Let's study 50 million young people

The SAHWA Project (Researching Arab Mediterranean Youth: Towards a New Social Contract) endeavours to explore youth perspectives and prospects. As a starting point, it is useful to bear in mind some basic figures about our object of study: we are dealing with 50 million young people aged 15 to 30 in the five SAHWA countries (Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt and Lebanon), which is 30% of their total population, the largest generation in the history of those countries. That number—the “youth bulge” as those analysing the demographic transition call it—will not decrease in the next generation or so: by 2020 there will be close to 60 million, and, for most of these countries, they will continue growing until at least 2030.

These are not demographic projections: the children who will be 15 by 2029 are already born and crying now. So we are not speaking about the future of the region, as often stated, we are talking about the present of those societies. So let’s look at some of the realities facing these young people.

Educated youth? It is commonly held that the current youth generation is the most educated in the history of those countries. And in relative terms this is true, especially when considering primary education enrolment rates close to 100% in all SAHWA countries (though a gap in the enrolment of girls in Morocco is still to be filled). But just how educated are they? In terms of access to university studies, tertiary education enrolment rates remain modest: 28% in Egypt, 34% in Tunisia, 31% in Algeria and less than 15% in Morocco (53% in Lebanon). But any progress here contrasts with terrible literacy statistics: according to the UNESCO UIS database, the illiteracy rate for young people (15-24) amounts to 18.5% in Morocco (more than 30% of girls), 10.5% in Egypt and 8.2% in Algeria (the latter figure is from 2006). If we extrapolate, that is 900,000 illiterate young people in Algeria, 1.7 million in Morocco and 2.5 million in Egypt. They cannot be ignored, but are they included in the youth surveys proliferating in Arab countries?

So what are they doing? According to a recent study published by the European Training Foundation (“Young people not in employment, education or training in the EU Neighbourhood Countries – ETF Report”), in Egypt and Tunisia young people (15-29 years old) who were not in employment, education or training amounted (NEET), respectively, to 29% and 32%, that is 6.8 million and 1 million young people, respectively (for the other three SAHWA countries it was not possible to make an estimate on the basis of existing data). This is double the 17% average rate in the European Union. These NEETs are almost “invisible” in statistics, and subsequently receive less attention from policy makers. The gender gap is very marked here too: in Tunisia the number of NEETs was slightly above 20% for young men and more than 40% for young women, while in Egypt the difference was still higher—9% to 49%. So more than three out of four NEETs in the Arab Mediterranean are young women. Contrary to the stereotype, most of them are not married: the average age of marriage for women in the region has increased to 27 years old. 

And what are their top priorities and concerns? According to the fifth ASDA’A Burson-Marsteller Arab Youth Survey 2013 published earlier this year and including all the SAHWA countries, the top priority for the Arab youth (18-24 years old) is being paid a fair wage (82%) and their main concern is the rising cost of living (63%). In the same line, access to home ownership was cited as a very important priority by more young people (66%) than living in a democracy (61%).

The implications are clear for the new social contract unanimously called for in Arab countries: give young people a good education and job opportunities and they will take their destiny in their own hands.

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