On pre-election week, the team and I met with a large set of stakeholders in Tunis to kick off the in-country consultations on the regional Jobs Flagship report that we are preparing for the Middle East and North Africa region. I guess that thousands and thousands of people chanting “bread and dignity” in Tahrir Square makes it easy to motivate why we should be talking about jobs now. In the past few months, we started to analyze all the available data on employment and to put the common threads together to understand where the constraints lie and where the solutions might be to generate more and better jobs in the region.
When it comes to answering the tricky question of why increased enrollment in higher education, one of the region's notable successes, has not translated into increased employment gains, one common theme is a mismatch of skills. The skills being taught just aren't relevant to the new global economy. Yet the 'Arab Spring' revealed a generation that had a very sophisticated grasp of new technologies, and that had come up with ingenious ways of using them to organize and mobilize. A generation that was also clearly capable of critical thought and effective communication. This was evident in the ability to identify and articulate a collective sense of economic and political exclusion. In Tahrir Square, they displayed a high degree of creativity and enterprise.
Every year, during a time oscillating between summer and autumn, my institution the World Bank and the IMF jointly hold their Annual Meetings. Often, concerns about the global economy dominate the discussions. With all that is going on this year, I wondered why the main theme of the meeting was gender equality. As important as the topic may be, it was not going to deliver a tangible outcome in the near future, especially when developing countries in particular are facing uncertain horizons. And yet, I must say I felt a sense of pride in, and belonging to, this message. The message was bold and visible: In their different tongues they asked the same question: “Equal?”
The global economic crisis and the Arab Spring have sharpened the challenge to the countries of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) from a large young population seeking better educational and professional opportunities. A variety of factors have impeded the countries’ abilities to absorb an increasing labor force: excessive GDP volatility; labor demand heavily dominated by the public sector; economies dependent on oil revenues and low value-added products; and weak integration into the global economy.
The World Bank's "think equal" campaign, which launched the new World Development Report on Gender Equality and Development, addresses the challenge of women's empowerment and gender equality well. Preconceived notions of what it means to be a "real man" or a "real woman" are deeply internalized and integral to our identities and relationships. Women and men who seek to mix up this picture will have to do the hard work of acknowledging that some of our most cherished values and assumptions about gender no longer make sense and may ultimately prove to be harmful.
Being a volunteer in Lebanon is not an easy task. People tend to encourage us superficially but they actually do not understand the reason why we would spend our time doing something for free when we can be working on something more profitable - at least to help with our summer expenses or university tuition. It is also pretty hard to bring in or recruit volunteers! I have heard recruiting for such an effort was much easier in the past when my parents were my age. People had fewer distractions and were more committed to the concept of helping each other.
In light of the Arab Spring and continued focus on the region, we are discovering much about the Arab world. This is a very positive development, which brings to light the many misunderstandings and “myths” about the region. This is certainly true of education. It is time to address and dispel them. Myth 1 - Education is poor in the region because it has been neglected: Untrue. Since their independence, Arab world countries have made huge gains and currently invest heavily in education. The Arab world has made significant progress in recent decades.
The Prime Minister of Tunisia, Béji Caïd Essebsi, is in Washington DC this week on an official visit to the United States and we were honored that he made time to visit the World Bank and share his thoughts about his country’s future as it prepares for elections on October 23. What a remarkable story it is. The Prime Minister, who has served in public life since Tunisia’s independence in 1957 and wryly describes himself as “no political novice”, told us he had expected change. But the manner and speed and unpredictability of the revolution in December and January was a surprise. Mr. Caïd Essebsi has been a unique leader for this fast-paced and game-changing period in Tunisia.