The title of this conference “ opportunities in adversity “ reminded me of the story of the shoe salesmen.
A shoe factory decided to expand its sales to a remote island in the middle of nowhere. They send 2 salesmen, one with a degree in anthropology and the other with an MBA. After one week of studying the island’s economic potential, the first salesman wrote to headquarters:
“People over here are backwards they walk barefoot. Let’s not waste any money or time here.”
Meanwhile, the MBA salesman wrote:
“People over here are backwards- they walk barefoot! THERE’S A HELL OF MARKET FOR SHOES. “
As we meet today the world is experiencing tremendous instability and uncertainty.
The nature of the challenges and threats ahead of us are the most complex we have ever faced.
They range from major global economic crisis and dislocation, global warming and climate change, epidemic and pandemics, demographic ticking time-bombs, poor governance and flagrant corruption, transnational threats and terrorism, and finally geopolitical upheavals and meltdown of national political order in a number of important Arab countries. Since the 1970’s, the Arab region has stagnated in several areas.
While Arab countries have increased their Human Development Index by 66% in the past forty years, with significant improvements in literacy rates, health
care, and overall standard of living, They remain lacking in the areas of political and economic development. The population of Arab countries has practically tripled since 1970; but rapid urbanization, inefficient investment, and a failure to confront a surge in unemployment have contributed to near negative economic growth rates. Since 1970, conflicts, wars, and the displacement of people within the Arab states have created a hostile business environment, to say the least. This,
coupled with an outdated educational system, has forced the region to address the consequences of their stubborn resistance to reform.
Who are the Arab Youth of Today?
One cannot comprehend the Arab “youth quake” of 2011 without looking at some of the obstacles and challenges that face our future generations, and the factors that lead up to this quake.
The Arab youth of today make up 65% of the Arab population . With over 30% of the population between the ages of 15 and 29, representing over 100 million youth, this is the highest proportion of youth to adults in the
region’s history. The interests, values, and ideals of this generation of Arabs may vary from one country to the next, but they do share a common purpose to affect their political futures. They also share a new found awareness of the power of networking.
The majority of this youth demographic lives in an urban setting, with access to a variety of multimedia and social networking sites. They are technologically aware, and have become increasingly more active in their
demands for political and economic opportunity. It has long been recognized that the press is the "fourth branch" of government. In today’s world, I think technology is the "fifth branch". It has given individuals and communities a medium to interact, exchange ideas, and to hold officials accountable. It has empowered this generation through social media websites, blogs, Twitter, and Facebook. To put things into perspective, allow me to go over a few statistics: 75% of internet users in
the Arab world are between the ages of 15 – 29, and the number of internet users in our region is estimated to exceed 44% of total Arab population. In fact, it is projected that by 2020, the Arab World will exceed the global
average of internet connectivity. As evident, our youth are increasingly becoming more involved in this “fifth branch” of government. And with good reason. Censorship of the press, and the stifling of free speech and expression have
driven the Arab youth away from traditional mediums of print, television, and radio, and into the nonrestrictive world of the internet where they could openly communicate their frustrations with the statusquo.
These frustrations have recently culminated in popular uprisings witnessed in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Yemen, Iraq, and Syria (amongst others,) where the youth came out to challenge the bleak socioeconomic futures they foresaw
for their generation. Therefore, the challenges that face this coming generation of Arab youth are of an economic, scientific, and cultural nature. It can be summarized as three deficits : The Employment Deficit, the Knowledge Deficit, and the Democracy Deficit.
The Employment Deficit
The first obstacle to youth empowerment and self sufficiency is the disturbing rate of unemployment. The salient facts of this phenomena, according to the World Bank, are as follows:
-54% of MENA's working age population is unemployed or inactive.
-3 out of 4 working age women do not participate in the labor force, which constitutes 80-90% of the inactive population.
-1 of every 4 of the 15-24 year old is unemployed. This is the highest unemployment youth rate in the world. In most regions of the world, the duration of unemployment is shorter for the youth than for adults, reflecting the natural tendency of youth to move frequently between jobs. However, in most MENA countries, youth unemployment tends to last longer, especially among the higher educated youth. It's worth noting that this "duration" of unemployment, rather than its occurrence, that is most detrimental to human capital accumulation. The rapid growth in the labor force, 2.7% per annum, implies the need to create close to 100 million new jobs by 2020. Doubling the current level of employment.
These figures are a testimony to the failure of the Arab governments' policies on multiple fronts. In a recent IMF study, numerous policy failures were observed in a number of Arab countries :
FIRST- Failure to control the demographic dynamics. Over the past half century, the big drop in the infant mortality rate, combined with the high fertility rate, resulted in substantial increase in population growth. The MENA region recorded, over the past decade, the fastest growth in the labor force in the world, save Africa.
SECOND Failure to calibrate and improve the educational system to meet the market requirements for the appropriate technical and managerial skills.
THIRD- Failure to reduce the labor market rigidities. According to the Global Competitiveness Report 20112012, the MENA's hiring and firing regulations are more restrictive than those in the emerging and developing countries.
FINALLY- Failure to reform the public sector. The MENA region has the highest government wage bill in the world, 9.8% of GDP, compared with global average of 5.4%. Furthermore, public sector wages in MENA were on average 30% higher than those in private sector, while in the rest of the world its 20% lower than wages in private sector.
