Youth unemployment in the Middle East and North Africa is the highest in the world. Soraya Salti believes the Arab Spring has shown governments that this is not only a question of economics, but also “the biggest national security issue”. After ten years driving the expansion of INJAZ Al-Arab’s youth entrepreneurship programs, Salti is passionate about the future and providing opportunities for youth, young women especially, to seize their independence.
Why the focus on young people and entrepreneurship?
Well, the region has the highest youth unemployment globally – 46.6 percent for females and 20.7 percent for males. If you look at the demographics, 200 out of 350 million in the MENA region are youth. There are two huge waves that are going to enter the labor market. They realize that their education systems have failed them, and the first tranche that entered – well, the Arab Spring – is only the tip of the iceberg. The needs are extreme and urgent, and have been for the last decade. One way to tackle the issue, which has now risen to the top of the agenda, is through entrepreneurship education and start-up creation. If you look at the labor market numbers in the region, it took 50 years to create 50 million jobs, and the region needs 100 million jobs by 2020 – that was a World Bank estimate.
Existing companies do not have the capacity – nor do governments – to generate the types of jobs needed. The only remaining underdeveloped segment of our economy is con- nected to start-ups and entrepreneurship. In the West, you see that SMEs usually employ around 75 percent of the labor market. In our region, it’s only 30 percent. So there’s huge potential for growth, especially for females. We see it programmatically as well – they understand that government jobs, once their number one priority, no longer exist, after a big wave of privatization in the last decade. They realize that due to population demographics governments are no longer hiring – they can’t cope with the influx of graduates – and the private sector discriminates against them. So their only avenue for economic inclusion is entrepreneurship, and we see that reflected very, very strongly in the motivation of young females we work with. They take the entrepreneurship experience and opportunity we give them as a raison d’etre. They put their hearts and souls completely into it.
Given your decade-long experience dealing with regional youth, did you see the Arab Spring approaching on the horizon?
Well it has been a steady, systematic awakening. When I first started in 2001 none of the demographic reports were out. But then in 2003 the World Bank report was so clear, saying there’s a huge youth bulge and all the youth will require employment – progressively the tension and issue became more and more severe until the Arab Spring took place. So of course we were very aware, because we had been following the issue very closely on the ground. However, saying it is one thing, and actually seeing it happen is another. There was an impetus for youth to go out into the streets – it could happen, and we were talking about it, but for it to actually happen – we wanted to say “I told you so” but we weren’t ready for it either!
Have you found in the period since that there is more interest from governments, both within and outside the region, in what you are doing?
Absolutely. A big shift – I think it was a moment of awaken- ing for governments, that the biggest national security issue is unemployment. In the short-term, we have been looked upon as a solution provider – by the Jordanian government, by the Saudi government, by the Bahraini government. It’s made our life a lot easier in a way, because so much of our effort went into piloting, and proof of concept, and convincing ministries of education to really take us seriously and invest and give us the access we need. At least now that part is over – they no longer need convincing. It’s very clear. Those coming to the table know exactly why they’re coming, whereas before we had to tell them why. The other part of it is that we see the demand, and need to work out how to cope and scale up. That requires us to rethink our model, our strategy – how we’re going to move at a much faster pace to remain relevant.
By Alexis Kalagas
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