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Iman Bibars: Youth Employment in North Africa (Part 2/2)360°ANALYSIS

With the second youngest population in the world, what confronts youth in North Africa’s job market? [Read part one here.]

The dire economic situation in North Africa moved into the spotlight when Mohammed Bouazizi, a young Tunisian fruit vendor, set himself alight on December 17, 2010, sparking revolts that shook dictators from Algeria to Yemen. While causes behind the uprisings were complex, encompassing decades of authoritarianism, corruption and human rights abuses, economic factors were and still remain a crucial element in North African society and politics.

In 2012, the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) saw the highest youth unemployment rate in the world, with approximately 25% of 15-24 year olds out of work. High population growth rates plague the region, with half of its citizens under 25. The MENA region has the second youngest population after sub-Saharan Africa. As noted by Abul-Hasanat Siddique and Casper Wuite: “The youth population, aged 15 to 24, is growing explosively — it increased by nearly 44 million between 1980 and 2010.” Given these demographics, fostering youth employment strategies has to be a top priority for North African policymakers, civil society and business leaders.

To talk more about youth employment in North Africa, the challenges ahead and the role of social entrepreneurship, Fair Observer’s Manuel Langendorf and Abul-Hasanat Siddique continue their discussion with Iman Bibars, the regional director for Ashoka Arab World. Ashoka is the largest network of social entrepreneurs worldwide, with nearly 3,000 fellows in 70 countries.

Manuel Langendorf: Following the Arab Uprisings of 2011, Egypt has seen its ups and downs. Despite his popularity among large parts of the population, President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi faces a number of hurdles in turning Egypt’s economy around, especially when it comes to youth unemployment. What does the government need to do in order to help young Egyptians find work?

Iman Bibars: Sisi and our new government do indeed face many challenges in kick-starting Egypt’s economy and, particularly, in tackling the issue of youth unemployment, which was one of the major catalysts of the uprisings in 2011.

The issue of unemployment cannot be separated from the other social problems that Egypt faces — many of which I outlined in our earlier discussion. Poverty, population growth, health problems and a bloated and inefficient public sector all contribute to the steady increase of unemployment. Likewise, the political unrest and security problems of the last three years have had a devastating impact on the Egyptian economy — both because they have adversely affected investment from international partners and corporations, and because, as a result of security concerns, tourism has dwindled. The tourism sector, accounting for roughly 9% of Egypt’s GDP [gross domestic product], has seen a decrease in tourism by approximately 20.5% in the last year.

The government, therefore, needs to adopt an approach with multiple dimensions if it is to tackle unemployment and economic recovery, effectively. Much as Franklin D. Roosevelt helped to catalyze economic recovery through his New Deal, focusing on the creation of the Public Works Administration, President Sisi should establish national projects that will tackle multiple problems. For example, investing in Egypt’s infrastructure — both in terms of building safer roads, renovating schools and hospitals, reclaiming agricultural land, or reviewing and restructuring Egypt’s public service sector in order to make it more efficient — will help to address the problems of unemployment, poverty and health issues, as well as attracting overseas investment. Ideally, I would love to see the government focusing on creating an enabling environment for social entrepreneurs, because I really believe that social entrepreneurs are best placed to address all social problems, including those that are specifically related to unemployment and underemployment.

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And in a linked way, education is absolutely key, for so many reasons. By teaching skills that will empower youth to seek opportunities, and to capitalize upon the opportunities they do come across, we will help to transform them into people capable of effecting change. This is the most empowering thing any government can possibly do for its citizens.

No president, and no government, will be able to change Egypt’s economic situation overnight — there are too many contributing factors to address. But by focusing on what we can do, we can make a good start. The Egyptian government has already raised the minimum wage and reduced subsidies in order to kick-start the economy. They have made it a priority to tackle security issues, which is absolutely essential in terms of ensuring that we attract foreign investment. Security is also very important in terms of building up any initiatives — whether grassroots projects for income generation, nationwide programs or initiatives such as those started by our social entrepreneurs, designed to tackle social problems. Without a measure of stability, such initiatives can never run smoothly or be sustained.

Abul-Hasanat Siddique: Looking at the entire region of North Africa, who is responsible for changing the system — the state, private sector, nonprofits/nongovernmental organizations, tribes, villages, family or young people themselves?

Bibars: We are all responsible for transforming our system in the ways I mentioned in our discussion, and it is absolutely essential that we recognize this and that all stakeholders are willing to work together in a complementary and collaborative way. One of the real problems I see in Egypt — and the whole region — at the moment is the desire among so many people for our government to provide a quick-fix solution to our problems. The brain drain that you identified in our previous discussion is indicative of this; so is the political apathy we are seeing in many youth, but so is the cynicism with the new government that we see in others.

If we do not collaborate and make efforts to work together and to see what works, our economic — and, by extension, our political and social — situation can only get worse. This is the spirit of social entrepreneurship: You see a problem and you make an effort to address the underlying cause of the problem, so as to find a solution that works. We need nations of entrepreneurs — literally, risk takers — who are willing to work together in a complementary way, if we want to provide opportunities for our young people and for us all.

Langendorf: In reference to the previous question, how can they do it? How do they ensure that young people have the critical skills to find and create employment opportunities?

Bibars: In my opinion, our first priority should be to reform our education systems to enable educational institutions to focus on — and be supported in — nurturing an entrepreneurial drive in young people. This involves teaching students to think analytically about how to effect change; proactively take control of their lives, even when they face challenges or obstacles; moving away from rote learning, repetition and memorization; and focusing on critical, or interrogative, thought. Education systems need to shift toward students being encouraged or even required to proactively seek knowledge from a variety of sources, question concepts and examine multiple viewpoints.

Sisi and our new government do indeed face many challenges in kick-starting Egypt’s economy and, particularly, in tackling the issue of youth unemployment, which was one of the major catalysts of the uprisings in 2011.

Ashoka has identified the need to recognize and cultivate changemaking skills as being absolutely integral to establishing societies populated by individuals with the motivation and ability to address key challenges. To create an Everyone a Changemaker society, in which every inhabitant has a deep conviction of his or her ability to effect meaningful change and is able to translate this into action, we must start at an early age and operate through a sound education system. Valuing changemaking skills as a fundamental part of a young person’s education and development, and integrating such skills into educational curricula is an important part of nurturing changemakers — well-equipped to seek employment opportunities, to acquire the skills they need to be desirable to prospective employers, and to create opportunities themselves if they do not immediately find them.

By fostering the creativity and innovation of students — either overtly, through teaching more courses on social entrepreneurship; or covertly, through encouraging them to be active and engaged learners, critically examining what they are taught — educational institutions can provide substantial assistance in building an ecosystem conducive to addressing social issues, and tackling unemployment and disaffection among young people. Likewise, through cultivating qualities such as empathy in children, young adults and their parents, we can enhance the leadership and team-building skills needed to drive positive social change, and address all the social and economic impediments creating and contributing to unemployment in our region.

*[Continue the conversation in a Webinar and concurrent Twitter chat convened by Ashoka’s Future Forward initiative, in partnership with the MasterCard Foundation. The initiative finds, supports and accelerates innovative solutions for youth employment in Africa, and will be holding a live panel conversation and concurrent Twitter chat on October 9 at 12:30pm (ET) using the hashtags #AfricaYouthFwd and #SocEntChat.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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