Youth unemployment in Mena soars to more than 25 per cent

Joblessness among the young in the Arab world increased last year, as civil unrest hurt economic activity throughout the region.

Young men at the beach near the port of Zarzis, Tunisia. 01/05/2011. Photo: Lindsay Mackenzie.
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Unemployment is often cited as one cause of the Arab Spring. New data shows the unrest has now made the problem even worse.

Joblessness among youths in the Arab world rose to more than 25 per cent last year as civil unrest crippled economic activity in some countries.

Unemployment among young people in North Africa jumped five percentage points, to 27.9 per cent from the year earlier, a report by the International Labour Organization (ILO) showed yesterday.

In the Middle East, unemployment also rose, to 26.5 per cent.

“North Africa and the Middle East stand out in terms of their overall unemployment problem and these are the only two regions where the unemployment rate exceeded 10 per cent in 2011 for the population aged 15 and above,” the ILO wrote in the Global Employment Trends for Youth report, which gauges joblessness among those between 15 and 24 years old.

Globally, the report found the number of youths out of work had risen to 12.7 per cent last year as a result of the global financial crisis.

But the problem is most acute in the Arab world, where joblessness among the young remains higher than elsewhere worldwide.

Last year’s rise reflected huge upheavals caused to several economies in the region by protests against rulers. Frequent strikes in Egypt, Tunisia, Jordan, Bahrain and elsewhere caused factories to close, while businesses were also hit by a decrease in the number of tourists and foreign investors.

“North Africa was relatively resilient to the global economic crisis but following the Arab Spring economic growth decreased and the youth unemployment rate increased sharply,” according to the report.

Ratios of youth-to-adult unemployment in the Arab world were especially worrying, it said.

One of the original sparks of uprisings in Egypt, Tunisia and elsewhere was unhappiness among young people about employment and prospects for the future.

Khalid Al Yahya, an assistant professor of Arab public policy at the Dubai School of Government, said the real youth unemployment figure may be even higher than reported.

“There are people employed in jobs [who] are not being paid, and also, there’s an issue of people in jobs that do not match their skills but are unable to access the right jobs as the economy has weakened and the structure of power is still in the hands of the old regime,” he said.

For many governments, the events of the Arab Spring have heightened the existing job creation challenge.

Egypt and Jordan are fighting to plug budget deficits of more than 9 per cent of GDP this year, squeezing the amount of spare cash to create jobs. At the same time, governments are also facing pressure to continue costly subsidies on basic goods and services.

To help to ease the pressure on governments, they need to team up with the private sector to stimulate the jobs market, said Hatem Samman, a director and the lead economist at Booz & Company’s Ideation Center, the firm’s think tank for the Middle East.

“For many years, the public sector has been viewed as the employer of first and last resort, and the private sector has played a smaller role,” he said. “One of the ways to change that is to get businesses more involved in the education system in terms of shaping the curriculum to help it fit with their demand for skills and creating internships.”

The ILO said the number of young people out of work globally had risen by 4 million since 2007.

“The youth unemployment crisis can be beaten but only if job creation for young people becomes a key priority in policy making and private-sector investment picks up significantly,” said Jose Manuel Salazar-Xirinachs, the executive director of the ILO employment sector.

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