Obama Must Create Jobs in the Middle East Too

By L. Michael Hager

A newly-released report calls attention to a potential burgeoning jobs crisis in the Middle East that could seriously damage future prospects for the region's young people. Entitled "Missed by the Boom, Hurt by the Bust," the report by the Middle East Youth Initiative of the Wolfensohn Center for Development at the Brookings Institution and the Dubai School of Government suggests the region's young people, already facing high rates of unemployment and deteriorating job quality, could see their futures sharply compromised as a result of the global economic downturn.

As President Obama prepares to address Muslims, a region in transformation and the world at large from Cairo next month, he would do well to make youth a major theme.

We know that youth employment is a vital component of stable societies and representative governments. Most importantly, we know that jobless youth are vulnerable to social ills, including crime and extremism.

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Indeed, U.S. Director of National Intelligence Dennis C. Blair stated to Congress earlier this year that "instability caused by the global economic crisis ha[s] become the biggest security threat facing the United States, outpacing terrorism."

The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) countries already have the highest percentage of youth unemployment in the world: more than one in four young people there are out of work, a jobless rate that is crippling an entire generation's ability to be productive members of healthy, prosperous societies. To make matters worse, as the Brookings report notes, the global economic slowdown coincides with "demographic pressures reaching their historic high" in the region.

More than half of the MENA population is under age 24, and the search for jobs among fresh graduates has become a labor of frustration.

The World Bank estimates that 80 to 100 million new positions must be created by 2020 in the MENA region alone. The humanitarian agency Mercy Corps has coined the term "silent disaster" to describe the youth challenge.

Not many young people who join Al Qaeda or other terrorist entities would say that a job would have kept a gun or a bomb out of their hands. However, employment is a source of self-respect, dignity and hope -- as well as livelihood. For graduates of secondary school, vocational academies and universities, jobs are a bulwark against despair and violence -- and a hopeful stake in the future.

As Faycal, a young Moroccan, said: "We don't ask for a lot in this life. We just ask for a job." Yet the reality is that increasing numbers of young people in the region are graduating from school without the right skills for the modern economy.

Before the current recession, a leading industrialist in Morocco told me that he could "double or triple" his 12,000-strong labor force if he had the right job candidates. Throughout the region, employers are looking for skilled workers, but their expansionist goals are mostly on hold for lack of qualified personnel. Meanwhile, growing legions of young people, unprepared for the 21st century's globalized economy, find themselves in a state of "waithood."

Organizations like the US-based Education For Employment Foundation (EFE) can help respond to the crisis. Working through its independent affiliate foundations in the Middle East and North Africa, EFE is creating market-driven, relevant job training and job opportunities for unemployed youth, empowering young leaders, encouraging the growth of local businesses, and catalyzing job-oriented educational reform on a regional level.

The current economic environment, however, demands more.

In his Cairo address, President Obama should take his cue from the Brookings report and urge governments to jump-start employment through public works. "Labor-intensive public works programs which are in line with long term development goals" would not only "provide temporary wage employment for vulnerable people," but also build skills for the future income-earning generation and emerging industries.

The President should remind his audience of the Great Depression era Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and Works Progress Administration (WPA). These two U.S. Government programs gave jobs and job skills to some 12 million Americans at a time - like this - of acute national and international need. The CCC placed young men from unemployed families in countryside camps where they were paid to do outdoor construction work. The larger WPA, open to anyone who needed a job, built many public buildings and roads, operated arts, drama, media and literacy projects and redistributed food, clothing and housing.

Providing such wide-scale employment in the Middle East could open unprecedented horizons to a generation hungry for opportunity. By encouraging Middle Eastern governments to make such investments, President Obama can help swell the ranks of young people in the region like EFE graduate Rami of Gaza, once chronically unemployed and now an accountant with one the largest construction and engineering companies in the Middle East. "Now I have a job," says Rami, "Now I have my life."

L. Michael Hager is President of the Education For Employment Foundation, a non-profit organization based in Washington, DC.

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