Published on Arab Voices

Governance and Public Sector employment in the Middle East and North Africa

                 This blog has been co-authored by Lida Bteddini and Guenter Heidenhof

This blog is part of a weekly series that we hope will provide some food for thought on the critical questions outlined in the forthcoming MENA Flagship Report on Jobs.

World Bank | Arne HoelRecent events across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region have underscored the urgent need to ensure job creation and an enabling environment for a young and better-educated, more skilled labor force.  The international economic crisis has further deepened the problem in a region that is characterized by the world’s highest youth unemployment rate and the lowest female labor force participation. This goes hand-in-hand with overwhelmingly low value-added employment and a public sector that in most countries still provides most formal jobs.  Tackling these problems and challenges has become a key policy priority for virtually all governments in the region.

In many countries in the region, the public sector remains the primary employer, employing anywhere between 14 percent and 40 percent of all workers.[1] Many government institutions are overstaffed and government employees are often paid more than in the private sector (see Table).  Government wages in the MENA region amount to 9.8 percent of GDP, the highest rate worldwide. At the same time we know from experience that the main vehicle for employment creation is private-sector led growth.  And we also know that high levels of government employment deter investment in the private sector. 


Why is public sector employment so attractive in MENA?  In fact, it is the top preference of jobseekers in the MENA region, in particular of women and of youth. In a 2009 survey, 80% of Syrian graduates reported a preference for public sector employment, and nearly 60% would accept only a public sector job.[2]  The reasons for the attractiveness of the public sector are quite obvious: the public sector provides for employment benefits such as advantageous wages and benefits. Employment in the public sector carries extremely low risk of dismissal and high job security – often in combination with relatively low demands in terms of productivity. At the same time, jobs in the formal private sector are limited when compared to countries of similar economic development. Most (private sector) jobs can be found in the informal sector and these jobs are not seen as attractive for a variety of reasons, including low pay and incentive systems.     

There is another dimension to the employment problem: many new labor market entrants do not have the skills that the market requires – while the labor force as a whole has become more educated and skilled over the years, the labor market has not built up sufficient capacity to absorb these more qualified entrants. The private sector is not growing fast enough to cater to the large number of first-time job seekers.  A significant number of individuals are voluntarily unemployed, not willing to accept lower skilled jobs or jobs at prevailing wages.  Across the region, public sector jobs are considered more respectable and more secure; they also provide for more “opportunities” than jobs in the private sector.  Just one example: ‘double-dipping’ is a problem throughout the region – in Egypt for example, one-quarter of the personnel in public health facilities is absent on an average day according to recent estimates.[3]

While the Middle East has undergone a large wave of privatization over the last two decades, many key economic sectors remain under direct state control or, more often, under the control of the social elite. The private sector is still subject to numerous constraints and distortions – this is particularly true for the informal private sector that is often subject to significant harassment and interference by the public sector.  

Faced with bloated and often inefficient bureaucracies and excessive wage bills, traditional strategies of utilizing public sector employment as a means to soak up excessive labor demands have reached their tipping point.  This makes it all the more important to effectively and decisively support the role of the private sector as the main engine for future job creation. The “rebalancing” of public versus private sector employment will require major policy changes, also in the public sector.  One key area to look at is the highly incentivized public sector employment system which has become an impediment to economic growth. Many experts argue that, in the long run, the costs associated with a high concentration of public sector jobs will cause lower total factor productivity growth, thus having a negative impact on poverty reduction efforts. A good example is among educated youth, who continue to wait for “comfortable” public sector positions rather than exposing themselves to market-driven demand and supply mechanisms.

The World Bank’s most recent flagship report, Bread, Freedom, and Dignity: Job Creation in the Middle East and North Africa underscores numerous challenges to the job growth agenda in the region, in addition to highlighting the destructive role played by barriers to firm entry in the absence of sound competition in many countries. Some of these problems are due to government policies; others are due to the discriminatory way in which these policies are enforced. While avoiding prescribed solutions, the recent World Bank flagship report highlights a number of measures that will be essential to rapid and sustainable private sector growth in the region. 

In order to meet employment challenges, the region will need to focus both on the quantity and quality of newly created jobs. MENA will require a sustained effort to move towards durable economic growth driven by the private sector—and will necessitate dedicated long-term strategies and committed leadership to carry them out. With the appropriate incentives and effective governance, public investments will work to crowd in private investment by providing energy, roads, logistics and communications links which are necessary for firms to function productively.

Unfortunately, the region has been largely characterized by weak governance systems that have achieved the contrary – crowding out private investment by using resources that would otherwise be used by the private sector. Indeed, weak governance has led to the inefficient use of public resources, has been spent on unproductive assets that are desirable only to small and select interest groups. Governments throughout the region will need to strengthen governance frameworks and reduce opportunities for monopolistic rent-seeking to foster increased competition. Governments will also need to enhance transparency and build the type of institutions that will allow a market economy to flourish, while mobilizing all relevant stakeholders around a long-term growth strategy.

[1]World Bank Flagship report, Bread, Freedom, and Dignity: Job Creation in the Middle East and North Africa, World Bank, 2012

[2]Dhillon, Navtej and Tarik Yousef (eds.), Generation in Waiting: The Unfulfilled Promise of Young People in the Middle East, Brookings Institution Press, 2009

[3]Grun, R., L. Etter, and I. Jillson. Arab Republic of Egypt: Management and Service Quality in Primary Health Care Facilities in the Alexandria and Menoufia Governorates. Mimeo. World Bank, Washington, DC, 2010.
This blog is part of a weekly series that we hope will provide some food for thought on the critical questions outlined in the forthcoming MENA Flagship Report on Jobs. The common thread and objective of these blogs are to spur a conversation on “what to tell your Finance Minister.” This is in preparation for the World Bank Annual Meetings in October 2012, where the report's main messages and the results of the live chat will be presented to MENA policy makers. We want to know what YOU think is holding people back, and what can be done to create more and better jobs in MENA. Please send us your thoughts and join us for a live web chat on jobs on September 17.

Read the previous weeks' blogs in the series:

  • Let’s have a conversation about what exactly I should tell your Finance Minister
  • Why jobless? Privilege not competition in the Private Sector
  • Is working a privilege in the Middle East & North Africa? Who is most affected by MENA’s Joblessness Trap?
  • Is being employable enough to get a job in the Arab World? The double transition from education to work in MENA


  • Authors

    Lida Bteddini

    Senior Public Sector Specialist

    Join the Conversation

    The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly
    Remaining characters: 1000