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Nineteen Turks and one Moroccan: the challenges of youth employment in Libya

Simon Bell's picture
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One day on a recent mission to Tripoli, Libya – after an early start and a hectic morning of meetings – I went with the World Bank’s Representative to a wonderful Turkish Restaurant in the heart of Tripoli to have lunch and to discuss the progress of the mission.  As we were dinning, our waiter engaged in polite conversation with my Tunisian colleague in French.  After he had taken our order, my colleague declared, “I am absolutely sure that this waiter is from Tunisia or Morocco, but I strongly suspect that the majority of the rest of the waiters working in this restaurant are Turkish.”

World Bank | Arne HoelDetermined to make good on his suspicions, at the end of the meal, he summoned our friendly waiter over and began quizzing him on the nationalities of the staff in the restaurant.  As it turned out, our waiter was indeed Moroccan – but, in fact, every other person serving, cooking, operating the till, and managing the restaurant were Turkish.  A total of 19 Turks in all – and not a single Libyan.  When we asked about their Arabic capabilities he told us that they had all come from an area of Turkey close to the Syrian border and, consequently, all spoke excellent Arabic.

My lunch companion then told me that Libyans, for the main part, did not like waiting jobs in restaurants and hotels – as they considered such occupations to be demeaning.  This, of course, extended to other menial and physically demanding tasks such as road work, construction, and so on where, in the past, these occupations had been undertaken by Egyptians and South Asians.  This is a fact of life of many resource rich nations, including many in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) Region.

However, with youth unemployment a massive problem – and with vast quantities of weapons in the hands of many of these young people – finding gainful employment away from the battle field is a pressing problem for Libya in this post-revolutionary period.  Indeed, security and the abundance of weapons, is one of the main factors creating uncertainty and impeding future sustained development. Very cognizant of this problem, the government has established several committees to address this problem – including the Warriors Affairs Commission (WAC), among others.

Youth unemployment in MENA is, of course, endemic – and a strong motivating force for the onset of the Arab Spring in countries such as Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere.  However, the greater proliferation of arms in Libya has made this issue all the more urgent.

Significantly exacerbating the problem in Libya is the fact that many young people – particularly the ex-combatants – do not have the education or the skills required by the private sector.  In addition, they also have inflated expectations of salary levels – which in most cases go well beyond the capacity of the nascent private sector’s capacity to pay, at least in any way that would make Libyan production competitive.

Unfortunately, there is no silver bullet and addressing this problem will take action on many fronts – including skills and vocational training, financial support (at a micro and SME level), business support services, mentoring, incubation of small businesses, and so on – that will assist in placing these young Libyans in gainful employment.  Despite the difficulties, addressing this issue is critical to the future peace and prosperity of the New Libya – as the government convinces the young people to lay down their weapons and to take up an economic stake in the future of this vibrant re-born nation.

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