If current demographic trends persist, by the year 2050, the Middle East and Northern Africa region will need to create north of 300 million jobs.
This is the not so far away future. Even more challenging, there is an imperative to create immediately more than 10 million jobs a year to keep up with the region’s demographic bulge. This means an economic dynamic capable of turning this youthful energy into markets-creating growth.
So where will all of those jobs come from and what will they be? Today in Beirut, the World Bank is convening a meeting of decision-makers from across the Mashreq to discuss those questions and help prepare for the future.
We will convene a similar, regional meeting in Tunis next month.
Many children entering primary school today in Iraq, Lebanon or Tunisia will one day work in jobs that have not yet been invented. Digital technologies are moving at breakneck speed and creating new business models and rapidly transforming the nature of work. The challenge for countries in MENA as elsewhere in the world, is to adapt to the new digital economy, harness its potential, and ensure that each new generation is equipped to seize the opportunities it creates.
Some headlines in the press today talk about the threat that robots and new technologies pose to manual workers in today’s economy. But the World Bank’s 2019 World Development Report, “The Changing Nature of Work,” says new technologies can spark innovation just as much as automation and can be the source of rapid growth.
Indeed, the real danger is to miss out on this new economic revolution. Pairing new technologies with productive sectors, such as transport, agriculture, medicine and banking is the way of the future; one that we ourselves cannot afford to miss.
People in the MENA region don’t have to look far to see examples of this phenomenon. In the UAE, the ride-hailing app Careem has grown from a startup to a billion-dollar company, creating jobs for thousands across the region.
Jamalon, an online book retailer in Amman, Jordan, has built partnerships with over 3,000 Arabic-language and 27,000 English-language publishers, delivering 10 million titles to the region since its launch in 2010. Other examples flourish, from Morocco to Palestine, showing that creativity and innovation are very much at play in our region.
The location of digital firms does not count as much today as it used to. Startups can scale up quickly outside industrial zones and with only a handful of employees and few tangible assets. This presents big opportunities for creative young men and women across the region and beyond.
It is clear that manual jobs that involve repetitive actions appear under threat from technology. It is also clear that the educated youth in MENA have ambitions to be more than numbers on an assembly line.
It is therefore more important than ever that young people are equipped with the skills prized in the digital economy, such as working in teams and problem solving, which have been harder for artificial intelligence to reproduce.
As the world changes, education systems must also adapt, and adapt now!
These, for far too long, have neglected to prepare young people for the real world of market economies, leading them to graduate with skills that are not relevant to the modern world.
A deep reform of education systems in the region is essential, as the World Bank’s recently released education flagship report, “Expectations and Aspirations,” lays out.
That reform should start in preprimary education, where only 30 percent of children in the Middle East and North Africa are currently enrolled, despite clear evidence that the early years are when the ability to quickly learn new skills is established.
At the same time, textbooks and curricula need reforming to steer away from antiquated and ideologically laden learning, to focus on encouraging critical thinking and making sure youth are digitally literate.
A system of lifelong learning will also help cope with the rapid pace of change, giving people the chance and the agility to learn new skills and adapt. The World Bank has launched the Skilling Up Mashreq initiative that aims to work with a range of civil society, private sector and government partners to provide at least 500,000 young people with the skills of the future.
Along with investments in education to build human capital, complementary investments will be needed in physical capital.
While mobile phones are ubiquitous, the region has some of the world’s lowest rates for access to broadband, and bandwidth is limited. This places severe restrictions on the potential for innovation and the launch of new digital ventures. Broadband in the digital economy is as vital as oxygen, and the goal of universal access should be a national and regional priority.
This expansion should be coupled with agile and adaptable regulatory reforms to allow for the person-to-person digital payments that also fuel the digital economy.
Contrary to broadband, there are more mobile subscriptions than people in the region. With high-speed internet and digital payments, many more could make of their devices more than a mere social instrument and use them instead as vectors for economic growth and productive use.
Robots are not the only challenge to adapt to in the digital era. The rapid pace of change may mean that people change jobs more frequently. As new technologies disrupt old jobs and create new ones, many may face periods of unemployment as they cope with the transition. Along with the chance to learn new skills, people will need support during these periods.
This will require more flexible social security systems that are no longer tied to particular jobs. The region already faces high levels of informality, with large numbers of workers without employment contracts and no access to social insurance.
Reforming social security systems would help address this informality and prepare for the work environment of the future.
So will the Middle East and North Africa region deliver the 300 million new jobs needed by 2050 to enable its large youth population to drive the economy into the future, and thrive? There are signs of hope that countries are focused on building human capital and launching reforms to leverage the benefits of the digital economy and free up the funds for the scale of investments needed. Lebanon is taking steps to raise the quality while lowering the price of broadband and expanding access to rural areas.
As part of its reconstruction, Iraq is building more modern schools and retraining teachers, while Jordan is expanding access to preprimary education. Egypt has reformed energy subsidies and reallocated funds to expanded social safety nets.
Morocco has launched a national digital payment platform, entrepreneurs in Algeria are inventing new ways of managing supply chains, and youth in Palestine are being trained to become digital freelancers. These need to be scaled up into national efforts bringing together all segments of society around a common vision of the future.
Today’s Middle Eastern and North African youth harbor tremendous ambition and aspirations.
The World Bank is committed to engaging with them, at all levels, to ease the constraints that hamper their creative energies.
We’ll keep working with governments, decision-makers and all walks of society to help unleash this potential, for we believe that in the hands of the region’s youth, the new technologies of today and tomorrow can be an engine of growth and hope.
Ferid Belhaj is World Bank vice president for the Middle East and North Africa.
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