January 15, 2011 – In the Middle East and North Africa, the youth unemployment rate at 25% is the highest in the world. But that statistic alone doesn't tell the whole story.
World Bank researchers are finding that the actual number of jobless people between the ages of 15 and 29 in the region could be much higher. Many young people who are out of school and out of work are not reflected in the statistics because they are not looking for work.
Young urban males, in particular, are at a serious disadvantage in the labor market, with many underemployed, employed in off-the-books informal work, or not working at all.
“It's a huge problem, and there a no quick fixes,” says Gloria La Cava, a senior social scientist who leads youth programs in the World Bank's Middle East and North Africa (MNA) region and the youth partnership with the League of Arab States.
New research is being conducted in Morocco, Egypt, and Jordan on the main trends in the employment and social outcomes for young people – work that has involved piloting approaches to the problem, collecting data, and developing a new instrument for measuring youth participation in the labor market and community life.
Research has found that unemployment and underemployment are taking a toll on young people, often forcing them to wait years to obtain housing, get married and have children. As a consequence, young men between the ages of 25 and 29 in the region have the lowest marriage rates in the developing world at only 50%.
Key Challenge Is to Address Unemployment
"Across the board, the key challenge now faced is how to address unemployment that has been above 10% throughout the past 10 years or so," said Shamshad Akhtar, World Bank Vice President for the Middle East and North Africa, at a conference in Tunisia in October.
She said reasons for persistently high unemployment in the region include economic growth that has been below the region's potential, the failure of most countries to seize emerging technological opportunities, weak quality of education despite impressive achievements in primary and secondary education enrollments, and mismatches between the supply and demand of skills.
“In today’s world, competitiveness depends on firms that employ a well-educated, technically skilled workforce that is capable of adopting new technologies and selling sophisticated goods – hence a priority on higher-level cognitive as well as non-cognitive skills,” Akhtar said.
Youth Service Programs Eyed
The situation is one reason why several governments in the region are increasingly interested in developing youth services or volunteer programs.
Underprivileged and less-educated youth, in particular, could benefit from programs that promote social cohesion and offer “opportunities for volunteering and traveling to other parts of the country to improve job skills and prospects for future employment,” says La Cava.
Such programs, along with vocational training and partnerships with the private sector, could help address a mismatch in the skills acquired through education and those demanded by the marketplace. A recent study found that one-third of businesses reported that lack of appropriately skilled labor constrained their growth.
The World Bank is working with the League of Arab States, a leader in the field of youth affairs in the region, to jumpstart youth-oriented programs in the region, including voluntary service. A proposed grant would help the League and several countries set up the programs.
Effort Part of Arab World Initiative
The effort falls under the umbrella of the World Bank's Arab World Initiative – a plan to leverage global and regional knowledge and best practices across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) to, among other things, empower youth, encourage job creation, and help young people who have been alienated from school and work become productive and valued members of society.
While today MENA's youth unemployment rate averages about 25%, and reportedly goes as high as 40% in some countries, the problem could get a lot worse as millions of young people come of age in the next decade.
It has been estimated that MENA will need to create 50 million jobs by 2020 to keep pace. Already, 100 million people between 15 and 29 comprise about a third of the population.
Looking for Wide Impact
Countries of the region increasingly are looking for solutions that will improve the quality of education, drive innovation, and provide young people with skills demanded by the market.
In October 2010 18 Arab states signed the Doha Declaration on Education Quality agreeing to implement a system for evaluating the performance of schools, teachers and students, and making results publicly available.
Countries are seeking ways to bring disaffected youth back into the educational system and increase their involvement in communities and society. Morocco's National Human Development Initiative, for instance, provides funding to programs that shelter orphans, street kids and poor people.
The World Bank Group, including the private sector arm IFC and MIGA, is backing many of these national efforts with financing, policy advice, analytical work, and by piloting promising approaches like job-training program in Yemen or the Adolescent Girls Initiative recently introduced in Jordan, that could be scaled up for bigger impact.
Regionally, the Bank Group's Arab World Initiative hopes to leverage knowledge and best practices across countries to help achieve development goals on a wider scale. A key part of the plan is encouraging greater regional cooperation through trade and infrastructure projects like roads and renewable energy that could boost the economic performance of the entire region.
The World Bank is partnering with the League of Arab States to drive development in regional infrastructure, access to finance for micro, small and medium enterprises that create jobs and contribute to economic growth, and human development and the quality of education, including vocational training.
“I am ... convinced that in the collective wisdom and effort of Arab countries lie advantages and solutions,” World Bank Managing Director Mahmoud Mohieldin said on a visit to Yemen this month.
“Together, we can embrace those and our role at the World Bank is to figure out with Arab nations how we can be helpful, especially in the areas of human development, infrastructure and financial and private sector development.”