Battling Extremism with Jobs

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As the U.S. spends billions fighting al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, we're now faced with a new front in Yemen - home of the Christmas day flight plotters. That foiled attack inspired Britain to host an international summit meeting last month on combating Islamic radicalization.

Compared with costly the combat missions conducted over the past nine years, actions to spur youth employment are a cost-effective alternative. As President Obama said in his Cairo speech last June, no development strategy can be sustained "while young people are out of work."

With more than 60% of its populations under age 24, the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region has the highest percentage of youth unemployment. At least one in four youth is jobless. In Yemen, a country of 23 million, the official youth unemployment rate is 34%.

Not many young persons who join al-Qaeda, the Taliban, Hezbollah or Hamas will acknowledge that a job would have kept a gun or a bomb out of their hands. Yet employment is a source of self-respect, dignity and hope - as well as livelihood. For the graduates of secondary and vocational schools and universities, gainful employment is a bulwark against despair and violence.

In the Arab countries, the highest youth unemployment rates are among university degree holders. There is a mismatch between formal education and the workplace. Arab schools and universities produce graduates with non-marketable degrees (such as literature or religious studies) or graduates with relevant degrees that are based on obsolete curricula. Furthermore, there is a universal call for "soft skills." As several Jordanian business leaders told me: "We often don't hire graduates of our universities because they don't know how to present themselves for a job or how to communicate effectively in a job."

Jobs searches by fresh graduates are frustrating and often fruitless exercises. A young Moroccan recently told one of my colleagues: "We don't ask for a lot in this life. We just ask for a job." The reality is that increasing numbers of school graduates lack the right skills to get a job in such cutting-edge sectors as information technology, sales and nursing.

As youth unemployment commands higher priority within national governments, the private sector and NGOs, it is time to ask how international donors can foster the creation of jobs in countries such as Yemen, where formal education is woefully deficient.

Here are four approaches that could work:

1. Educate for employment. Supply-driven education tends to produce graduates who lack marketable skills. Ministries of Education and Higher Education could implement employer-driven curricula, linking university and vocational education to business needs.

For the longer term, more resources should be devoted to primary education. As Greg Mortensen (Three Cups of Tea) has shown, more and better primary schools, especially in remote areas, pay huge dividends--opening opportunities for girls and giving communities pride and hope for the future.

2. Engage the private sector. A leading employer in Morocco told me that he could increase his 18,000 workforce by two or three times if he could find people with the right skills. A company can more effectively recruit its workforce and get credit for corporate citizenship when it offers skills training for first time job-seekers.

3. Train for the short term. The Education For Employment Foundation (EFE) and its autonomous affiliates in Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, West Bank/Gaza and Yemen have shown that tailor-made training courses for guaranteed jobs can turn unemployable graduates and school leavers into retainable employees and good citizens. Both technical and "soft skills" courses are potentially transformative as EFE graduates fill jobs ranging from air conditioner repair in Jordan to construction project management in the West Bank, sales in Morocco, banking in Egypt and accounting, marketing and HR development in Yemen. The EFE approach is to design and deliver training courses that produce skills for jobs that are pre-committed by the employer.

4. Design public works jobs. In such places as Gaza and remote regions of Yemen, private sector openings are scarce. With donor support, municipalities could place their unemployed youth in labor-intensive community projects that promote environment or public health. Such programs would not only provide temporary wage employment for vulnerable people, but also build skills for the future jobs in emerging industries.

Helping Arab countries such as Yemen educate their young for jobs will not only reduce extremist threats, but also contribute to a more favorable country image for the donors. It's a win-win.

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