The “Youth Problem” in the Middle East has received much attention and research from around the world. With 63% of the population in the region under 29 years of age, there should be millions of educated, able-bodied youth to actively contribute to society. Instead, over 25% are unemployed. Many complete a university degree, only to find that there are no available jobs, let alone ones that provide a deeper fulfillment by utilizing their higher education.
People reflexively look to the government for help. In a region dominated by the public sector as opposed to private enterprise, government jobs are highly sought after due to their security and prestige. Earlier this week, an article applauded the Tunisian parliament for “fighting youth unemployment” by passing a law that will allow earlier retirement for public employees. The new policy could potentially result in 7,000 vacancies primarily for new university graduates.
Though this will certainly help to alleviate youth unemployment in Tunisia to an extent, this type of program does not provide a long-term solution. The government can only support so many employees, and more civil servants will do little to increase the economic competitiveness of the Arab world. Instead, we must begin to look to the private sector – particularly that outside of the oil industry – as the future for economic growth and prosperity, more specifically encouraging new, entrepreneurial endeavors.
Arab business elites have already begun to recognize entrepreneurship as crucial to the future success of the region in the global market. Fadi Ghandour, CEO and founder of Aramex, one of the leading logistics and transportation companies in the Middle East and the first company from the region to go public in the U.S. Nasdaq stock exchange, states that, “young Arab entrepreneurs are the future of this region…they are the job generators, they will, with their innovative and creative ideas have an impact on the direction our economies will take.” He calls on the private sector to “invest in its youth and…assist them to create their own future and compete in the global market.”
The necessity of increased entrepreneurship seems to be catching on. A recent TV series presented 16 Arab youth with weekly challenges in engineering, design, business, and marketing, culminating in a final original project. Such a large-scale public promotion of entrepreneurship is encouraging.
At Ashoka, we believe in the potential of youth also as social entrepreneurs, with the ability to provide innovative solution to some of the region’s most pressing problems. One of our current fellows, Ehaab Abdou, has also recognized this potential, creating a program that helps young social entrepreneurs generate and implement ideas for economic and social development. Another fellow, M’hammed Abbad Andaloussi is facilitating a connection between the private sector and the Moroccan education system, working to develop the entrepreneurial skills and capacities of students.
We must stop looking at the youth population as a “problem” and instead begin to view it a demographic with incredible potential: their own “solution”. Arab youth are more educated and technology-savvy than any previous generation, but this knowledge is under-utilized. The private sector, government, and citizens alike must work together to ensure that youth have not just the skills, but also the resources and encouragement to transform their innovative and creative ideas into reality. Youth are not just the future, they are the present, and we cannot afford to wait.