Fulfilling the Aspirations of MENA’s Youth

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In recent months across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, youth have been taking to the streets in ever larger numbers to demand improvements in governance, transparency, service delivery, the environment, and job opportunities.

If these protests seem eerily reminiscent to the so-called Arab Spring protests of 2010-11, it is because they are, as many experts argue, a continuation – the long wave of pent up demand for real structural changes to economic and social governance in the region.  But whereas the protests of 2010-11 coincided with several exogenous and endogenous shocks (e.g., a sharp decline in oil prices, the outbreak of civil conflicts) to convulse the region, today’s protests need not destabilize the region.  Instead, the unrest of 2019 represents a historic opportunity for the region to accelerate transformative reforms that will unleash the vast potential of the region’s greatest economic potential: its talented youth.  And this is precisely what the World Bank Group’s (WBG) MENA strategy endeavors to achieve.

An assessment of the state of MENA’s youth must begin with some sobering statistics. Two-thirds of MENA’s population is under the age of 35. Youth unemployment (ages 15-24) is over 25%; nearly half of this group (40%) are females, including those with tertiary degrees.  In fact, MENA is arguably the only region in the world where the risks of unemployment increase as levels of education increase – this in a region that spends generously on public education , with median education spending levels higher than the OECD average.  Clearly, the utilization of human capital in MENA is a major challenge.  So, too, is the development of human capital: a child born today in MENA will only be 55% as productive by the age of 18 as she could be with access to quality education and health care; and nearly 60% of children today in MENA cannot read with proficiency.  Worryingly, these challenges are compounding. 

In response to these challenges, the World Bank earlier this year launched our enlarged MENA strategy. Building on our 2015 strategy, developed to respond to the Arab Spring and the series of coinciding shocks, our 2019 strategy aims at creating economic opportunities for MENA’s youth by improving human capital outcomes, creating opportunities to leverage digital technologies, and opening-up business environments for the private sector including young entrepreneurs to compete in free and fair markets for the provision of goods and services. 

We are now in full swing operationalizing this strategy.  We recently launched a human capital action plan for the MENA region, which sets ambitious targets for improving education, health, social protection, and employment outcomes in the region . This regional plan is being rolled-out at the country level. We are also pushing forward with ambitious plans to double high-speed broadband and expand the use of digital payments given their centrality in the development of a new, digital economy. 

While we are implementing our enlarged strategy, we are also trying to better understand the full depth and breadth of youth aspirations given that young people are not a monolith.  For example, while our vision for the region includes a more robust role for the private sector to create high-quality and sustainable jobs, some recent surveys seem to suggest that MENA’s youth want the government to continue to play a large role in creating employment and providing affordable goods and services, like housing, indicating a desire to level the playing field  and ensure an equality of treatment alongside an equality of opportunity.  But with limited fiscal space in many MENA countries, it is clear the state can no longer continue to be the provider of first resort, warranting a closer examination of the most effective role for the state in a 21st-century economy.  

Across the MENA region today, challenges walk in lockstep with opportunities. And in the MENA region, there is no greater opportunity than those presented by the region’s large numbers of energetic young women and men.   The challenge for countries of the region as well as the international community is thus: how best to unleash this tremendous energy to power a future of sustainable and inclusive growth in MENA and beyond. 

Authors

Anna Bjerde

Director of Strategy and Operations, Middle East & North Africa, World Bank

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