Giving Young People in Tunisia a Chance

October 2, 2014

Slim Ayedi

  • Tunisia has one of the highest rates in the Middle East and North Africa of young men and women who are neither in education, training, or work.
  • In rural Tunisia, this category affects 58% of young men and 85% of young women, with urban areas faring slightly better.
  • A new World Bank report identifies the policies and strategies that would open up opportunities for young people to play greater social and economic roles.

In the 2011 Arab Spring, young people across the Middle East and North Africa played an instrumental role in steering their communities and countries away from authoritarian rule and placing them on the path toward democracy. Yet, three years later—their nations’ economies faltering—the proportion of young men and women who find themselves trapped between leaving school or university and starting work is a startling 41 percent, far higher than the global average of around a quarter of the total youth population.

In the region, Tunisia has one of the highest rates (about 33 percent) of young men and women aged between 15 and 29 who are Not in Employment, Education or Training (NEET) in the region. This indicator goes beyond the narrow definition of youth unemployment, providing what youth and labor experts believe to be a more accurate assessment of economic inactivity, one that includes discouraged and disengaged young people who have more or less given up looking for work.

This type of labor market discouragement is particularly high in rural Tunisia—where it affects more than 58 per cent of young men and 85 percent of young women—and only slightly better in urban Tunisia, affecting 46 percent of young men and 42 percent of young women. Geographically, young Tunisians fare slightly better in the country’s more developed coastal areas. Young people in poorer areas of the country, such as the interior and the south, fare worse.

Demographically as well, the proportion of young people identifying themselves as “NEET” reflects the drawbacks of Tunisia’s patriarchal society and outdated education system. Young women, and young people who left school early (regardless of gender), are affected most by the scourge of long-term youth unemployment or underemployment. While the well-educated, including college graduates, also face high levels of unemployment, they are the least likely to consider themselves NEET.

" An unemployed person is not a person, society itself does not accept him, he is not part of the circle of society. … Tell me, what use is that person? "

The social stigma unemployment carries distances young people more from mainstream politics and civil society. A young, male Tunisian graduate is quoted as saying: “For us, unemployment is a kind of blasphemy, an unemployed person is not a person, society itself does not accept him, he is not part of the circle of society. … Tell me, what use is that person?” Young women face extra, cultural hurdles, with many types of jobs seen as morally unsuitable, particularly in the more conservative south of the country.

A new report from the World Bank and the Center for Mediterranean Integration, Breaking the Barriers to Youth Inclusion, says Tunisia’s new Constitution— passed in January this year—provides an excellent framework for including young people in the development of policies and programs that might help propel them into the workplace. People who classify themselves as NEET, the report recommends, need even more encouragement to get back to work than those who regard themselves more simply as newly unemployed.

The report recommends that costly Active Labor Market Programs geared to help graduates, should be redirected toward young people with lower levels of education. It says gaps left by the collapse of the old, one party state are being filled by new, well-funded religious welfare organizations providing services such as scholarships for high-school students and health care, and points to a need for more non-governmental and civil society organizations to bring young people close to other local institutions.

It concludes that young Tunisians need more career guidance given to them in universities and schools, with their formal education extending outside of the classroom to technical and life skills, and foreign languages. Tunisia, the report says, is well positioned to become a regional champion in innovation and entrepreneurship if it recognizes the potential of its aspiring entrepreneurs.

Better Internet coverage could help more Tunisian jobseekers use online job sites, and modern technology is making it easier for young women to start businesses. Facilitating self-employment among young people with easier access to bank credit could help Tunisia’s government redress the social and regional disparities inside its borders that sparked the Arab Spring, and that continue to hold a disproportionately large segment of the country’s young population in a limbo between education and work.