Review criticises UK’s Middle East youth employment programmes

Britain has already faced censure this year over its controversial decision to cut £4bn of overseas aid

The UK’s aid spending watchdog has rated the country's approach to youth unemployment in the Middle East as "unsatisfactory" over the past six years.

Since 2015, the UK has spent £2.4 billion ($3.3bn) on 115 aid projects across the Middle East and North Africa to promote employment opportunities for young people in a bid to curb the threat of extremism.

A review published on Thursday by the Independent Commission for Aid Impact assessed 19 of the projects in Jordan, Tunisia, Lebanon, Turkey and Egypt.

It made five recommendations on how the UK's Foreign Office can improve its impact on youth unemployment in the region, including for women and vulnerable people.

It said employment-related programmes should clearly articulate how they expect to create jobs and encourage economic development.

"While half of the programmes in our sample cited reducing fragility as an objective, the evidence linking job creation for young people and improved political or social stability is weak, and the impact of the programmes on fragility is not being monitored or assessed," it said.

"In particular, a link between youth unemployment and violent extremism is often assumed in donor programming, but is not supported by the evidence. Only two of the 19 programmes in our sample (in Lebanon and Yemen) had attempted to monitor changes in community attitudes; both found a positive impact on social cohesion."

The review recommended the Foreign Office take action to tackle specific barriers to employment faced by target groups.

It said employment-related programmes should be shaped by gender and the Foreign Office should routinely consult with the young people expected to benefit.

It also urged the Foreign Office to strengthen its in-country partnerships with multilateral organisations.

Commissioner Tarek Rouchdy said it was important that the UK accepted the recommendations, especially those regarding women.

“Youth unemployment is a complex challenge with no simple solutions," he said.

"There are some positive findings in this report on UK aid’s approach to youth unemployment in Mena, in particular the work with the World Bank and the Arab Women’s Enterprise Fund.

"However, there are areas requiring attention for the UK to contribute towards positive impact on the issue. Given that Mena is a region of strategic importance to the UK, and that youth employment is a major challenge across the region, with around a quarter of people aged 15 to 24 in the labour market unemployed, and particularly young women, it is important that the Foreign Office accepts the recommendations in this review.

“In addition, while youth employment has not been a major priority for UK aid in Mena recently, a significant number of active programmes include objectives around employing young people in the region.

"With the forthcoming UK government Mena strategy expected to emphasise economic growth and job creation, it is important to learn lessons from past programming.”

The commission said there were some successful interventions to support entrepreneurs and small and medium-sized enterprises as well as strong, short-term results from cash-for-work programmes.

However, it said there were relatively "weak" employment results for large, refugee-focused programmes, principally because of weak design and not taking adequate account of refugee needs.

The review also criticised how the programme supported women.

"Youth employment is a major challenge across the region: around a quarter of young people are unemployed, compared with 14 per cent globally. Young women are particularly affected," the commission said.

"The report did not find sufficient effort to tackle cultural barriers to youth employment, especially for women, for whom social and cultural norms are often the prime barrier to employment in many countries in Mena.

"Where the UK had invested in these barriers, programmes had demonstrated success, for example the Arab Women’s Enterprise Fund. Whilst many programmes cited improving stability in the region as an objective, ICAI noted that the evidence linking job creation for young people and improved political or social stability is weak.

"We found many examples where project annual reviews had repeatedly recommended action on gender, without follow-up. A focus on male-biased employment types and a failure to target cultural barriers to female inclusion are key reasons behind weak employment outcomes for women."

The UK has already faced criticism this year over its controversial decision to cut £4bn of overseas aid.

Last week, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson was said to be considering a Parliamentary vote on the issue with a view to reversing it.

With reports of projects around the world being abruptly halted and lives endangered as a result, there is significant pressure on Mr Johnson to revise the decision.

The government has been criticised by a series of reports on the decision’s impact, highlighting issues such as women’s health, clean water, girls’ education, the humanitarian crises in Yemen and Syria and childhood polio vaccinations.

Britain is the only G7 member cutting its aid budget at a time when France, Germany and the US are increasing theirs, to reach or pass the 0.7 per cent level.

Updated: July 7th 2021, 11:01 PM