During a conference held in Tunis last month, international organisations raised an alarm about a problem that faces North Africa more than any other region of the world: the high level of youth unemployment resulting mainly from the chronic mismatch between educational strategies and job-market needs.
In a report released on this occasion, a number of organisations, including the African Development Bank (AfDB) and the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), revealed that the real youth unemployment rate in the North African region is no less than 41 per cent in the 15-24 age group.
The new estimate includes both young people who are unemployed and those who have been ‘discouraged’ from seeking employment.
Although the overall rate of unemployment in North Africa (including Egypt) is in itself one of the highest in the world, the rate of joblessness among the youth is even higher than the average. Figures show that young people in the region are three to four times more likely to be without a job than adults. In Tunisia, for instance, seven out of ten unemployed are under the age of 30.
At the core of this problem has been the fundamental inadequacy between the educational systems and the needs of the marketplace. School and training programmes did not provide the skilled manpower needed to meet the challenges of the increasingly competitive and globalised marketplace. Despite all the political talk about building a ‘knowledge society’, the economies of the region were plagued for nearly two decades by their limited capacity to create value-added and growth-generating jobs.
The educational systems were throwing into the job-market tens of thousands of ill-trained and poorly-skilled, including a high percentage of school graduates. The statistical dazzle about university enrolment rates, in places like Tunisia and Egypt, was not matched by a qualitative effort making possible the scientific, technological or linguistic skill acquisition needed for value-added and export-oriented economic activities.
Many years after structural adjustment reforms were introduced, the private sector could not create enough decent jobs. The expanding informal sector provided low wages and ‘working poverty’ conditions. University graduates, especially in Egypt and Tunisia, continued therefore to pin high hopes on public sector opportunities, when such opportunities were both scarce and burdensome for state budgets.
Because of the reality of the job-market, the rate of employment in the region was for years inversely related to the level of education achieved by employment-applicants. In Morocco, for example, 61 per cent of young people with secondary education or higher were unemployed, compared with 8 per cent of uneducated youth, notes a recent African Bank report.
The same applied everywhere in North Africa. The problem was probably more dramatic in Tunisia than elsewhere in the region. The number of university students there simply doubled, in about a decade after the year 2000. Without a commensurate expansion of job opportunities, the rate of graduate unemployment, between 2005-11, increased from 14-29 per cent. In Morocco, where university enrolment remained essentially at the same level, the rate of unemployed university graduates dropped from 29 per cent to 18 per cent.
The pace of regional GDP growth since the year 2000 did not exceed 5 per cent per annum. That kind of rate could not in itself create a sufficient job-creation dynamic. The economies of the region did not evolve into knowledge-based economies that would have generated value-added manufacturing and services, and therefore higher GDP growth.
The region’s educational systems themselves were not developing the human resources with work-ready skills. Aside from their limited GNP and GNP per capita growth rates, North African economies were further hampered by regulatory burdens and predatory practices. They were also handicapped by the lack of regional integration and the whiplash caused by the global financial crisis and European economic slowdown.
The problem of youth unemployment in North Africa was not without political and social ramifications. The failure to deliver on the promises of upward mobility and equal opportunity, combined with resentment by young populations of cronyism, regional imbalances, political unresponsiveness, and restrictions on freedoms, were major catalysts for the revolutions which shook the foundations of Arab Spring countries and beyond.
Youth employment was a major factor in such social problems as illegal emigration and increased criminality and delinquency rates. By limiting the economic independence of the young, unemployment has also delayed the marriage age for both genders exerting undue pressures on the family fabric. Young women, especially young university graduates have also suffered disproportionately from unemployment. Figures in North Africa show that the gap between female and male youth unemployment ratios has rapidly widened, at the disadvantage of women.
Tough challenges lie ahead for North African countries. The region’s economies are expected to bounce back to a 4 per cent GDP growth rate by 2013. But more is needed in the years ahead, especially that — as forecast by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) — an additional 10 million young people are expected to enter the North Africa job market by 2020.
Even more challenging than the simple arithmetic of unemployment, is the political and social profile of the new generations that will be coming into the job market. Better educated and politically more sophisticated than previous generations, never again will they be sold ‘a-pie-in-the-sky’.
No one government will be able to fix overnight the accumulated shortcomings of the past. It will take time, effort and serious budgets to implement development policies that do not leave out any region, gender-category or age-group. A lot has to happen, too, in the minds of younger generations, who have to be convinced of the merits of self-reliance, innovation and personal initiative, necessary engines of productivity, competitiveness and growth.
Even within such benchmarks, experts hope, the current ‘youth bulge’ in North Africa could be an opportunity, especially that as explained by Mthuli Ncube, chief economist at the African Development Bank, “the education of young people in terms of numbers of years of school and college is progressing faster than population growth in North Africa”. But for that opportunity to materialise, the countries of the region must first take a thorough second-look at their educational systems and establish the bases for diversified and competitive economies that could procure sufficient quality-jobs for the next 10-million generation of young people.
Oussama Romdhani is a former Tunisian minister of communication.