Sunday, 13 December 2009

Small solutions to the big problem of jobless youth

Anyone who thinks that the Arab world does not produce works of horror cannot have read the series of Arab development reports published by the United Nations Development Programme, the Mohammed Bin Rashid Foundation and the Arab Thought Foundation. They tell tales of poverty, missed opportunity and stagnant development. Suffice it to say that at the rate we are going, we won’t be able to create the 100 million jobs the Arab world needs in the next decade to cater for the youth in the region.

Passed over by the boom and hurt by the bust, young Arabs have been labeled “the generation in waiting” by many scholars. Many are waiting for an education, waiting for jobs, waiting to get married. Most are just waiting for their lives to begin and, before they know it, they have reached the middle of their third decade with no favourable prospects.

Last week I had the opportunity to address a gathering in Kuwait of several hundred Arab intellectuals and decision-makers at the eighth annual Arab Thought Foundation forum. The meeting, organised by the Saudi Prince Khaled Al Faisal, is referred to as Fikr8, after the Arabic word for “thought”.

I tried to use the opportunity to highlight more positive recent developments in tackling youth unemployment in the Arab world. In Abu Dhabi, the Sheikh Khalifa Fund includes interest-free soft loans of up to Dh1 million for entrepreneurs.

Young entrepreneurs who are members of the Sheikh Mohammed Establishment are guaranteed that 5 per cent of all Dubai government purchases are made through registered small and medium enterprises. The Silatech initiative in Qatar provides financing not only to national entrepreneurs but across the Arab world, while Saudi and Egyptian projects are providing practical and vocational training to thousands of young people.

However, the most fascinating of the recent initiatives in my opinion is Grameen Jameel. Based on the model created by Muhammad Yunus, the Noble Prize-winning Bangladeshi businessman, entrepreneurs are given microfinance loans, sometimes just a few dollars, to start a business. This private sector initiative, spearheaded by the Abdul Latif Jameel Group in Saudi Arabia, has extended guarantees and loans worth US$44 million (Dh162m) across Morocco, Tunisia, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, Yemen and Saudi Arabia in its first year.

Grameen Jameel’s goal is to bring one million Arabs out of poverty by 2012. This type of example shows how the microfinance industry, worth an estimated $5.5 billion annually, can complement the government-led initiatives.

Arabs need not reinvent the wheel; Mr Yunus’s Grameen Bank is only one example. When Warren Buffet wanted to establish a charity, his enormous wealth could have allowed him to create the biggest endowment in the world. Instead, he searched for the best-run charity that assists the same causes he wants to reach, and gave them more than $40 billon – hence his co-operation with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. This could be a model for wealthy Arabs to follow.

Fikr8 also highlighted stories about regular Arabs who have taken matters into their own hands; instead of despairing at the bleak outlook, they have chosen to light a candle. The most popular story was that of a certain Mohamed El Sawy, an Egyptian businessman who didn’t accept the derelict condition of an old bridge in the Zamalek district of Cairo, which had become a haven for drug users.

Mr El Sawy convinced the Egyptian culture ministry to allow him to turn it into a refuge he called Al Saqia, or The Waterwheel. In that much-needed cultural oasis, concerts, lectures, film screeningss, poetry readings, theatrical performances and art exhibitions – as well as a well-stocked library – are all on offer for an affordable fee, as the weekly newspaper Al Ahlam recently reported.

In reality, the various reports on Arab development make for some sombre reading, but that is not to say that there is no hope. Too many look upon young Arabs as a problem when they are in fact a natural resource more important and powerful than all the gas and oil in the region.

The Young Arab Leaders organisation that I represented at Fikr8 has touched the lives of thousands of young Arabs, but that is clearly not enough – millions of Arabs need our help. Other NGO initiatives must be encouraged to complement projects like Grameen Jameel. If 100 similar projects were undertaken in the resource-rich Arab world, the unemployment challenge could be tackled before 2020.

It’s no longer possible for us to deal with reality by just cursing the darkness. If the prospect of 100 million unemployed Arabs is not the future you want to see, then make a choice. Don’t just despair, do something positive about it.

*This article was first published in The National on Sunday 13th December 2009

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