Beirut – Arab youths are suffering from pervasive social exclusion, the highest unemployment levels in the world, and low female labour force participation, the Arab Human Development Report for 2016 has found. The annual report, entitled Youth and the Prospects of Human Development in a Changing Reality, was launched at the American University of Beirut in late November by the United Nations Development Programme.
The report brings to light a number of matters worth considering.
On one hand, the Arab region as a whole has achieved remarkable progress in educational enrolment and the fight against illiteracy, especially among women. Overall extreme poverty and hunger have declined, and there has been an increase in life expectancy.
Yet on the other hand, the region has witnessed a dramatic increase in armed conflict, militarisation and violence. Fifteen years ago, when the first Arab Human Development Report, or AHDR, was published, five out of 22 Arab states were witnessing conflict or political violence. Today, this number has gone up to 11.
Half of the Arab region is living in conflict, and the situation does not seem to be improving.
Young people in the region are the main victims of this grim [economic] situation. They constitute the largest segment in society and suffer from pervasive social exclusion.
In the past couple of decades, the region has seen low economic growth with very little job creation, which has translated into a general decline in the standards of living for the majority of Arab citizens.
Low oil prices have put government budgets, cross-border investments and workers’ remittances under stress, and Arab societies have witnessed a degradation of their social, physical and environmental capital.
With more than 75 percent of the Arab population living in major cities in the region, one just needs to visit these urban areas to witness the extent of air pollution, degraded living conditions, shrinking public spaces and the general malaise of a majority of the population.
Young people in the region are the main victims of this grim situation. They constitute the largest segment in society – 105 million are aged 15-29, 30 percent of the Arab region’s population – and suffer from pervasive social exclusion.
Unemployment among youths is the highest in the world at more than 30 percent; young women’s labour force participation is at an all-time low; and with an increasing education most university graduates migrate when they can to find better opportunities abroad.
The less fortunate ones live idle lives, waiting for things to change. This “waithood” has caused a delay in family formation and autonomy, a higher exposure to health risk factors, such as smoking and drug use, and ultimately pushed some youths to engage in extremist activities and armed conflict.
Yet the AHDR 2016 seeks to dispel several misconceptions about young Arabs that have been prevalent in previous analysis and reporting on the region.The first misconception is that the vast majority of young Arabs are prone to radicalisation and extremism.
A massive amount of recent opinion polling data analysed for the Report revealed that an overwhelming majority of youths rejects terrorism and radicalisation, albeit remaining largely conservative in their social and religious attitudes.
The second misconception is that young migrants originating from Arab countries constitute a major threat to developed economies. The AHDR 2016 found that most Arab countries are marked by outward migration; yet, the vast stock of immigrants in Gulf Cooperation Council countries means that Arab countries as a whole receive more migrants – Arab and non-Arab – than they send out.
An estimated 27 million immigrants live within the borders of the Gulf countries of the region; these countries took in about 80 percent of all immigrants – Arab and non-Arab – in the region in 2010–2014.
With the rise in conflicts in the region, forced migration has pushed many Arabs to migrate mostly to other neighbouring Arab countries, with a much smaller share going to countries outside the region such as Europe.
The third misconception is that following the failure of the 2011 uprisings many young Arabs have become apathetic and less interested in civic engagement and political change.
While it is true that the data reveals life dissatisfaction among youth in the region is the highest in the world, they are more civically engaged and socially mobilised, especially young women, than similar youth in other countries around the world.
With an extremely high electronic connectivity – more than 70 percent of young people in the region have access to social media – Arab youths are more exposed to globalisation and connected than any other previous generation. This raises their expectations and aspirations, yet at the same time increases their frustration when nothing is improving in their daily life.
The AHDR 2016 is a wake-up call for policymakers and citizens in the region to address the systemic issues that are plaguing their societies. Achieving peace and security is a core priority, with the necessity of increasing youth involvement in peace building and conflict resolution.
Tackling rising economic inequality and inequality of opportunity, especially in access to good education and healthcare, is another crucial cross-regional priority. Arab countries are witnessing a widening divide between the “haves” and the “have-nots”, and young Arabs living in slums and peripheral areas have less chances of obtaining quality education and access to affordable health services.
The Report calls for increased government investments in the expansion of public education and providing free universal health coverage.
It also calls for opening up the political space for Arab youth, and treating them as real partners in planning the future of the Arab countries, not just as a burden or a threat.
*The writer is a Lebanese Economist and Social Activist. He is an Associate Professor of Economics at the American University of Beirut. He recently served as the Lead Author of UNDP’s Arab Human Development Report 2016.