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Youth challenges in the MENA region

November 4, 2014 at 1:52 pm

Prof Emma Murphy is the Head of School in the School of Government and International Affairs, University of Durham

In September 2014, Arab labour ministers met with representatives of the ILO, trade unions and employers’ organisations at the Arab Labour Conference in Cairo. Their debates revolved around the alarming increase in unemployment in recent years, with young people being particularly at risk as economies fail to grow sufficiently fast or in sectors which can accommodate the growing number of labour market entrants every year. In fact, participants argued that economic growth rates were declining in part because of the acute rise in youth unemployment since 2010 which lowers productivity and reduces demand.

It seems to be a vicious cycle and, while rising youth unemployment and underemployment is to some extent a global phenomenon, the MENA region seems particularly hard hit. The ILO’s Global Employment Trends for Youth 2013 (ILO, 2013) identified the Middle East as having the highest youth unemployment rate of all regions, at 28.3%in 2012 and expected to rise to 30.0% in 2018. In North Africa the corresponding rates were 23.7 and 24% respectively, to be contrasted with a global youth unemployment rate of 12.4% in 2012 , projected to rise to 12.8% by 2018.

It is not surprising then, that the policy-making have become increasingly obsessed with targeted policy-interventions in this area, often both financially and politically supported by international funding organisations like the World Bank and IMF. In a region known for its cultural preferences for age and seniority, youth are today taking centre stage.

All to the good you may say, not least since unemployment and under-employment are known to have long-term scarring effects, including poverty, social exclusion and perhaps most importantly according to the ILO report, ” in terms of the current young generation’s distrust in the socio-economic and political systems” (ILO: 2013, 2). The protests of the Arab Spring cannot be attributed solely to the frustrated ambitions of young people eager to achieve the material independence and personal autonomy that accompany secure employment (and there is no evidence of direct correlation between unemployment rates and political instability anyway), but they did foreground the scale and severity of the problem, reinforcing the dire projections of an entire lost generation (ILO, 2010). Surely we are making progress when what has been termed the deficit model of identifying youth with the negative attributes and pathologies of adolescence (stress, rebellion, immaturity) and which characterised national Arab policies towards youth for decades, has been replaced with a positive development model that stresses instead the rights and opportunities which will enable youth to make the most of their potential competences?

But look for one moment at the policy-prescriptions which international agents such as the World Bank, the ILO, the UN and the WEF are putting forward as the route out of impending (if not actual) disaster. In diagnosing the roots of the MENA’s exceptional problem, the IMF for example, identifies five fundamental problems: the demographic transition (growth in the size of the youth labour force), the skills mismatch, labour market rigidities, inflated public sectors and high reservation wages. The prescription; to improve the responsiveness of the labour market to changing economic conditions by improving labour market flexibility, fostering market competition, realigning schools curricula with private-sector needs, strengthening the link between performance and compensation in the public sector, reducing the size of the public sector overall, supporting private-sector activity through macro-economic policies, and introducing or scaling up effective training programmes and ‘turning the labour force into an asset” (IMF, 2012). Development in this model is defined as individuals making a successful school-to-work transition and youth as a social category becomes a ‘universalising and depoliticising euphemism that obscures real differences of political interest and ideology’ (Sukarieh and Tannock, 20155). Arab youth is understood as little more than an economic resource in the relentless expansion of global capitalism. More worryingly, the underlying assertion remains that it is largely the job of Arab youth themselves to remedy the problem by being more educated, more trained, more entrepreneurial and more flexible, the job of policy-makers being to provide the opportunities for them to do so. When the results are less than satisfactory, neo-liberal think tanks still point to Arab youth themselves as the root cause of failure: take the assertion of the Centre for International Private Enterprise that young Tunisians “don’t see themselves as entrepreneurs. They still expect to find something ‘more stable’, and they are less likely to invest or try to expand their businesses” (CIPE, 2013).

