Arab governments face renewed popular protest if action is not taken to address youth unemployment, a United Nations report warns.
The 2016 Arab Human Development Report, published by the United Nations Development Program, focuses on the state of Arab youth five years after the 2011 uprisings. The Arab Spring resulted in a new government and political settlement in Tunisia, but in most other Arab countries led only to palliative measures (for example, in Saudi Arabia), increased repression (Egypt) or civil war (Syria, Yemen).
“Employing a predominantly security-based approach to responding to demands for change without addressing root causes of discontent may achieve temporary stability and ward off cycles of protest, but does not reduce the possibility of their recurrence—it may lead to the accumulation of these demands and their re-emergence more violently,” the report notes.
The report is the sixth in a series that began in 2002. While many of the economic and social problems it analyzes were discussed in earlier reports, the new report differs from its predecessors in its urgency of tone.
Two thirds of the total Arab population is under the age of 30. Yet this generation of Arabs is experiencing rising inequality, poor education, social deprivation, weak political engagement, pervasive barring of women from social involvement, high unemployment and armed conflict, the report says.
In the hope that its findings will reach both governments and young people, the authors have published a concise executive summary with policy recommendations for government, and downloadable graphics-based digital content for a generation of young Arabs for whom the smartphone is an essential part of life.
The report lays much of the responsibility for present conditions on “the Arab development model.” This is “a model of development that is dominated by the public sector and turns governments into providers of first and last resort.” This model’s goal is not to promote entrepreneurship, innovation or commercial diversity, “but solely to preserve access to wealth and power among a few.”
Arab economies are too dependent on unearned revenue or “rents,” the report says, either in the form of oil income at one end of the scale, or remittances from family members working abroad at the other.
“The rentier system casts a shadow over the private sector because competition does not arise from the production of goods and services or from innovation, but from the quality of client relationships with state patrons,” the report says.
The report urges Arab governments to open their political processes to greater public involvement. But it avoids reference to specific political conditions in specific countries.
Adel Abdellatif, the report’s compiler, based in Amman, said the text had to present its analysis and its recommendations in a way that did not antagonize any government or leader. “We are not an opposition group,” he said. “We are trying to help.”
There is a big emphasis on quantitative information—tables and appendices full of statistical data about key aspects of life both within Arab countries and in comparison to the rest of the world. The intention is that numbers are more effective than political argument in showing governments what needs to be done.
“In all the Arab Human Development Reports since 2002,” Abdellatif said, “we have been urging governments to look at the numbers. But at the same time we keep hammering away at the idea that demography is a policy issue that needs political attention.”
But will Arab governments take note, and take action? “Governments are always lagging behind, until they feel the pressure of the street,” Abdellatif said.
The report recommends infrastructure projects as one source of employment, and sees high-tech entrepreneurship as a hopeful trend. It cites two success stories: Karm Solar, “Egypt’s largest off-grid solar energy integrator,” and Visualizing Impact of Lebanon, a non-profit design and technology group.
Changes in political conditions are needed to make these economic reforms possible, says Hannah Bargawi, lecturer in economics at SOAS, University of London. She sees hopeful signs in Tunisia, Morocco and Jordan, where the states are taking small steps toward opening the political process.
And she sees new growth in the work of women’s organizations, youth movements and individual entrepreneurs, which operate independently of the government or established economic interests.
The first Arab Human Development Report, published in 2002, said that “Arab countries must undergo comprehensive reform,” and pointed to the need to “establish systems of good governance.”
Making much the same point in 2016, but in different words, and with a larger population of people under 30, the UNDP’s Adel Abdellatif said Arab governments need to see their young population as “not a side dish, but the main course.”