Let’s not allow this COVID-19 crisis to go to waste

MENA region is not entirely out of options, provided work begins to undo the traditional constraints to the free movement of people and talent

A man walks past closed shops, as the country goes into a two-week semi-lockdown due to high number of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) cases and deaths, in Manama, Bahrain, June 3, 2021.

A man walks past closed shops, as the country goes into a two-week semi-lockdown due to high number of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) cases and deaths, in Manama, Bahrain, June 3, 2021.

REUTERS/Hamad I Mohammed

Over 2 billion vaccine doses have been administered across the world, a promising statistic in the global efforts to turn the tide on the COVID-19 pandemic. More progress is expected after the White House’s announcement making 75 percent of surplus US vaccines available to the UN-backed COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access (COVAX) program to address worldwide supply inequities and boost stalled campaigns, particularly in developing countries.

This should provide some relief to Middle East and North Africa countries where COVID-19 continues to endanger public health, exacerbate socioeconomic stresses, highlight policy failures and bad governance, and emphasize the cost of prolonged political intransigence. However, tackling the challenges unique to this region in the post-pandemic world will demand much more engagement, investment, and whole-of-society turnarounds at levels far beyond merely running effective inoculation campaigns, which are designed only to deal with the acute phase of the pandemic — not what comes afterward.

By the time most of the world is vaccinated against COVID-19, nearly half a billion will be pushed into poverty, while those fortunate enough to retain their jobs will face reduced working hours by as much as 6.5 percent globally. The pandemic will not have just disrupted entire economies or exposed the glaring vulnerabilities in global supply chains. It will cast a long shadow for many years to come, either as a stumbling block to the recovery or growth of some of MENA’s developing economies, or an unlikely accelerant for the region’s embrace of resilience-focused economic transformations, even to the rewriting of some of its increasingly antiquated social contracts.

Fortunately, a pearl of relatively unspoken wisdom about any crisis is that it is also a source of opportunity. The brief lull MENA governments have while state capacities appear solely focused on dealing with the pandemic, among a litany of other challenges, is an unpassable chance to envision nontraditional solutions, the key to unlocking long-term remedies for some of the region’s intractable socioeconomic ills, including youth unemployment and the under-empowerment of women and girls.

COVID-19 has wrecked a disproportionate share of MENA trade, commerce, transport, travel, and tourism. It is compounding woes in some Arab world countries already grappling with stubborn double-digit unemployment rates, especially among women and youths, rates that go higher still the farther one travels beyond major population centers. Furthermore, the region is experiencing a demographic youth bulge; people aged between 15 and 30 comprise 30 percent of the population, a number that is likely to grow since the region’s population is expected to double over the next three decades.

Even before the pandemic, the MENA region was just not producing enough jobs for its growing youth to find gainful opportunities despite the relative overall improvements in the quality of education, driven by accelerating transformations in creating the knowledge economies of the future in the Gulf. Countries that emerged with new governments after the violent tumult of a decade ago did not fare any better, managing modest growth but at levels still insufficient to reduce the growing number of youths who are either not in education, or seeking employment or training.

Traditional solutions have fallen far short of their proposed goals. Most governments are still resisting massive public sector reforms, and even if they were implemented, the private sector lacks sufficient support, scope, and capacity to absorb a sudden influx of former civil servants. Interim solutions of formalizing certain kinds of work or incentivizing employment in the agricultural sector lack widespread impact, nor are they sustainable without frequent government intervention. Meanwhile, as vaccination campaigns ramp up and restrictions ease, the number of jobless continues to grow, and has begun fueling protests in Tunisia, Lebanon, Algeria, and Iraq.

Surprisingly, the MENA region is not entirely out of options, provided work begins to undo the traditional constraints to the free movement of people and talent. The pandemic has forced the wider world to shift toward hybrid workforces, where most people work remotely, which comes with numerous benefits for workers, employers, governments, and even for climate change. There are very few, relatively surmountable, hurdles to MENA countries harnessing this new trend and adopting some of its innovations to solve the region’s intractable unemployment issues, while simultaneously empowering women, and even aiding the recovery of pandemic-battered private sectors.

The technology and innovation leaps to accomplish this are not unprecedented, since finance digitalization has greatly expanded coverage of financial services to the regions previously unbanked, and new solutions are enhancing the effectiveness of telemedicine, thereby transforming healthcare delivery. Most impediments to this kind of progress are already well known, and lessons on how those were overcome in finance digitalization and telemedicine are plentiful. In addition, over 450 fintech companies in the region are expected to raise over $2 billion in funding by 2022, which means there is no shortage of interest in developing tech-based remote work solutions aimed at tackling the region's most intractable, multigenerational challenge — getting its youth to work.

Granted, there will always be concerns that transformative approaches to faster job creation, enhancing human capital, and improving the MENA region’s overall competitiveness, could be expensive, time-consuming, and beneficial to only a narrow segment of youths that can afford them. However, with concerted support from international organizations in collaboration with civil society groups and buoyed by well-managed government initiatives, it is possible to harness the enormous still-unexplored potential in greater youth employment and entrepreneurship.

Besides, a few entrepreneurs, and job seekers themselves, are already looking beyond traditional platforms for finding work and adopting new tools and platforms to gain access to opportunities traditionally limited to national borders. Elsewhere, specialized e-commerce channels have also emerged, allowing vulnerable youths, and women, regardless of their location to market their talents or wares to a global audience.

Lastly, the expansion of remote work in MENA will not only make available numerous previously discounted employment opportunities, but will also accelerate efforts to build some of the region’s knowledge economies and maximize their resilience to future shocks. Another positive unintended consequence of embracing a hybrid workforce is the sharp increase in mobile literacy rates, and greater absorption of intensive, episodic opportunities for continuous learning, which boosts human capital.

This is especially important since technical skills will constantly have shorter and shorter lives in the knowledge economies and advanced societies of the future. Thus, it is not enough just to get the youth to work, national curricula will also need to adapt to the new workforce dynamics. Employers increasingly prefer malleable, tech-savvy workers who can easily adapt their skill sets as needed throughout their career. Employees, on the other hand, are increasingly seeking remote work opportunities, which guarantee enough flexibility to, for instance, engage in lifelong learning opportunities to preserve their competitiveness in the age of automation and constantly evolving skills demand.

  • Hafed Al-Ghwell is a senior fellow with the Foreign Policy Institute at the John Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. Twitter: @HafedAlGhwell
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