The reasons are almost always the same and the result is highly predictable, and yet the governing elites seem to be always caught by surprise. The mass protests that erupted recently in Iraq and Lebanon and, before that, in Algeria, Sudan and other countries across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), were ignited by the same complaints of corruption, economic hardship, and inept governance — in some cases laced with stinking sectarianism. Another common and clear factor in the protests is that they mostly involve people under the age of 30, which also should not be surprising.
In its recent report on the region’s economic outlook, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) said that unemployment and sluggish growth are fueling social tension and popular protests in several Arab countries. The unrest is, in turn, contributing to slower growth in the region, alongside global trade tensions, oil price volatility and a disorderly Brexit process, according to the IMF, which last month lowered the 2019 forecast for the region to a meager 0.1 percent from 1.1 percent last year. The level of growth is far below what is needed to address the high rate of unemployment, particularly among the youth, which exceeds 25 percent. Overall unemployment averages 11 percent throughout the region, compared to 7 percent across other emerging market and developing economies.
A young population should be considered a positive factor because it means a large labor force, leading to high productivity, innovation and development. Instead, youths are viewed as a threat and a problem because governments are unable to create jobs, provide services and facilitate an environment conducive to investment, entrepreneurship and equal opportunities.
The frustration of the youth with the current poor education system, health services and job market is being projected in demonstrations, but it could also lead to radicalization and violence.
The frustration of the youth with the current poor education system, health services and job market is being projected in demonstrations
An April report by UNICEF on “MENA Generation 2030” indicated that, during the first half of the 21st century, an unprecedentedly large proportion of the population in the region will transition into their most productive years, opening up the potential for a demographic dividend — economic growth spurred by demographic changes. Currently, children and young people (up to age 24) account for nearly half of the region’s population and have the potential to become agents of change, acting for a more prosperous and stable future for themselves and their communities, according to the UNICEF report. However, unleashing this potential requires urgent and significant investment to create opportunities for meaningful learning, social engagement and work, all of which, stated the report, are currently limited, particularly for young women and the most vulnerable.
It is not only the MENA region that has to grapple with the issue of a large youth population that is seeking and demanding better living conditions and opportunities. The 57 Muslim countries of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), which includes the MENA nations, account for a quarter of the global youth population, estimated at 1.8 billion people between the ages of 10 and 24. By 2050, it could be a third. While this offers a great opportunity for OIC countries, it also makes them face critical challenges in utilizing this great potential.
According to the “State of Youth in OIC Member States 2017” report, these challenges include: Providing quality education and training; generating an adequate number of jobs and easing transition from education to the labor market; creating equal opportunities in skill formation and the job market for both males and females; promoting intergenerational social mobility for better standards of living; ensuring the active participation of the youth in society; and reducing the addictions of young people to harmful substances and behaviors.
The current state of affairs in the majority of OIC countries, however, reveals that a significant part of the youth population remains inactive and marginalized from policymaking and participation in political decision-making. We continue to “address” the youth and their “issues” instead of engaging them and integrating them into the decision-making process. The OIC-2025 Plan of Action emphasized the need for youth capacity-building and guided engagement in critical sectors of economic growth, peace and security, human rights and entrepreneurship. The OIC also adopted a youth strategy in 2018 that identified 11 priority areas: Education, employment, social inclusion, extremism, entrepreneurship, health services, marriage, engagement and civil society, cultural challenges and globalization, migration and integration, and environment.
A significant fact to consider is that this “demographic youth bulge” is taking place at a time when a technological revolution is shaping both the present and the future with youth at the helm. These two forces, demography and technology, are influencing young people’s expectations for the free flow of information, accountable political systems and equality of opportunities, among other things. No wonder that curtailing their use of social media could trigger mass protests.
The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals make integrating the role of young people in public affairs key to promoting peaceful and inclusive societies, access to justice for all, and effective, inclusive and accountable institutions at all levels.
Young men and women around the world are today active on environmental issues, human rights and social engagement and development, and they are using technology in ways that were not known before. It is important to create an enabling environment that could harness their energy and potential for the growth of their communities, rather than continue in the old, impotent ways that could blow up in our face.
Maha Akeel is a Saudi writer based in Jeddah. Twitter: @MahaAkeel1