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The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) Region needs to reinvent its economic model to meet the aspirations of its people. It needs a new vision – one that’s built around a shift towards a promising future, while being cognizant of the fundamental challenges of today. In recent years, the region has witnessed the devastating effects of the unmet expectations and unrealized aspirations of its population, especially youth. There is now an immediate need for a new compact with the youth, where the State engages more effectively, and promotes more innovative, leading-edge, creative, and ambitious solutions and policies.
By 2050, MENA will have to create roughly 300 million new jobs due purely to demographic trends. This large youth population entering the labor market could be a source of innovation and economic transformation, but a bold and ambitious effort is needed to remove the accumulated obstacles. In most regions, education offers a way up the social and economic ladder. But in the Arab World, university graduates are frustrated to find that they are even more likely to be jobless than those with less education. In Egypt about 30% of youth with a university degree are unemployed, and the figure for Tunisia is closer to 40%.
The answer to harnessing the potential of the youth in the Arab World lies just at their fingertips – in their smartphones. While youth in the OECD enjoy access to services and goods online and can easily transfer money virtually, most Arab youth are left out in the cold by over-regulated telecommunications systems that have not kept pace with rapid change sweeping the globe.
Youth in the MENA are digitally savvy, hyperactive on social media, and have more mobile phones than youth elsewhere. This gaping mismatch between a vast reservoir of digital potential and lack of access to quality internet and digital money is robbing the Arab World and its youth of huge opportunities to boost economic growth, open new businesses, and create jobs.
So, what can be done? We would like to challenge the countries of MENA to dedicate themselves to their own “moonshot” to liberate the digital futures of their millions of tech-savvy youth. Just as US President John F. Kennedy set a goal in 1961 to put a man on the moon by the decade’s end, the governments of the Arab World should commit themselves to their own moonshot.
A MENA moonshot would focus on two concrete and achievable goals by 2021. First, MENA countries must create a modern broadband internet that covers all regions, including those that are lagging economically. Second, countries must develop an infrastructure and regulatory apparatus that supports money transfer digitally through mobile devices and the internet. The money transfer infrastructure could be provided by telecom companies, banks, and other operators.
It is time for MENA countries to catch up to the digital age and allow their youth to take advantage of the opportunities in the New Economy.
Of course, boosting online access and enabling mobile payments system will not solve all the Arab World’s problems or completely satisfy the aspirations of its youth. But a MENA moonshot could unite the authorities with young people behind a common goal, and transform the way that governments, companies, civil society, and young entrepreneurs conduct business and collaborate online. One big answer to boosting jobs and growth in MENA lies just within the grasp of the millions of youth who text, Whatsapp, Instagram, Facebook and tweet every day. It is time for Arab youth to have an equal chance for online success, and move from social conversations to the creation of wealth.
This is where our effort and energy will go, for we firmly believe that the MENA countries must set a far-reaching goal for themselves; not only close the gap in human capital but leapfrog to a prosperous, peaceful and stable future that meets the expectations and aspirations of its young people.
Ferid Belhaj is the World Bank Vice President for the Middle East and North Africa Region
Rabah Arezki is the World Bank Chief Economist for the Middle East and North Africa Region