The Miseducation of the Arab World

"Each year the private and public sectors need to create 85,000 jobs but they are only creating 55,000, which means we have 30,000 new unemployed people entering the labor market every year in Jordan."

This stark reality was conveyed by the outgoing Minister of Education for Jordan, Dr. Tayseer Al Noami, in an exclusive interview this past week, while attending the World Innovation Summit for Education (WISE) in Qatar. If we were to extrapolate that reality to the rest of the Arab world, and granted there are varying circumstances, this would mean that there are roughly 1.5 million new entrants added to the unemployment rolls every year. It is a daunting challenge in one of the most volatile regions in the world. As the Arab awakening continues, further attention is being paid to the policy challenges facing leaders, old and new, around youth, education, and employment. While the problem is clear thus far the solutions have been few and far between.

The volume edited by Tarik Yousef and Navtej Dhillon, Generation in Waiting, aptly describes the youth bulge in the Middle East, where there are an estimated 100 million people between the ages of 15-29. In Jordan, for example, a shocking 70% of the population is below 30. This is a scenario repeated across the region. These active, aware and agitated populations are the casus belli for the wider insurrection in the Arab world. These are entire generations that feel disenfranchised. In the short-term they are looking for economic opportunity but in the long-term for much deeper systemic changes. Nearly 10 months after the fall of former Tunisian dictator Zein el-Abedine Ben Ali, this situation is well-known to leaders within the region.

At the WISE gathering in Qatar last week, when speaking about the Middle East, the buzz-term was 'education for employment.' This is the idea that education needs to be relevant to the needs of the private sector. This is considered in many ways to be the panacea for the unemployment malaise across the region. When the International Finance Corporation (IFC) and the Islamic Development Bank released a major report on the region, it was entitled "Education for Employment." That report asserts that youth unemployment costs the Arab world between $40-50 billion annually. It finds that employers feel youth are not ready for the workplace and that vocational education and skills training are essential to combat widespread unemployment. There are a number of NGOs, international institutions, bilateral donors, and public sector entities, all dedicated to contributing to the effort, from Silatech to the World Bank to the EFE Foundation. Almost every regional government has a Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET) Ministry assigned to this issue as well. Even private sector initiatives such as Microsoft's Partners in Learning are mobilizing. But it is not enough.

Another report released last month (published by the World Economic Forum), stated that 25 million new jobs needed to be created to maintain current unemployment levels in the Arab world. Simply put, existing trends and initiatives in the region are insufficient. Moreover, the presence of a bold regional partnership is missing. Each country and organization is operating in an unrealistic vacuum releasing often stalled and stilted initiatives that eventually are mired in inefficiency, bureaucracy and ineffectiveness. Outside of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), it appears that the funds allocated for combating unemployment and revitalizing education systems are in the hundreds of millions of dollars rather than the tens of billions that will be necessary. Moreover, while 'education for employment' is part of the answer, it cannot be the answer. When asked about what was needed, the outgoing Jordanian Minister of Education responded, "we need a commitment to the continuity of existing policies over the long-term." That in effect sounds like more of the same.

The above may seem like an unfair diagnosis but the reality itself is not a fair one. A regional partnership for change that truly tackles the entire ecosystem of challenges that lead to youth unemployment is essential. It must address not just education for employment but the wider economic enabling environment as well as the quality of the overall education system. It must be funded. It must involve all sectors. Most of all, it will require leadership. And all the while, the Arab youth are still waiting.

Taufiq Rahim is a Dubai-based political analyst. He blogs regularly at TheGeopolitico.com.