As 2016 ends, the Arab world find itself witnessing battles in the ancient cities of Mosul and Aleppo, with uncertain futures for Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Libya – and those are just the countries with active armed conflicts. Other parts of the region face the challenges of economic stagnation or internal unrest. And still, we must be careful not to discount those bright spots of innovation, civic action and enlightened leadership in various fields, as embodied by many Arabs including Hanan AlHroub, who won the Global Teacher Prize this year and Huda Zoghbi who was awarded this year’s Breakthrough Award for her scientific and medical research. Individual marks of achievement struggle under the weight of political and economic challenges in the Arab world.
While all sectors of society are affected by the developments of the Arab world, it is its young people, comprising two thirds of the region’s population, who are most impacted. Their futures are being determined by war, economic stagnation and displacement, making it difficult for many to be optimistic about their future. In a report issued last month, the UNDP urges empowering these very people to find their place in society today and take control of their futures. Entitled ‘Youth and the Prospects for Human Development in a Changing Reality’, the 274-page report urges ‘youth empowerment from a human development perspective’.
The report defines "the goal of development as the expansion of the choices and freedoms available to people to live in ways they want and value". These freedoms are not limited to freedom of expression or assembly, rather they are tied to enhancing prospects for children and young adults by giving them opportunities and basic services. How can we expect a young man or woman to contribute positively in society without basic education, health services and security? These essential goals are under threat, compounded by governance failures in too many instances.
The sixth Arab Human Development Report to be issued, this year’s publication does not present any surprises, however it does sound a warning that must be heeded. Given connectivity and technological advancement, "young people’s awareness of their capabilities and rights collides with a reality that marginalises them and blocks their pathways to express their opinions, actively participate or earn a living. As a result, instead of being a massive potential for building the future, youth can become an overwhelming power for destruction". Without a stake in their present or their future, young people can be drawn to destroying the existing structures, in search for an alternative reality.
‘Creating Opportunities’ (2002), ‘Knowledge Society’ (2003), ‘Towards Freedom’ (2004), ‘Rise of Women’ (2005), ‘Human Security’ (2009), and ‘Youth’ (2016), - these are the titles of the Arab Human Development reports issued by the UNDP thus far. The issues raised are indicators of the key headlines discussed for close to two decades when it comes to the region. Highlighting the problems facing the Arab world is a first crucial step. The real challenge rests in coming up with solutions and the political will to implement them.
The challenge of security is a real one. Home to 5% of the world’s population, the Arab region has suffered 45% of all terrorist attacks that occurred in 2014, according to the UNDP. Moreover, 47% of the world’s internally displaced people and 57.5% of all refugees are from the Arab World. However, these are exact reasons to enact, not excuses to postpone, reforms.
The 2016 Arab Human Development Report argues for three types of reform for youth to be truly empowered: inclusive macro policies representing the social compact between state and citizens; improvements in the availability and quality of services in specific sectors, such as health and education; and national youth policies that go beyond the partial and short-term approaches that are too often superficial and ineffective. These proposed reforms provide a promising way forward for youth empowerment across the region. Some specific considerations for the reform tracks could include:
An inclusive macro-economic framework
The report recommends that the macro-economic structure is inclusive and ensures the equal opportunity for all to participate in and benefit from the economy. Many of the countries across the Middle East are middle income countries. Therefore, when it comes to economic reforms, the challenge is not in filling state coffers, but in how to package those resources available in a national budget that articulates national priorities and programs to keep citizens and their interests at the forefront. Implementing reform in this area also means making state institutions transparent and accountable to citizens. This can be done, for example, through public financial management reforms; civil service trainings; and the right regulatory base conducive to private sector growth to ensure economic opportunities for all.
For countries in conflict, this set of reforms may seem more aspirational at the moment, but the basic principle of building transparent and accountable institutions should guide reconstruction efforts. Moreover, the commitment to these types of policies can provide a guiding principle towards peace and prosperity, where all sides have more to gain by ending war.
The role of the state – enabling service delivery
Much has been said and written about the ills of expecting the state to be the provider of employment and sustenance for young people in the Arab world. Indeed, the role of the state should be thought of more broadly than as just a provider of services and employment to citizens. How the state is equipped to deliver services in particular sectors, set the conditions for private sector activity, and engage with citizens will vary from country to country. The private sector has a significant role to play and in large part needs government regulations in order to play that role. Engagement and empowerment of a country’s citizens strengthens the state. A working social contract depends on citizens playing an active role. More consideration should be given to the health of the core functions of the state that enable service delivery, including for example, rule of law and public financial management.
However, the role of the state does not end here. It is key in developing a national identity, giving space to multiple identities, including that of religion and ethnicity, which will be discussed below.
As the report rightly recommends as a third track of reform, states need to find appropriate avenues for youth to provide input to—if not lead on developing—national, long-term, and meaningful plans giving youth a stake in that future.
Each of the Arab world’s 22 countries engaged in a global effort to come up with their own national agenda at meeting the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals – no more is the role of youth more vital. While each country in the region has its own distinctive circumstances, regional trends and interdependence means that a regional approach would allow young people to truly harness their potential and find reasons to cooperate and build a common future.
Identity and voice
Any young person, especially a teenager, struggles with his or her identity at a certain point. These questions are even more difficult to grapple with if a person’s national or religious identity is put under a microscope or under pressure– as is happening in many parts of the Arab world today. Add to this, close to 30% of young people are unemployed and not in full time education. Thus financial constraints and social exclusion are exacerbated. Identity is linked to employment, education and skill-building, and finding your place in society. Of course, identity is not solely attached to employment or economic assets, but these are two of several key facets that allow young people to feel a sense of belonging and a stake in their present and future. Allowing young people the space and freedom to develop their place in society, is key for the stability and prosperity of their countries.
All too often, statistics of the high rates of youth in the region are framed as a ‘challenge’, rather than an asset for the Arab world. This approach must be changed. One of the key takeaways from the report is that for the prosperity and security of the region, development needs to be generated by the energy and scale of the Arab world’s youth. According to UNDP, the ‘demographic momentum’ of the region, where a third of the population are under 15 years of age and another third 15-29, will last for two decades. Then it is expected to shift. Thus, the impetus on the countries of the region is to invest in this momentum, before it is lost or becomes a negative one.