Is Middle East's young labor boom a blessing or a curse?

An Arab girl at school

Questions have been asked often about the quality of education in the Middle East. Is the education good enough? Does it meet quality standards? Will young people be employable? This article about education in the Middle East attempts to find some answers to those questions.

Sam Brennan August 25, 2019

Article Summary

By 2040, the Middle East and North Africa will see a sharp increase in young people who enter the labor force, which could lead to disaster if areas like education aren't improved.

BEIRUT — The growing young population in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) can either be a source of growth or a factor of instability, depending on their skills and education, according to a new report titled MENA Generation 2030.

At the beginning of the century, half of the Middle East and North Africa's population was below the age of 24; in the coming decades, this generation will be a part of an unprecedented influx of working-age people in the region, the report said.

The UNICEF report found that over 1 million people will enter the workforce every year from 2020-2032.

This workforce, combined with declining birthrates, will lead to a window between now and 2040 where there will be 100 working-age people (ages 15-64) for every 50 dependent children and elderly people, a demographic change that could be a blessing or a curse.

Juliette Touma, the UNICEF MENA Chief of Communications, told al-Monitor, "There is a massive new workforce. … It is a great opportunity for the region."

Touma added, "But it really depends on education and the skills they acquire. … If the steps [in the report] are implemented, we could have a very positive spin."

These steps include investment in education, in both quality and accessibility; improving health care extending to nutrition and clean water as well as hospitals; protection of the vulnerable including women, refugees and the disabled; and increasing employment opportunities for all.

If these changes are instituted, the next generation would bring with it significant economic growth.

However, the report stressed that if key underlying issues are not addressed, then this demographic change could have devastating effects, leaving an unprecedented number of working-age people unemployed and unstable.

"There is always a flip side to these statistics and numbers. They are not only a huge concern — they are beyond concern," Touma stressed.

Part of this concern comes from the current levels of unemployment in the region. As the report notes, unemployment is particularly bad for young women, with a rate of between 50 to 80% in six MENA countries and approximately 40% in the region.

This is despite a 2015 finding that if women enjoyed the same economic opportunities as men, the MENA would see a 47% rise in the gross domestic product by 2025.

The situation of the region as a whole is only relatively better than that of women, with the average youth unemployment at 30%, the highest in the world.

If not addressed, it will likely get worse — with a projected 40 million new people expected to enter the workforce by 2040. The employment rate could rise over 10% in the next decade alone if current trends continue.

Increasing unemployment combined with other concerns of the report — such as lack of protection for vulnerable people, conflict, and urbanization and population density, which are projected to nearly double by 2050 — could lead to what Touma described as "a disaster."

However, the report offers a series of recommendations to prevent this, including creating employment opportunities, stability and, of great importance, education.

"The reason we put the report out was to keep the hope alive. … We can flip things around because we have huge potential with the young people in the region if we give them the right education and training. This will be fundamental over the next 11 years and beyond," Touma said.

However, a lot of work needs to be done on this front. "The most shocking statistic I came across was that half of the children in school do not meet the international standards for reading, writing and mathematics," she added.

A 2019 survey of Arab youth showed that young people were aware that their education is not preparing them for their future, with 78% of respondents saying they are worried about their education and over half saying if they do further their education, it will be outside of the region.

"So far, governments have been failing children in the region because there hasn't been enough allocated in the budget to sectors like early childhood development and education," Touma said.

Educated in the region herself, Touma said the "pedagogy is very top-down and very based on memorizing, not what employers want. … There is [also] a need to work on revamping the education systems in the schools themselves."

Conflicts also exacerbate these poor education standards, as refugees and internally displaced people struggle to access education.

"Conflict — particularly since 2011 — political instability and armed violence are what we refer to as wars on children," Touma said, adding, "These conflicts have played a fundamental role in development and have taken the region in some ways a decade back."

With over half of the world refugees living in the region and nearly 40% of children living in fragile and conflict-affected countries, reducing violence and increasing stability is key to making sure the next generation is prosperous.

"The international community has failed to stop this vicious cycle of violence where children pay the price. Part of the reason why the picture is so bleak and why 15 million children are out of school is because of violence," Touma said.

Nicole Eid Abuhaydar, executive director of Unite Lebanon Youth Project (ULYP), agreed with Touma's view on education prospects, telling Al-Monitor, "Youth in vulnerable communities don't necessarily have access to education, and if they do, it is not always quality."

ULYP seeks to improve the lives of young people through partnering with families and schools to educate children from all backgrounds.

"We offer an education that fills the gap — programs covering everything from maths to life skills and bringing communities together," Abuhaydar said, adding that through providing classes and running education programs in Lebanon, children have a better likelihood of employment.

However, she noted that many of the students she works with "are very worried [that even] if they work harder, will there be a way to get to university? And the kids at university wonder, 'If I work hard, will I get a job?'"

While groups like ULYP seek to address this problem, Touma noted that the responsibility should not fall on young people and urged governments to "reallocate budgets" toward education and health. She called on the international community to help minimize conflict.

"If all of these things don't happen, it could be a disaster," Touma said, adding, "We should do everything possible right now to turn this around."

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