The UN’s latest Arab Development Report, published on November 29th, shows that few lessons have been learnt. Five years on from the revolts that toppled four Arab leaders, regimes are ruthlessly tough on dissent, but much less attentive to its causes.
As states fail, youth identify more with their religion, sect or tribe than their country. In 2002, five Arab states were mired in conflict. Today 11 are. By 2020, predicts the report, almost three out of four Arabs could be “living in countries vulnerable to conflict”.
Horrifyingly, although home to only 5% of the world’s population, in 2014 the Arab world accounted for 45% of the world’s terrorism, 68% of its battle-related deaths, 47% of its internally displaced and 58% of its refugees. War not only kills and maims, but destroys vital infrastructure accelerating the disintegration.
The Arab youth population (aged 15-29) numbers 105 million and is growing fast, but unemployment, poverty and marginalisation are all growing faster. The youth unemployment rate, at 30%, stands at more than twice the world’s average of 14%. Almost half of young Arab women looking for jobs fail to find them (against a global average of 16%).
Yet governance remains firmly the domain of an often hereditary elite. “Young people are gripped by an inherent sense of discrimination and exclusion,” says the report, highlighting a “weakening [of] their commitment to preserving government institutions.” Many of those in charge do little more than pay lip-service, lumping youth issues in with toothless ministries for sports. “We’re in a much worse shape than before the Arab Spring,” says Ahmed al-Hendawi, a 32-year-old Jordanian and the UN’s envoy for youth.
Social Pressure cooker has no outlet
Arab regimes tend to respond to security threats by further tightening their grip. Governments divert development capital to foreign arms purchases. For want of social and physical mobility at home, young Arabs traditionally travelled abroad. But such safety valves are closing fast. Despite the Arab League’s pretensions to brotherhood, visa-free travel among its 22 countries is unusual. Many Arabs need exit permits to boot. Where states are embroiled in conflict, many live in restricted zones inside their own countries. But physical and bureaucratic barriers touted as security measures can be counter-productive.
Though less likely to vote than the global average, young Arabs are much more inclined to protest. The UN report notes that Arab protest movements tend to come in five-year cycles. North Africa’s unrest spiked in 2001, 2006 and 2011, each time more turbulent than the last. Another bout seems due.
Growing inequality: Further analysis of HDI data shows also that inequality is rising in Arab countries. The region suffers an average loss of 24.9 percent when the HDI is adjusted for inequalities, which is above the world average loss of 22.9 percent. Inequality is widest in the education component of the inequality-adjusted HDI (about 38.0 percent).
Increasing conflict: The report warns that increasing levels of armed conflict are destroying the social fabric of the Arab region, causing massive loss of life not only among combatants, but also among civilians. Conflicts also are also reversing hard-won economic development gains by destroying productive resources, capital and labour, within a larger territory neighbouring countries where they are fought. Between 2000–2003 and 2010–2015, the number of armed conflicts and violent crises in the region have risen from 4 to 11, and many of them are becoming protracted in nature.
Exclusion and inequality continue to frustrate youth.
Against this backdrop, the Report documents tremendous obstacles young people across the Arab world are facing in their personal development across the broadest range of institutions, resulting in multiple forms of cultural, social, economic and political exclusion.
High unemployment: Failure to translate gains in education into decent jobs for youth in pace with population growth, not only curtails benefits of a demographic dividend but may fuel greater social and economic tensions in the region as well. In 2014, unemployment among youth in the Arab region (29.73 percent) exceeded twice the global average (13.99 percent), and according to estimates, the situation is expected to worsen in the near future. The report warns that Arab economies may not be able to generate the 60 million new jobs required, by 2020 to absorb the number of workforce entrants in order to stabilize youth unemployment.
Weak political engagement: The report underscores that over the past five years, youth have emerged as a catalysing force for change in the region. More young people have been raising their voices against their economic, social and political exclusion, and youth-led uprisings brought to the fore the urgent need for reform. However, the report notes that political participation among youth remains limited to informal channels of engagement, despite the lack of legal or institutional barriers to formal participation. Participation in public protests in the Arab region, in 2013 exceeded 18 percent, compared to 10.8 percent in middle income countries, whereas youth voting rates in the region were the lowest globally, remaining at 68.3 percent compared to 87.4 percent in middle income countries.
Pervasive discrimination against women: Echoing previous AHDRs, the report underlines how deep-seated discrimination, embedded in cultural beliefs and traditions in childrearing, education, religious structures, the media, and family relations, along with a plethora of legal obstacles, continues to prevent women from acquiring and using their capabilities to the fullest.
A significant minority: Pathways from frustration to radicalization.
The factors above combine to create an overall sense of exclusion and lack of opportunity that pervades much of the region. The lives of many young people across the region are marked by frustration, marginalization and alienation from institutions and the transitions that are necessary to begin adult life in a fulfilling manner.
Citing recent opinion research, the report asserts that the overwhelming majority of young people in the Arab region have no desire to engage in violent extremist groups or activities. They reject violence and regard extremist groups as terrorists.
According to the report, the 2011 ‘dam breaking’ has revealed the existence of three interrelated crises in the region: of the state, of economic models, and of politics. And, while the focus on the ground is on the last, the report maintains that progress over the next 10 years will depend on moves along all three dimensions. Solutions for each of these crises are well known; the challenge is more with the process and sequence, and the role of youth in affecting change.
SOURCES- Economist, UN