Youth Unemployment in the Middle East and North Africa

by Isobel Coleman
This article originally appeared on her blog Democracy in Development, June 13, 2013

As the graph makes painfully clear, the Middle East and North Africa face significant challenges when it comes to youth unemployment. A World Economic Forum report from 2012 notes, “Unemployment in the MENA region is the highest in the world…and largely a youth phenomenon.”

Graph by author. Data are from ILO's Global Employment Trends for Youth 2013 report. Regional data are from ILO's 2012 preliminary estimates; U.S. and E.U. data are from the OECD's second quarter 2012 data.

Graph by author. Data are from ILO’s Global Employment Trends for Youth 2013 report. Regional data are from ILO’s 2012 preliminary estimates; U.S. and E.U. data are from the OECD’s second quarter 2012 data.

I’ve previously highlighted troubling tends in youth employment, including students whose lack of soft skills preclude them from employment, employers’ dissatisfaction with the education levels of the workforce in GCC countries, and young Tunisians’ disillusionment with the opportunities available in their country and accompanying desire to emigrate.

The Middle East and North Africa are not alone in terms of a serious lack of opportunity for many young people. In the second quarter of 2012, the economically troubled European Union had a youth unemployment rate of 22.6 percent, as opposed to the OECD-wide average of 16.2 percent. Portugal had 38.7 percent youth unemployment, and Spain and Greece had staggering rates of 52.4 percent and 54.2 percent respectively. By contrast, the United States had 16.3 percent youth unemployment and Germany’s youth employment was an enviable 8.2 percent.

While some have raised issues with the way that these eye-popping European numbers are calculated (suggesting that the real rate is more like half of the headline numbers–but that’s still very high), there is little doubt that many youth—particularly in the MENA region and the struggling European economies—are losing out on economic opportunities, and consequently, hindering their lifetime earning potential.

How should countries tackle youth unemployment? It’s an immense challenge, requiring solutions that will, at their best, involve private, public, and nonprofit sectors. Germany and Spain’s labor ministers should be praised for their pragmatism in brokering a deal that will give apprenticeships in Germany to some 5,000 unemployed Spanish young people yearly—a move that is also a win for Germany, which needs additional qualified employees as its labor pool shrinks.

Nonprofits are also pursuing interesting innovations with respect to tackling youth unemployment. LivelyHoods in Kenya, for instance, trains young people from Kenyan slums to sell useful products in their communities (e.g. solar lamps); the training includes vital business skills like customer service and financial literacy. In the Middle East and North Africa, Education for Employment connects young people to employers and also trains young people on finding jobs and on the soft skills that employers value. The organization has had particularly impressive results in high-unemployment Tunisia, where it began working in 2012: it has since graduated more than 540 Tunisians from its training programs and found employment for all of those in its job placement training program. The challenge, of course, is scaling up these initiatives.

Programs like these are particularly important because high levels of youth unemployment—in addition to limiting young people’s life prospects—stand to affect political trends, especially in countries that are transitioning to democratic rule. In a forthcoming book that I co-edited,Pathways to Freedom: Political and Economic Lessons From Democratic Transitions, one important takeaway is the critical role that inclusive economic development plays in sustaining democratic transitions. Libya’s plan to put billions of dollars towards funds that small and medium-sized businesses can access—in an explicit effort to create jobs—could help promote democratization there, especially if implemented in a transparent manner.

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