In the early 2000s, youth in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region became a focus of intense research and policy discussion. At the time, the region had the highest youth population shares in the world, as well as the highest rates of youth unemployment. These two factors generated a sense of urgency among policymakers regarding the need to create enough jobs to absorb the incoming flux of young workers. However, despite concerted policy efforts, by 2010, the region had failed to improve employment outcomes for its youthful population. Youth frustration grew over their social, economic, and political exclusion, exploding in 2011 into protests across the region.
Today, MENA countries have reduced their focus on youth employment, prioritizing security concerns over political and economic reforms. Although the demographic “youth bulge” that underpinned the call to action a decade ago persists and the window of opportunity it created remains open, the crest of the demographic wave has passed in most MENA countries. International attention has shifted to Sub-Saharan Africa as the region with the largest population share of youth. Indeed, the policy response to the 2016 Arab Human Development Report, which focused on youth, was remarkably weak. Yet, the challenges facing MENA youth today are as stark as ever, exacerbated by low rates of economic growth, curtailed political freedoms, and diminished opportunities for migration. There is an urgent need to assess past policy failures and to reenergize efforts to address the youth employment challenge.
This policy briefing provides a regional analysis of youth employment in the MENA region. It highlights the challenges facing young people and reviews key youth employment research, policy, and programmatic initiatives launched over the past two decades. While every MENA country has its own unique circumstances, this policy briefing notes that youth employment is a key issue shared by countries across the region. Prescribed policy and programmatic solutions also have been similar across MENA countries, along with sources of failure. This policy briefing highlights areas where these efforts fell short in order to formulate a renewed regional call to action.