Isobel Coleman

Democracy in Development

Coleman maps the intersections between political reform, economic growth, and U.S. policy in the developing world.

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Youth Unemployment in the Middle East and North Africa

by Isobel Coleman
June 13, 2013

Graph by author. Data are from ILO's Global Employment Trends for Youth 2013 report. Regional data are from ILO's 2012 preliminary estimates; U.S. and E.U. data are from the OECD's second quarter 2012 data. Graph by author. Data are from ILO's Global Employment Trends for Youth 2013 report. Regional data are from ILO's 2012 preliminary estimates; U.S. and E.U. data are from the OECD's second quarter 2012 data.


As the graph above makes painfully clear, the Middle East and North Africa face significant challenges when it comes to youth unemployment. A World Economic Forum report from 2012 notes, “Unemployment in the MENA region is the highest in the world…and largely a youth phenomenon.”

I’ve previously highlighted troubling tends in youth employment, including students whose lack of soft skills preclude them from employment, employers’ dissatisfaction with the education levels of the workforce in GCC countries, and young Tunisians’ disillusionment with the opportunities available in their country and accompanying desire to emigrate.

The Middle East and North Africa are not alone in terms of a serious lack of opportunity for many young people. In the second quarter of 2012, the economically troubled European Union had a youth unemployment rate of 22.6 percent, as opposed to the OECD-wide average of 16.2 percent. Portugal had 38.7 percent youth unemployment, and Spain and Greece had staggering rates of 52.4 percent and 54.2 percent respectively. By contrast, the United States had 16.3 percent youth unemployment and Germany’s youth employment was an enviable 8.2 percent.

While some have raised issues with the way that these eye-popping European numbers are calculated (suggesting that the real rate is more like half of the headline numbers–but that’s still very high), there is little doubt that many youth—particularly in the MENA region and the struggling European economies—are losing out on economic opportunities, and consequently, hindering their lifetime earning potential.

How should countries tackle youth unemployment? It’s an immense challenge, requiring solutions that will, at their best, involve private, public, and nonprofit sectors. Germany and Spain’s labor ministers should be praised for their pragmatism in brokering a deal that will give apprenticeships in Germany to some 5,000 unemployed Spanish young people yearly—a move that is also a win for Germany, which needs additional qualified employees as its labor pool shrinks.

Nonprofits are also pursuing interesting innovations with respect to tackling youth unemployment. LivelyHoods in Kenya, for instance, trains young people from Kenyan slums to sell useful products in their communities (e.g. solar lamps); the training includes vital business skills like customer service and financial literacy. In the Middle East and North Africa, Education for Employment connects young people to employers and also trains young people on finding jobs and on the soft skills that employers value. The organization has had particularly impressive results in high-unemployment Tunisia, where it began working in 2012: it has since graduated more than 540 Tunisians from its training programs and found employment for all of those in its job placement training program. The challenge, of course, is scaling up these initiatives.

Programs like these are particularly important because high levels of youth unemployment—in addition to limiting young people’s life prospects—stand to affect political trends, especially in countries that are transitioning to democratic rule. In a forthcoming book that I co-edited, Pathways to Freedom: Political and Economic Lessons From Democratic Transitions, one important takeaway is the critical role that inclusive economic development plays in sustaining democratic transitions. Libya’s plan to put billions of dollars towards funds that small and medium-sized businesses can access—in an explicit effort to create jobs—could help promote democratization there, especially if implemented in a transparent manner.

Post a Comment 3 Comments

  • Posted by Ahmed Safar

    Dear Isobel Colmen,

    Very interesting brief analysis of the real economic and employment challenges ahead of Arab countries (and those in transition especially!!).

    In my opinion, not enough “reliable” data/information is available to decision makers in these countries – I know this is the fact in Libya at least! – therefore, the question will always be a one of facts and figures? Policies and policy options are only good as far as the intelligence on which they are based.

    I am particularly interested in Libya’s initiative to boost SMEs development through a multiple Islamic fund(s) approach. Certainly, serious money will be thrown in them. I am just worried that this could end up with money thrown at the underlying root causes that you touched base upon!?

    I would appreciate a response!


  • Posted by Ricardo Tavares

    Thanks to Isabel Coleman for building such a meaninful graph on youth unemployment. We have much to learn about how to address this issue. Government policies are key. Reducing employment taxes on youth´s first employment has also worked well to encourage business to hire. International businesses operating in the MENA region cannot ignore this dramatic situation.

  • Posted by Isobel Coleman

    Thank you for your comment and for following along with the blog. The issue of reliable data is a crucial one, as it prevents policymakers, investors, and others from accurately understanding the challenges a country faces and that country’s economic position. Governments in transition and foreign and domestic NGOs would do well to make gathering and publicizing reliable data an immediate priority. Of course, political priorities can also distort reported data:

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