Diana Hollmann

Youth for Change in the Middle East – A Massive Challenge, a New Opportunity

Over the past few weeks, we have seen the Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia, the Day of Revolt and ongoing protests in Egypt as well as demonstrations in several further countries throughout the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). What has sparked the uprisings was the protest of one individual from Tunisia. The young man, Mohamed Bouazizi – disenfranchised and without a perspective for a better future – immolated himself and set into motion unprecedented uprisings throughout the whole region.

Mohamed was one of the more than 100 million 15- to 29-year-old youth living in MENA today and making up the 30 percent ‘youth bulge’ in the region’s demographic profile – the result of a time lag between rapidly declining mortality rates and decreasing fertility rates. Many of the young people face unemployment and little availability of quality jobs. In MENA, two of the major stepping stones for transitioning into adulthood are marriage and starting a family. Both are hard to afford if there is little opportunity and enduring economic insecurity for the individual. Youth unemployment throughout the region ranges around 25 percent as compared to the global average of 13 percent. In Algeria and in the Palestinian Territories the rate goes up to an upsetting 40 percent. The International Labour Organization expects that MENA is the only global region where youth unemployment rates also are likely to increase in 2011.

More than 50 percent of the unemployed in MENA are first-time job seekers – the highest regional average worldwide and evidence for a major mismatch between education and labor markets. What’s more, also secondary education is far from being a guarantor for easily entering the job market. In Egypt, the average duration of unemployment for youth with university or vocational education is a staggering two and a half years.

Though the youth bulge might seem daunting, it could present a great opportunity for the region: the youth bulge is a “demographic gift” where the economically active population (ages 15 to 64) exceeds the economically dependent population by a much higher extent than in any other region. This was a factor in fueling East Asia’s growth in recent decades. With an improved quality of education systems and an appropriate quality and quantity of jobs, the 100 million youth in MENA have the potential to become a huge and productive work force that drives inclusive development and economic growth across the region.

However, the demonstrations we see today are not only about better education and job opportunities, but also about the lack of participation and political freedom. Already in 2004, the World Bank outlined the need and provided suggestions for unlocking the employment potential toward a new social contract in the Middle East. Additionally, the Middle East Youth Initiative’s (MEYI) publication “Inclusion: Meeting the 100 Million Youth Challenge” summarizes how the youth bulge exacerbates the weaknesses of the traditional redistributive-interventionist social contract in the region. On the one hand, the state provided economic security and social services – including universal education, guaranteed public sector jobs for graduates and food subsidies; on the other hand, citizens had to accept restricted political participation as well as a crowding out of the private sector and civil society. While in the past this deal has helped to achieve lower levels of poverty and income equality, it cannot withstand the challenges of the present. Watching the masses standing up for their rights makes the urgency for economic and social reforms more obvious than ever.

Today, MENA’s youth has the numbers and the social media tools to push for change. Mohamed Bouazizi’s self-immolation was a wake-up call for many to join forces and express their anger and frustration with corrupt and stagnant regimes; the tipping point that brought youth in the Middle East and North Africa to the streets – and with them the masses.

The UN probably didn’t expect the voice of the youth becoming so loud, when it declared 2010/2011 to be the International Year of Youth with the tag line “Our year, our voice.” But that’s exactly what the Middle East is proving.