Unemployment: A Major Obstacle to Youth Development in the Arab Region

The Arab region has the highest youth unemployment rate in the world, a reality that has driven youth to become the main drivers of Arab uprisings over the past years. However, youth are often misrepresented at the regional level and their priorities overlooked (see the regional ICPD review conference). In an effort to better understand and represent youth, the Middle East office of the World Youth Alliance attended the Regional Workshop on Youth Unemployment on November 6 and 7 at the UN House in Beirut, Lebanon.

The workshop was organized by the UN Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia and included official delegations from Iraq, Jordan, Palestine, Tunisia, and Yemen. The workshop included presentations and discussions aimed at better understanding the nature of youth unemployment in the region and looking for possible policy solutions that governments can adopt to improve the situation.

Some key elements that emerged from the discussions are related to unemployment among women, the inability of the public sector to directly supply jobs, and the need to set up the right environment for the economy and private sector to prosper. On average, only 30% of women in the region are active in the labor market (as opposed to 70% among men), and in some of the participating countries, it is four times more difficult for a woman with a university degree to find a job than an unskilled man. Labor market inactivity among women is a cultural dimension that should not be directed by government policy but by society itself. However, skilled women looking for jobs should be faced with the right economic environment to find one. Other discussions tackled the role of the public sector which currently employs a large portion of youth entering the labor market. In Iraq for example, the government is the largest employer in the country with four million employees while the private sector only employs around 30% of the workforce.

The regional director of the WYA Middle East office had the chance to participate on the last panel of the workshop. The presentation was focused on the importance of youth participation while developing policy. Youth employment policies are aimed at meeting the needs and aspirations of young people. Unless governments have a clear idea of what these aspirations are, the labor market will remain unattractive for youth, and will push them to emigrate, or worse off, drive them towards crime and violence. Most youth today are looking to get married, own a house, and start a family and they need the right socio-economic environment to reach their full potential and achieve their aspirations.

Young people in the Arab region are struggling to find themselves by developing their rational, emotional, physical, and spiritual self. Respecting their freedom to do so is crucial to building the free Arab societies we aspire to.