Youth around the world are agents of change. They are political and economic leaders and participants in their communities, and have many thoughts on how to shape their nation’s future.
As part of celebrating such individuals on International Youth Day, two recent CIPE-Atlas Corps Think Tank LINKS alumni – Fayyaz Yaseen from Pakistan and Iryna Fedets from Ukraine – analyzed two issues young people care about in their communities: youth unemployment and anti-corruption. In this week’s Economic Reform Feature Service articles, the two authors explore how to bring about democratic and economic reform changes in their respective countries.
We have all witnessed over the last two years that youth are shaping the political landscape of their countries. I have seen young people driving innovations and economic and social entrepreneurship in every region of the world. I believe the best solutions to our shared challenges will come from harnessing the energy and creativity of youth.
- Secretary of State Hillary Clinton
This year International Youth Day highlights the theme “Building a Better World: Partnering with Youth.” The importance of engaging young people in political, economic, and civic spheres is evident just by looking at the numbers: more than one in six people on the planet are between the ages of 15 and 24. Yet these adolescents and young adults are all too often neglected when it comes to opportunities to lead a fulfilling and prosperous life.
One reason is the pace of demographic change: according to the UN Population Division, the number of young people globally has been steadily increasing since 1950 and will continue to rise – with a concentration in low- and lower-middle-income countries – for at least another two decades. As the Arab Spring shows, if governments cannot provide satisfactory prospects for their growing populations, social unrest may follow.
Beyond economic exclusion, which manifests itself in high youth unemployment (or employment in the informal sector), political exclusion of youth is another reason why young people often feel neglected. In many countries political parties and state institutions remain dominated by older officials who may not understand the needs and concerns of youth, and are unwilling to seek out the views of young people. CIPE works with local partners in countries around the world to counteract the exclusion of youth in all aspects of public life and to partner with the next generation of leaders. Here are a few examples:
With a majority of its population under the age of 30, the Middle East is the youngest region in the world. Understanding the pressures that this “youth bulge” exerts on the labor market can help us gain a better understanding of a viable economic approach that responds to the needs of a growing young population in search for work.
Youth unemployment across the Middle East and North Africa hovers at around 25 percent—the highest in the world. In many MENA countries, high unemployment rates are primarily the result of young job seekers waiting and searching for work. The Middle East Youth Initiative, a project of the Wolfensohn Center for Development at the Brookings Institution and the Dubai School of Government based in Washington, DC, was established for the sole purpose of studying “youth exclusion” in the Middle East, publishing articles and reports on issues of youth unemployment, marriage, political participation and housing in the Middle East. The organization will soon release a book entitled A Generation in Waiting in which the authors discuss how this level of unemployment among the youth is creating a “waiting generation” across the Middle East as lives are stalled before they can begin their trajectory. With no job, there is no money for an apartment. Without an apartment, there’s probably no chance of getting married and tradition holds that a young man must establish a household for his bride. A generational crisis with unpredictable consequences is brewing.
The reasons for the youth unemployment crisis are many, but an important starting point is demographics. Right now, the region is experiencing an all-time peak in its youth population. The World Bank calls it a “youth bulge.” Since 1980, the population of 15- to 24-year-olds has doubled. In Egypt, 70 percent of the population is under 30. This surge in the young population is saturating the job market at a time when governments across the Middle East have been attempting to shift their labor markets to encourage private business and reduce the numbers of government employees. Many countries are also trying to open their economies to direct foreign investment and to increase trade by reducing tariffs. Yet none of these reforms have had much benefit for young people.
South Africa has made amazing strides since the end of the apartheid in 1994. Yet, even though it is the Continent economic engine, South Africa continues to suffer from poverty and inequality that have their roots in the apartheid era. The prime symptom is the country’s persistently high unemployment rate, currently of 23 percent. The global recession certainly does not help. But the core of the problem goes deeper: it is not a cyclical economic downturn that keeps the jobless rate high. Rather, it is the legacy of unequal economic opportunities in the past for the country’s majority that resulted in scores of people who, with no marketable skills, do not work and never had a formal job.
