Ensuring Arab Youth Have a Stake in the Future: A Call to Action

I'm pleased to share this byline with Martin Roeske, Chief Programs Officer at Silatech. For many years, our two organizations have joined forces working on behalf of youth in the Middle East and North Africa. In Amman, Jordan, we recently co-hosted a conference, Arab Youth Employment: Promoting Innovative Solutions to Longstanding Challenges, which focused on the powerful role of partnerships in scaling up successful youth employment initiatives in the region.

"You don't have to choose between launching innovative or traditional business start-ups," one promising entrepreneur from Jordan recently argued. "In our culture, we can do both at the same time." A young woman who just started her own social enterprise to improve the local environment responded: "Yes, but whatever we do, young people must take action ourselves to address this region's huge social and economic challenges, and not wait for governments or anyone else to do this for us."

This exchange between two young social entrepreneurs was part of a recent gathering in Amman, Jordan, that attracted nearly 500 business, government, civil society and youth leaders from the Middle East and North Africa. At the top of the agenda: to build momentum around the urgent need to expand job and entrepreneurship opportunities across the region. Today, unemployment among young Arab men and women is the highest in the world. Even more alarming, this jobless rate continues to rise across the region -- from 24 percent in 2009 to 29 percent in 2014 -- leaving millions more young people struggling to find a decent job, support their families, and lead a life with dignity.

Silatech and the International Youth Foundation have worked together for years in countries across the region, seeking new strategies and partners to reverse these shocking statistics. We share a deep commitment to ensure more Arab youth can reach their full potential and build their own futures and communities. For this reason, we co-sponsored the Amman conference to help identify and share programs and strategies that are already having a real and sustained impact on young people's lives. We also wanted to bring key actors together to mobilize resources to scale up these successful efforts -- and plan next steps to move this critical agenda forward.

The fact is these unacceptably high rates of unemployment among Arab youth are due to many complex factors, including years of adverse economic conditions, misguided educational initiatives and outdated systems. While some Arab countries have initiated successful solutions to the jobless crisis, including modernization of vocational education and investment funds designed to support youth programs, these steps, by and large, have been unable to address the much larger task of integrating Arab youth into the global job market economy. The status quo is simply not working, and the region's youth, and the rest of the world, continue to pay a terrible price.

While much remains to be done to tackle this urgent challenge, the Amman meeting was a healthy reminder that progress is being made. Listening to spirited young people describe their entrepreneurial successes and passion to lead change underscored for us the extent to which this younger generation is already at work to rebuild their communities, creating much needed jobs, and looking with hope toward the future.

Impressive strides are also being made on tough issues such as bridging the "skills gap" -- where the needs of the jobs marketplace don't necessarily match the skills young people are learning in schools or in vocational training programs. Today, there is a growing consensus that for young people to be successful they need to acquire life skills just as much, if not more, than technical or professional skills. That's true of young women and men trying to start their own businesses as well as those seeking to join the workforce. Teaching skills like teamwork, problem-solving, risk taking, communications, and project management is gaining a real foothold here in the Middle East and North Africa. As a result, more young people -- even those struggling to find employment with a college diploma -- are finding greater success.

We recognize that real progress -- on a regional or global scale -- will require systems change and a "new normal" in the ways schools (from middle schools to universities), training programs, and the private sector prepare young people for the jobs of the 21st Century. It will require all of us to scale up effective and sustainable initiatives that will benefit not hundreds or thousands but millions of young people. It will mean building an environment that supports experience, modernization, and mutual learning. And it will mean developing broad-based, multi-stakeholder partnerships determined to take action -- and committed to work together not just for the next two or three years, but for decades.

Creating economic opportunity and hope among today's young people is a daunting task both here in the Middle East and worldwide. But collaboration is where progress begins. Join us.

Martin Roeske is Chief Programs Officer at Silatech. Bill Reese is President and CEO of the International Youth Foundation.