Releasing the potential of adolescents: Education reform in the Middle East and North Africa region
On 12 August 2010, the second United Nations International Year of Youth commenced. We stakeholders and advocates for children must therefore turn our attention to the problems adolescents face today. In the Middle East and North Africa region, these are particularly serious in the areas of education and future employment.
The region is also experiencing an unprecedented youth bulge. In the next 10 years, 65 per cent of the population will be 24 years old or younger. In addition to the demographic pressure, young people are finding it increasingly difficult to break into the labour market, especially with the larger number of new entrants every year. The region has a rapidly growing labour force, and both unemployment and underemployment are major concerns for young people trying to provide for themselves and their families. By the time a 13-year-old today turns 23, as many as 100 million jobs will be needed to accommodate these rising numbers. That means creating 6.5 million jobs per year.
While the Gulf countries have experienced a surge of wealth during recent decades, this has not been entirely beneficial for our young people. Many adolescents have grown accustomed to a materialistic lifestyle that distracts them from reaching their full potential. Likewise, the seduction of consumerism traps adolescents in an endless quest for possessions and encourages them to disregard their role as citizens responsible for community involvement and positive self-development. Moreover, the labour market cannot support the current youth bulge, impeding young people’s ability to achieve financial independence. Unable to find work, they extend their studies, in turn delaying marriage and parenthood.
Acknowledging that our youth are consumers rather than producers is alarming, but it is not their fault alone. The education system in Arab countries is partly responsible for the soaring unemployment rate, because it focuses more on granting diplomas than on effectively training students in practical skills. It does not prepare young people for the global job market, as it neither encourages versatility nor enables them to apply a diverse set of abilities across a number of disciplines. In today’s rapidly changing technological world, young people need to learn critical thinking, writing skills and flexibility – areas virtually absent from our curricula at present. If we do not reform our current practice and aim to transform today’s adolescents into creative, productive and diligent contributors, our economies will not be able to compete globally.
My work with the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations inspired me to launch Silatech, a regional youth initiative whose name derives from the Arabic term “your connection”. Particularly active in the Gulf countries, the initiative aims to partner young people with leaders, corporations and organizations globally to promote opportunities for innovation and enterprise. In order to release the potential of the next workforce – adolescents – we must ensure that their education properly prepares them for a career. If we do not invest in this generation, I believe that the devastating cycle of unemployment will continue. Adolescents represent a tremendous asset for our future, and this historic opportunity to empower them and help them flourish must not be missed.
Her Highness Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser Al Missned serves as Chairperson of the Qatar Foundation for Education, Science and Community Development; Vice Chair of the Supreme Education Council; President of the Supreme Council for Family Affairs; and Chairperson of the Sidra Medical and Research Center project. She established the Silatech initiative to help generate new jobs and opportunities for young people in the Arab world.