Expert meeting: Access to opportunities – MENA Youth and EU policies
How can EU policies help young people in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) gain better access to opportunities in life? Hayat Essakati, Rami Adwan and Gilbert Doumit are from Morocco, Jordan and Lebanon. In an expert meeting in Brussels, they shared their views on this question with EU officials and NGO representatives.
Het Grote Midden Oosten Platform in collaboration with the Netherlands Institute for Multiparty Democracy (NIMD) and with the support of D66 International, organised the expert meeting ‘Access to opportunities – MENA Youth and EU policies’. Reason for organising this meeting is that youth are central to many of the challenges facing Arab societies. Youth are significant when it comes to European concerns about migration towards Europe, and about violent extremism. At the same time, youth can be the solution these challenges, if they are enabled to play a role by their governments and societies.
60% of the Arab population is under 30 years old, and youth unemployment in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) is the highest in the world, in some countries higher than 30%. By 2030 Arab countries must create 94 million new jobs, roughly 5 million per year, just to avoid increasing unemployment rates. The labour force participation rate is 35%, compared to 52% in the rest of the world. Even more staggering is the rate of “underemployment” where youth have jobs too small to provide them with a decent income or jobs that do not represent their skills and talents. In addition to that, the Arab world faces an urgent need to update the education system and curriculums, to really match the needs of the changing world of work.
Challenges facing youth, however, are not merely economic. Arab youngsters live in a political, educational and social system which does not allow for them to participate actively as citizens. As a consequence of this political and socioeconomic situation, young people in the Middle East feel disempowered and frustrated. The sheer size of this generation signifies that, to quote the Arab Human Development Report 2016, it is critical “to empower (young people) to engage in development processes… and it is a prerequisite for achieving tangible and sustainable progress on development and stability for the entire region.”
Europe and the Arab world are neighbours, what happens in one region will always affect the other region as well. European governments, both at home and at a European level, have to deal with some big challenges related to the Middle East that have a strong influence on European societies; migration, violent extremism, and economic crises at its borders are phenomena especially connected to the MENA youth and their (lack of) access to opportunities.
Hayat Essakati, who founded Maroc4Invest, combines experience in international economic programs with entrepreneurship in North-Africa. She described how 60% of young Moroccans want to leave their country if they could. The same holds true for other countries in the MENA region.
Rami Adwan is the country representative for NIMD in Jordan. In his role, Adwan works with the Government, Parliament, and political parties in Jordan to promote the institutional development of a pluralistic political system. Young people in Jordan are completely disconnected from formal political structures.
Gilbert Doumit is a Lebanese strategy advisor, a leadership consultant, and a social entrepreneur. He describes the five priorities for youth as access to good education, health, work, the political scene and to security.
When asked what the EU can do for youth in the MENA region, Doumit notes that EU countries have partnered with the MENA governments for many years. However, the many investments made have had no impact because the EU is working with political elites and autocrats that are part of the problem.
Essakati and Adwan focus their recommendations on supporting quality education, both vocational and in schools and universities. Jordan’s youth have become very active in the emerging start-up scene, and in NGO activism around issues like the environment and gender equality. Adwan sees opportunities in vocational training and (social) entrepreneurship and believes that youth have to move away from traditional and government employment and be exposed to technologies around AI, healthcare, cloud computing, gaming. Essakati sees real potential if public and private sectors cooperate more, for example through vocational trainings for young Moroccans. Such programmes already exist, but they can be developed more strategically with the government, and they can be implemented throughout the region. However, as long as governments in the MENA region are not willing to truly reform the education system, supporting informal education projects may be more effective.
Doumit is very clear about two things: EU policies and programmes need to be developed in a more integrated and holistic way, rather than from the many separate ‘silo’s’ that currently develop separate and short-term programmes. On top of that, EU activities in the MENA region need to be based on real values. Any programme, whether it is economic, educational, agricultural or other, needs to have freedom, justice and equality at its core.
This expert meeting was part of a series of activities and publications by Het Grote Midden Oosten Platform around the role of EU countries in supporting youth in the Middle East and North Africa. The recommendations to the EU that were suggested by these experts will be disseminated widely.