can help Middle Eastern societies in a more sustainable and thoughtful way.
Reliance on public sector jobs
One of the biggest challenges the World Bank identifies in this broad region is that unemployment rates are the highest among the educated, with university graduates making up 30% of the region’s unemployed. They are slowly losing optimism and hope for a better life and future.
This is largely attributed to a reliance on the public sector to provide jobs that come with steady albeit low salaries but high degrees of job security. In many North African countries or those Middle Eastern ones with high populations, other than wait in line for a public sector job, there are few other alternatives. At one end of the spectrum there’s the misery of violence and refugee camps in Jordan, Syria, Iraq and Lebanon, and the other – even if you’ve excelled – a flat and static job market for the best and brightest. No wonder so many highly-skilled people are fleeing to Europe in search of stability and new opportunities.
Across the region, long-established businesses dominate the labour market, many of them run by large families or by the state. It is a tough market for new entrants and start-ups to enter, with little room for competition nor motivation for disruptive policy changes to support newcomers. Some countries, however, such as Morocco, are starting to push back against these traditional norms and focus on a skills-based industrial policy.
An answer? Equip young people with ambition and skills so that they can challenge economies and businesses that are stuck in a rut of low productivity and resistance to change. Three-quarters of youth in the Middle East and North Africa region believe that starting a business is a good career choice that helps create a sense of optimism for a changing future. But these young people need access to the skills and infrastructure that will allow them to make a positive impact on their societies, old and new.
The issue of youth “employability”, now central to debates in countries such as the UK and Australia, is barely on the agenda of university and school curricula in the Middle East and North Africa. It is here where partnerships with Western universities could have a meaningful economic, societal and moral impact.
At a time of heightened terror and mass migration, the world needs to help the region and its populations build a basis for a constructive future. We need to be working inside countries to provide expertise and to challenge the status-quo in regards to a lack of education and skills agenda.
As the scale of migration from the Middle East and North Africa into Europe has already shown, it is our problem, here and now, and only likely to get worse for Europe without thoughtful and active interventions on the issues that should matter to us all. Education can be used as a stabilising influence, offering a brighter future.
A lot of exceptional work is already going by organisation such as the Ford Foundation and SPARK, which currently works through 30 universities in Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon offering training for young displaced Syrians.
Some universities in the region are openly progressive and ambitious, such as the American University of Beirut, Ahlia University (Bahrain), King Abdullah Aziz (Saudi Arabia) and the Qatar University, developing quickly, gaining accreditation, world-ranking positions and creating strong specialisms, particularly in technical and vocational areas.
But academic achievement isn’t all that’s necessary for the region’s young people: education in the region needs to adopt a more multi-disciplinary dimension. The landscape of those drawn into extremism is complex, attracting both the poor and uneducated at one end and the highly educated at the other, often with science, technology or medical backgrounds, as recent attacks on the US and UK have shown.
The response needs to be a greater focus on teaching young people skills that make them employable, but also giving them an interdisciplinary perspective on their studies to create a culture accepting of different views. The combination of science subjects with social sciences, law and the arts can stimulate questions about respect, acceptance, purpose, value and meaning. Sit an engineer down together with an entrepreneur and their skills and knowledge take on a different aspect – an opportunity to that might ultimately lead to a business and employment for others.
The long-term benefits of a shift in focus towards giving young people employability skills will be far greater than any forms of military intervention, financial pressure or political coercion. Yes, education will take longer, even generations, but many believe it will yield better and more sustainable results. Let’s play the long game and support education for all, for the broader benefit to all.