In Amman, the beautiful, calm capital of Jordan, the three-day Youth@Work conference attracted many diverse organizations across the MENA region – and the globe – with a shared interest in youth development, each with their own perspective. On the first day, everyone was up early and excited, networking in every possible way. From government organizations to local authorities to young and mature NGOs across the world, all were passionately sharing their stories of change.
It’s no surprise that this gathering is taking place now — at a time when the region is experiencing dramatic growth in its youth population, leaving 40% of young people unemployed, their potential wasted. This also comes at the expense of youth exclusion from sustained economic growth and social participation. What was interesting was the way many of the speakers, including Franck Bousquet of The World Bank and Nader Ghazal (Mayor of Tripoli), focused on the role of cities, municipalities, and local authorities. Far from the classic notion of being simple local service providers, they think local governments should become comprehensive and active players in pursuing what they called “triangular/rectangular strategies” and private-public partnerships. I was glad to hear that this has already been applied in Nouakchott, Aleppo, and Tripoli. These could become case studies for others who are looking to follow. “Cities are the main engine of growth,” Franck confirmed.
Egypt was immensely present through Egyptian speakers, participants, and references to its role as a large country with diverse initiatives for youth development. Unemployment is a serious problem in Egypt. In 2012, there are about 3.5 million unemployed in the nation, compared to 2 million in 1989 (as mentioned by a Egyptian municipal official in the conference). Personally, I think the numbers are much higher on the ground.
Haneen El Sayed talked about jobs and skills in the MENA region, barriers of entry for those who are kept out of the workforce, and proposed a short-term strategy for organizations and communities to adopt alongside their long-term strategy. The focus of the short-term strategy is to leverage dialogue with new social actors and investing in access to information and data, which I personally think is very important. My social project is all about advocating for free access to information and the production of information. Mohamed El Toujri of the Arab League talked about the importance of statistics and emphasized that studies in the Arab region are slow, resulting in obsolete data when they are published. He underscored the need to have accurate numbers, as they serve as our only way of truly understanding present gaps and focusing on the right problems.
Toujri also addressed a point I think is most important in youth development and that’s about creating jobs instead of waiting for them to be created. As an aspiring social entrepreneur, I guess this is the era of start-ups and entrepreneurship! It’s already the trend now in Egypt and Jordan with many events focusing on developing the skills of those who wants to start a new business. Many incubators have emerged with seed funding made increasingly available. Those who were successful in converting their ideas into businesses not only created jobs for themselves but for others – becoming producers rather than consumer of jobs.
“SMEs (small and medium enterprises) are the basis of economic growth,” Al Toujri added. That’s no surprise given that (according to Al Toujri) SMEs provided 55% of job opportunities in the U.S. Also, starting a small business doesn’t require a high degree of education. Many of the world’s most successful businesses were started by individuals who dropped out of universities (Mark Zuckerburg of Facebook, Michel Dell of Dell, Steve Jobs of Apple, etc.).
The conference was a huge opportunity for a lot of organizations and individuals to learn about others who are interested in youth issues and how they can learn, cooperate, and integrate in various ways. I am delighted to know that the next event in this series will focus exclusively on entrepreneurship. At the end, there were a lot of questions and certainly no easy answers, but, simply speaking, this was a massively exciting learning experience.