The Middle East and North Africa region is home to a staggering 300 million young people, one of the highest youth populations in the world. With this comes great responsibility for regional governments to leverage this human capital, which is a great source of ingenuity, resilience, innovation, creativity and aspiration. As many Arab states shift to knowledge-based economies, this sizable segment deserves special attention from policymakers. In short, an impactful youth policy strives to create optimal conditions for young people to thrive and successfully transition into independent, productive, participative and happy adults.
Despite this seemingly advantageous population bulge, young people are still voicing their concerns due to multiple areas that need improvement. One of the most pressing issues to date is the low educational attainment levels in some countries. UNICEF estimates that 14 million children between the ages of five and 14 in the MENA region were out of school even before the pandemic hit, while almost two-thirds of 10-year-old children were unable to read with adequate proficiency. In some countries, school drop-out rates are increasing at an alarming rate, with poverty, armed conflicts, displacements, dysfunctional family life, learning disabilities or difficulties, violence at schools, poor teaching quality, and bullying cited as common reasons for leaving school. Moreover, the mismatch between educational outcomes and labor market demands are ballooning unemployment rates to record numbers.
Data from the World Bank indicates that youth unemployment rates in the MENA region have been the highest in the world for the past 25 years, topping 25.7 percent in 2019. The past decade or so has been particularly exasperating in terms of finding employment, as the region has struggled with a series of crises, such as the 2008 financial crisis, the Arab Spring, armed conflicts, and COVID-19. Young women are especially disadvantaged despite their remarkable strides in educational attainment. The International Labour Organization estimates that only 15 percent of young women are employed in the region, compared to 37 percent worldwide. Consequently, many Arab youths are actively engaged in emigrating permanently, highlighting the grave losses in human capital.
As such, robust youth policies are needed to enhance living conditions for young people and tap into their unique economic and social contributions. A quality education remains the greatest investment in young people. Thus, it is imperative that education systems are modernized to reflect evolving labor market demands. For example, schools should incorporate futuristic courses in science, technology, engineering and mathematics to facilitate the transition into these professions.
School-leavers need to be reached out to by support networks to ensure they are able to complete their educational requirements. Astute investments in digital transformation across academic institutions will ensure students do not miss valuable learning days, despite emergencies, conflicts or lockdowns. The pandemic has highlighted the pivotal role that parents or caregivers can play in their children’s learning journey, mostly in instilling self-motivation and augmenting their capabilities through home-based learning.
Robust economic policies should promote youth employment, as job insecurity has detrimental consequences on other pathways, such as well-being, marriage, fertility rates, home ownership, welfare support, and retirement. Therefore, opportunities for work experience, lifelong learning, digital literacy, placements, internships, and apprenticeships should be widely available. Collaborating with employers to improve the pathway from education to employment would strengthen work-based learning. Moreover, such opportunities for continuous upskilling will be important to advance youth skills in a drastically evolving jobs market. Policies for promoting young entrepreneurs will also capitalize on their innovation and creativity, thereby positively impacting the economy.
Furthermore, well-being policies are vital for upholding and instilling moral education and encouraging character-building and well-being skills to navigate various circumstantial challenges. These can be offered via school curricula, counseling sessions, health education programs and online courses. Family-friendly labor policies will be especially important for young dual-working parents or caregivers who need flexible options to balance between caregiving duties and work responsibilities. Special housing grants for young people, especially those starting a family, will be pivotal in providing much-needed stability. Social protection measures must be available for young people who are potentially facing struggles with poverty or temporary unemployment.
As a start, it would be insightful for nations to conduct yearly surveys that shed light on the challenges facing young people. Currently, the annual ASDA’A BCW Arab Youth Survey is the foremost research, offering valuable insights into the aspirations and challenges facing the region’s youth population. Important discussion points are discussed in the survey, such as unemployment, gender equality, migration, digital identity, and personal debts. Moreover, conducting regular forums with young people will enable policymakers to understand their challenges and preferred solutions.
Many countries in the region are witnessing the positive impacts of implementing youth-focused policies. For example, the UAE appointed its first minister of state for youth affairs in 2016 and subsequently launched its youth strategy, which focuses on nurturing positive values and character, offering access to skills-building and continuous-learning opportunities, cultivating the creative and innovative potential of young people, curating world-class spaces that promote positive youth outcomes, involving youth in government decision-making, and empowering the youth segment to co-design projects that advance the UAE’s national priorities. One of its successful initiatives is the Youth Hub, where young people can access valuable resources, facilities and courses in a variety of areas, including employment, education, innovation, entrepreneurship, mentoring and wellness.
The region’s youth deserve a chance to be heard and involved in their countries’ economic growth. At the same time, they also deserve a chance to live a life of quality, filled with precious opportunities to fulfill their unique personal and professional ambitions.
- Sara Al-Mulla is an Emirati civil servant with an interest in human development policy and children’s literature. She can be contacted at www.amorelicious.com.
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