There is little consensus on a solution. But experts agree that joblessness is costly to South Africa, which helps support nearly one-quarter of the population with the developing world’s biggest welfare program. Some warn that chronic unemployment is a tinderbox for instability of the sort that flared last year, when poor South Africans unleashed a wave of violence against foreigners they accused of taking their jobs.
Ann Bernstein, executive director of the Center for Development and Enterprise in Johannesburg – a CIPE partner – adds: “Worst of all, unemployment is a terrible waste of human potential. Almost every unemployed person could and should be doing productive work that would improve their lives and develop the country.”
President Jacob Zuma, a populist elected a few months ago on promises of spreading wealth, has pledged to create half a million jobs this year and 3.5 million more by 2014. But the promised jobs are temporary public works positions that might not lead to true employment gains. And with South Africa now in recession after years of steady growth, economists say the government will have a hard enough time saving jobs, much less creating them.
Economic inclusion cannot happen overnight. But it is clear that 15 years after oppression of the apartheid ended, most South Africans still struggle with gaining access to skills needed in a modern marketplace and can’t fully participate in their country’s economy.
A new opinion study by Gallup and Silatech – “Voices of Young Arabs” -measures young Arabs’ career aspirations, life expectations and thoughts on employment in their own countries. The expansive index covers 20 countries and compares countries within regions (Gulf, Levant, Maghreb, etc.) as well as inter-regionally. In addition to outlining the challenges of job creation and ‘waithood,’ the report identifies three factors youth consider to be the greatest obstacles to employment: the necessity of personal connections (wasta), inadequate education systems that don’t offer practical job training; and the lack of awareness of new employment initiatives.
One of the strengths of the report lays in its approach of complementing employment statistics with a consideration of socio-cultural variables. Young Arabs’ (15-29) views on family and faith, women’s rights, and priorities and norms are harnessed to provide a context in which other data on employment preferences can be used to inform development policy. For instance, many youth answered that having an “enriched spiritual life” and “starting a family” were top priorities, with the quality of work they do coming third. This was supported with data showing few Arab youth have ever “refused a job when it was offered to them.”
The study’s focus on youth attitudes towards entrepreneurship is also noteworthy and leads to a much larger debate. The findings carefully state that, “Arab youth’s attitudes toward entrepreneurs are complex.” Although “solid majorities” of Arab youth believe entrepreneurship leads to job creation, respondents still cite serious challenges to starting a business or finding employment. For example, in the Maghreb, over 80 percent of Moroccans polled say “the area where they live is a good place for entrepreneurs starting a new business.” Yet, only 25 percent said it was easy to obtain a loan to start a business. According to the findings, similarly low numbers of Maghreb youth “feel that their government makes paperwork and permits easy enough for potential entrepreneurs.”
Earlier this week, Jordan’s Queen Rania spoke at the second Arab Substantiality Leadership Group meeting in Amman. She moderated a panel discussion on “Sustainable Development and Youth Employment in the Arab World.” This topic is of crucial importance: the rate of youth unemployment in the Middle East is the highest in the world and the number of unemployed people under 30 could increase from the current 15 million to 100 million by 2020 – a situation described by the Queen as a “ticking time bomb” that has to be defused before it causes social unrest.
Queen Rania urged making school curricula more relevant to the needs of the labor market, encouraging innovative private-public employment partnerships, and offering internship opportunities in order to bridge the “gap between school and work.” The Jordan Times reports,
The Queen said the problem in the Arab world is deficit in critical thinking and entrepreneurial skills and overreliance on the public sector for jobs, adding that it is important to create channels of communication between businesses and the educational system to know what they need and thus tailor the curricula to realise that goal. Her Majesty also emphasised the private sector role, which she said can lead and influence policy in the public sector in the Arab world.
Tarik Yousef, Dean of the Dubai School of Government and Nonresident Senior Fellow at Brookings’ Wolfensohn Center for Development who was one of the panelists, further emphasized the role of the private sector and pointed out that it “can demonstrate what works and what doesn’t.”