At this rate, the public sector cannot possibly absorb the influx of young workers. The private sector must be encouraged to create new jobs, to diversify, and to innovate. But without the tangible incentives to do so by their governments, companies cannot be expected to provide this employment for the masses. Governments need to encourage entrepreneurship, recognize the need for more privatization, and remove the many bureaucratic obstacles already in place.
The great Ibn Khaldoon spoke of labor as “the source of value, necessary for all earnings and value accumulation.” We have that labor he spoke of, and if coupled with the desire to shift to
private sector employment; then we shall be able to attain the prosperity we strive for as nations.
The statuesque is unbearable for our children, and this is where I urge the business leaders in this audience to rise to the challenge and give our talented youth the opportunities they deserve, I guarantee you won’t regret it. Equally important, numerous studies have shown that an increase in efficiency and equitable distribution of income are not necessarily a zero sum game. Governments must design a smart privatization strategy that treat equity and efficiency as complementary, rather than a competing outcome.
The Knowledge Deficit With the emergence of a highly aware and informed youth, comes the essential demand for an equally challenging and inspiring educational system. The modernization and reform of our region’s inadequate educational institutions is critical to our developmental plans. Our current schools are not producing the caliber of competent workers needed to compete in today’s global market. So, before being able to successfully modernize our nations, we need to seriously tackle “the knowledge deficit” to which the United Nations Arab Human Development Report referred. And without the enhancement of our learning establishments, and the investment in new innovation in teaching technology, we cannot support
the growing demand of new business for a skilled and capable workforce.
The Democracy Deficit
Young Arabs have legitimate political concerns that must be addressed. As I mentioned before, young Arabs today are involved in their world through the many forms of social media available to them. They are aware of the power of the media, and the influence of popular opinion.
They are leaders of community organizations and volunteer groups, and they encourage their peers to be equally involved. Their concerns stem from the disconnect they feel with the political process, and the perception that they lack the necessary influence on government policy. This is rapidly changing, as young Arabs emerge into the sphere of politics through social media and grassroots campaigns. They are immersing themselves in civil society, and effecting a reform movement from the bottom up. Their most pressing demands are those for more democratic freedoms in economic, political and social fields.
Political and economic reforms are interdependent, and serve to make democratic practices a part of the solution. We cannot affect political reform without a free market economy. Otherwise, political and economic opportunities will remain limited. On the social front, young Arabs are not unreceptive to traditionally Western ideas of freedom of religion, nondiscrimination, and the equality of the sexes. On the contrary, this generation is more accepting of differences, as young
women are emerging as leaders within their communities. Nonetheless, women are still disappointingly underrepresented in government and business, and their disempowerment is another hurdle we must overcome.
The Kuwaiti Effort
We in Kuwait foresaw several years ago the discontent felt by the average Arab, and for that reason proposed the idea of holding an Arab Economic Summit biannually to address the social, economic and development concerns and obstacles facing our peoples. Education, housing, infrastructure and healthcare were the forefront topics for such a summit, and Kuwait successfully held the first summit in 2009. One of the many initiatives put forth by Kuwait was the establishment of a $2 billion fund, to which Kuwait contributed $500 million, specifically aimed at financing medium and small businesses.
These initiatives impact the everyday average Arab citizen, on multiple fronts. By providing sufficient capital to start a small business, this fund will enable the Arab citizen to unleash his/her hidden potential to be an active participant of the socioeconomic progress of the society. Simultaneously, it will empower the Arab citizen to terminate the near total dependence on government for his/her future economic welfare. This is truly a liberating and transformational agenda of positive change to say the least.
The Kuwait Fund for Arab Economic Development, the first of its kind in the developing world, played a major role in providing development assistance throughout the world. Established in 1961, the fund has allocated assistance worth over $15 billion to more than 100 countries, and this aid is specifically aimed at development projects in order to help societies prosper. Our target is not to give handouts, to teach people how to fish.
I am proud to say we have helped educate the young, eradicate disease, fight hunger, provide shelter, and build essential infrastructure for millions in the region and around the world. And more recently, about 2 months ago at the UNGA, 193 world leaders adopted the global goals in sustainable development to achieve 3 things in the next 15 years:
1- End extreme poverty
2- Fight inequality and injustice
3- Address climate change challenge
Kuwait made a pledge to provide 15 Billion dollars to developing countries to achieve these sustainable development goals. Furthermore, and in response to the mounting and intense humanitarian crises in Syria, Kuwait hosted 3 international donors conferences in Kuwait and contributed $1.8 billion to the UN relief fund for Syria. We are looking forward for the Amir of Kuwait to cochair with prime minister Cameron the 4th international donors conference for Syria, scheduled to take place here in London early next year.
I leave you this afternoon with a few words to reflect upon by Gibran Khalil Gibran:
"Youth is a beautiful dream, on whose brightness books shed a blinding dust. Will ever the day come when the wise link the joy of knowledge to youth's dream? Will ever the day come when Nature becomes the
teacher of man, humanity his book and life his school? Youth's joyous purpose cannot be fulfilled until that day comes. Too slow is our march toward spiritual elevation, because we make so little use of youth's ardor."
So let us not neglect the passion and commitment of our youth, and let us not ignore the link of knowledge to their dreams.