Guest post by William S. Reese
William Reese is president and CEO of the International Youth Foundation, working across nearly 80 countries, including Egypt, Jordan, and Palestine, to prepare young people to lead healthy, productive, and engaged lives. This post first appeared Feb. 2 in International Youth Foundation’s Viewpoint.
Look closely at the faces of protesters surging into the streets of Cairo and other cities in the Arab world and you’ll see that many of them are strikingly young.
Their passionate demands for freedom, democracy and an end to corruption and autocratic rule ring out loud and clear. Yet only when we look at the cold hard numbers of youth unemployment and social marginalization in the region can we fully understand the powerful underlying causes driving these young people to topple their government.
It’s critical to know that in Egypt — a country of 78 million people — the median age is 24. The vast majority of these Egyptian youth are struggling to find a job, support their families, and help shape the future of their country. Their failure to realize these aspirations is now bubbling over. Finding a job is particularly difficult. It is estimated that one in four of Egypt’s young men and nearly 60% of its young women can’t find work. Often, it is the best educated who are having the most difficult time. Some 700,000 new university graduates in Egypt every year are chasing fewer than 200,000 jobs. So even those young people fortunate enough to find employment have to settle for jobs that in no way correspond to their qualifications or aspirations.
This issue of economic marginalization, coupled with the often brutal suppression of young people’s voices in the public sphere, helped spark the original uprising in Tunisia a little more than a month ago, which has since spread. The appalling spectacle of an unemployed 26-year-old Tunisian street vendor committing suicide in front of a government building — by setting himself on fire — helped crystallize the utter frustration and growing despair of his entire generation. His action sparked a revolution against Tunisia’s repressive and corrupt leaders who were forced to flee the country – events that helped mobilize and embolden thousands of young people in Egypt who today are demanding real change in a country where few thought change was possible.
While the current events in the Middle East appear to have taken the government by surprise, its leaders cannot plead ignorance of these pressing problems. Countless studies and reports highlight the historically high levels of joblessness and marginalization among young people in the region. We know, for example, that no fewer than 90% of Egypt’s unemployed are between the ages of 15 and 29; that nearly a third of Tunisia’s college graduates can’t find employment; and that at least 35% of Palestinian youth are out of work. We also know, from a recent assessment of a dozen low-income communities in Jordan, that one in five young people in those neighborhoods can’t find jobs; that the level of young people’s participation in civic activities is shockingly low — less than 4% in some places; and that the majority of social services do not come close to meeting the particular needs of their ever growing youthful population. In part as a response to that report, Jordan has launched its largest initiative to date to address these social and economic issues and further empower its youth.
Nor can today’s government leaders and policy makers argue that they don’t know what the solutions are to the rising levels of frustration and anger among their country’s young people. Time and again, innovative and comprehensive job training programs for unemployed youth — from the Middle East to Latin America to Europe — have demonstrated real success when they combine life skills such as teamwork and problem solving with practical job skills; when they work with local companies to ensure the training matches local business needs; when internships and job placement assistance are a required part of the program.
The result: more youth are finding jobs — and keeping them. Likewise, we’ve seen how effective programs that engage young people as active citizens in their communities, and boost their leadership skills, have lessened the violence and empowered this younger generation to press for positive change in their societies. Many of these young people are now launching their own efforts to solve the toughest problems we face — from saving the environment to promoting religious tolerance to creating jobs.
Describing his autocratic rulers, one protester in Egypt said: “They have closed all the doors of hope.” In other words, they have closed the door to young people’s deepest yearnings to shape their own economic and political futures.
Something enormously powerful has been unleashed across the Arab world. But governments everywhere should be on notice that they can no longer ignore their countries’ young people. They want their voices to be heard and they want a real commitment to respond to their ideas for concerted and sustained investments in their futures. That’s how to prevent violent upheavals and social unrest. Just ask President Mubarak.