One can argue that the neo-liberal prescriptions of international organisations concentrate disproportionately on the supply-side aspects of youth employment. Of course, it is true that Arab education systems have done little to prepare youths for the demands of employers other than the inflated and under-productive public bureaucracies. It is also true, that their past welfarist development models have often created wage and conditions expectations which cannot be met by either decaying industrial infrastructures, shrinking agriculture, or more globally-integrated but low added-value productive sectors. Promoting vocational and entrepreneurial skills training is not a bad thing in itself, but adjusting the workforce to create a skills-match with what jobs there are will never, in itself, be enough to move the bulk of the unemployed (and under-employed) into work, or more importantly perhaps into the kind of high-quality, formal, fixed-contract work which brings with it the regular pay and entitlements that in turn create confident, tax-paying, bought-in citizens. Already, the MENA region is characterised by very visible non-standard employment, including informal and even black-market jobs, casual day labour and abusive work practices. The phenomenon of ‘churning’ between low-pay-no-pay jobs which is evident in the poorer socio-economic strata of the post-industrial global North, has its own less structured variation in developing countries where individuals float between inactivity, informal economic activity and – less often – formal economic activity. There are neither opportunities nor incentives for full social inclusion and the limited scope in most Arab countries for a genuine and effective political voice completes the nullification of the social contract. In this sense, to focus on unemployed youth is to turn the policy-makers’ gaze away from the fact that this is a widespread, trans-generational phenomenon which results from widespread state failures in terms of building demand for a high-quality labour force. Ironically, while the World Bank may be right to argue that MENA countries must redefine their social contracts in terms of social, economic and political rights and responsibilities of both citizens and the state, the continuing promotion of a neo-liberal reform agenda in itself is unlikely to produce the levels of economic growth or the kind of employment demand profiles which can lift the region out of its current crisis.

To put it starkly, what use are vocational training and entrepreneurial skills to a young Egyptian when he or she still has to contend with deeply entrenched corruption, bureaucratic strangulation, and economically self-interested elites who subvert liberalisation and privatisation processes for their own privileged self-enrichment. Economic liberalisation packages which attract low-cost, low value-added, foreign investment into politically unstable environments characterised by an absence of governance, accountability and transparency will not lead to hundreds of thousands of jobs, let alone jobs which offer employee fulfilment and career trajectory. Rather, a

more flexible labour market on these terms is rather more likely to draw some part of the Arab labour force into what has been termed the new, global precariat, implying a precarious economic and social existence as a normal state of living (Standing, 2011), compounding the social malaise associated with the remaining unemployed and underemployed workforce. In sum, the problems of the Arab countries, which have endured stagnating growth rates for a prolonged period and even now are not yet returned to pre-Arab Spring growth levels, are too deep-rooted, too pervasive, too structural to be resolved by liberalising adjustment programmes alone. The crisis of unemployment, whether of youth or of wider populations, is deepening at a faster pace than economies are restructuring. It is too linked in to the structural position of the regional economies within a global context, including the inhibiting impacts of weak external demand, rising food and fuel import prices and the possibilities (and problems) of labour migration.

A bolder, more imaginative cross-regional programme of action, supported by external agents, is urgently needed; a programme which addresses demand and supply-side together, which considers not just national but regional and intra-regional labour markets as part of a global whole, and which acknowledges the limitations and frailties of labour markets in regions with historically distortionary development strategies. Some neo-liberal reforms may still be a necessary part of the long-term equation, but on their own they are insufficient and will not deliver the jobs in time to stave off destabilisations of far greater magnitude than anything seen thus far.


Prof Emma Murphy is the Head of School in the School of Government and International Affairs, University of Durham

She has filled a variety of University roles including Deputy Head of Faculty (2002-05), Chair of Senate Academic Appeals Committee (2009-) and Honorary President of Durham University Charities Kommittee (2006-). She was a trustee and Secretary for the Universities Educational Trust for Palestine (1995-8), a member of the Board of Trustees for the Council for British Research on the Levant (2007-10) and a member of the Executive Committee of the UK Council for Graduate Education (2005-6). She was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts and Manufacturing (2000) and an Academician of the Academy of Social Sciences (2009). She is also co-editor of the journal Mediterranean Politics.


Ahmed, M (2012), Youth Unemployment in the MENA Region: Determinants and Challenges, International Monetary Fund, Washington DC. http:/www/, accessed 15/10/2014.

Standing, G. (2011), The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class, Bloomsbury London.

CIPE (2013), “The Youth Unemployment Crisis in Tunisia“, CIPE Development Blog,, accessed on 31 October 2014.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.