One of the key and long-lasting concerns across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region has been job creation. With the Arab spring events, this issue has moved to the top of the development policy agenda in most countries in the region. And the media has been reporting personal stories of hardships faced by people, especially young ones, trying to find jobs that match their aspirations, in some cases, qualifications, and enable them to launch their lives and start families. There is little doubt that the region needs more jobs.
This is the first week of my professional return to the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). Until last Friday I held the job of Vice President of the Sustainable Development network at the World Bank, a truly rich and fulfilling engagement in a range of global enterprises from agriculture, to infrastructure, to climate change. I feel honored to assume the new role of MNA VP at this extraordinary time in the region’s history. Many eyes are on us and much will be expected. As history unfolds before us, in the Arab Spring, in the uprisings, in the revolutions, I have reflected much on what this will mean and where it will take us. I remain filled with optimism as people across the region have, in their own heartfelt formulation, “taken back their dignity”
In the spirit and calls for greater accountability and transparency, the World Bank is hosting a discussion bringing together high-level decision makers and civil society representatives from the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. They will exchange knowledge and reflect on the experiences of experts from Indonesia, Turkey and Philippines, who will share the work that have supported the development of social accountability during critical transition periods.
She stared at the money in her palm for a long time while tears slowly trickled down her face. After a long silence Hana, a 19 year old Yemeni woman spoke, “This is the first money I have ever held in my hand that is mine.” “How do you feel?” asked the director of the women’s shelter where Hana had been living in for the past four months. As if reborn and with an empowered voice, she replied, “Strong.” The story of Hana is one example of the barriers faced by Yemeni women. Born into a violent environment where her vicious father abused women, Hana lived her childhood believing that she was worthless.
World over, many aspects of gender inequality continue to persist. Women face higher risks of death at birth and throughout their life cycle. Women are under-represented in schools, jobs, boardrooms and parliaments. Women continue to earn less than equally qualified men. In many cases, women have less power to make decisions and choices about their lives even within their homes. Many of these persistent gender gaps are still evident even in the developed world. In the Middle East and North Africa, there is little difference between girls and boys in education or health outcomes.
The story of Ghalia Mahmoud published in the August 17th edition of the Washington Post took me by surprise. I had hardly finished the article when questions began to fill my head and my heart started to flutter with excitement. Was it because Ghalia, previously a maid, had succeeded in becoming a TV host? Or was it that the Washington Post was interested in telling her story, deeming it worthy of publishing? Or was it tied to my glimpse of the World Bank report on Food Price Watch a few days earlier? It reported that the high level of global food prices and continued price volatility, posed a constant threat to the poorest segments of the population in developing countries.
From different corners of the world, youth have been celebrating this particular year in an unexpected way. In this International Year of Youth, I reflect on the events shaped by and for youth. To me, to all the young people in my country and my region, International Youth Day means simply nothing; because this year, we made every day a celebration of youth expression, power, and liberation.