Published on Arab Voices

Jobs in Middle East & North Africa: Let’s talk about it


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. Data crunching is the natural place to start for us economists, but as we went along we felt strongly that opening up a space where different voices - not only technicians, governments or donors - but civil society, private sector, and unions, could come together in a dialogue about jobs is as important, if not more, than calculating elasticities and kernels.

So here we are in Berges du Lac, generously hosted by the European Union. I scan the room and there are representatives of unions, entrepreneur associations, government, donor partners, and civil society. Not many young people, unfortunately. We need to update our rolodex is my first thought. We need to reach out to those who don’t know what a rolodex is.

ImageWe present a brief powerpoint with stylized facts about the MENA region – the highest unemployment rate in the world, especially among youth, the lower female labor force participation in the world, high rates of informality to reflect that  growth in employment in the past years resulted mainly in low productivity sectors such as construction or low value added services. Clearly, the jobs story is a complicated one, but the message that seems to come out powerfully for MENA is a story of exclusion. The private sector produces too few good jobs. The good jobs out there go to few “insiders” who are employed in the public sector or by large private firms. Everyone else - youth, women, informal workers, the unemployed - are left out from sharing the pie.

The likely culprits? We heard our audience talk about a private sector where competition is not the rule; of the need to move towards better corporate governance; of labor regulations that favor those who are already in the system; of public sector job packages that induce queuing and distort education choices; of a skills system that does not have the tools and incentives to respond to the demands of the market. Equally important is considering a political economy that, until now, favored not rocking the boat. Until the boat rocked itself.

What to do about it? The list of possible measures is long. But we especially heard a strong demand for the voice of all actors in the political arena to be included and a need to achieve concrete results, not just words. We heard a strong demand for access to information and reliable data. We heard them say that not only the jobs agenda but the whole development strategy needs rethinking, with attention to a balanced development across the territory.

If the technical solutions seem to exist, what is going to make them happen? What is going to rebalance a dialogue where for too long the “insiders” set the rules?

The new political landscape of the region is shaping as we speak. Our bet is that without transparent information and a truly inclusive social dialogue, it will be hard for the region to live up to its great potential and for all to benefit from it. And, if not now, when?


Roberta Gatti

Chief Economist, Middle East and North Africa, World Bank Group

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