Leadership Council for Human Rights

~ Feet in the mud, head in the sky ~

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Brookings panel considers Middle East’s youth-centered demographic shift

The demographic youth bulge that the Middle East has witnessed in recent years has created opportunities for prosperity, but it has also presented a unique set of challenges that regional governments have failed to appropriately address, a panel of scholars said at a forum convened by the Brookings Institution Monday.

The region’s 100 million young people ages 15 to 29 are beset by high unemployment rates that have left many unable to achieve cultural milestones of adulthood such as marriage and independent living, the panelists said. Among the more resounding causes singled out at the forum: overly test-focused education systems coupled with labor markets that reward degree attainment over competence.

Focusing on Egypt as a case study, Ragui Assad of the Population Council and Diane Singerman, an American University professor, explored the predicament.
Assad described a nation that has made great strides in access to basic schooling – enrollment is essentially compulsory in the primary grades everywhere but rural Upper Egypt – but little in the way of educational quality. After forty years of simply producing credentials for government employment, the Egyptian public education system is having difficulty producing the skills needed by the private labor market, he said. At the other end of the spectrum, Singerman spoke on marriage, which can legitimate adulthood and sexuality, but also brings a lofty price tag – in Egypt marriage costs stand at roughly eleven times the average per capita household expenditure – making the youth unemployment problem all the more burning.

In Iran, where today’s youth bulge was brought on by the Islamic Revolution’s baby boom, a misdirected education system lies at the heart of the unemployment crisis, according to Djavad Salehi Isfahani, an economics professor at Virginia Tech University. Unemployed Iranians currently number 3 million, with youth making up roughly 77 percent of that figure, Isfahani said. (This, despite the fact that the national economy has grown at 4.5 percent per year over the course of the last decade, with inequality, although high, remaining steady.) Isfahani, echoing the other panelists, traced these circumstances to an education system inordinately focused on test-based learning at the expense of creative skill (i.e. writing, computer proficiency, etc.) development. Exacerbating the problem, many students view the tests as an all-or-nothing endeavor and those who fail often drop out instead of heeding calls to undertake technical and vocational education, which they don’t see as being rewarded in the labor market.

To correct a regional response to the crisis that was described as well-intentioned, but piecemeal, the panelists called on Middle Eastern governments to better coordinate their interventions, with, as Isfahani said, the goal of emphasizing productivity and human capital over diplomas. Sending the right signals on labor market needs is crucial, Isfahani and others maintained, or else students will not have the incentive to embark on a path of job-skill development. U.S. assistance can aid the transition, so long as Washington adopts the right outlook, Isfahani said, adding that the U.S. sees Iran’s 2.3 million unemployed youth as a source for regime change instead of a pathway to national prosperity.


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