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A Moonshot for the Middle East and North Africa

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Nov 20, 2018 / 0 Comments

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

Ferid Belhaj

Ferid Belhaj took up the position of World Bank Group Vice President for Middle East and North Africa on July 1, 2018. Prior to this, Mr. Belhaj served 15 months as the Chief of Staff of the President of the World Bank Group.


From 2012 to 2017, Mr. Belhaj was World Bank Director for the Middle East, in charge of World Bank work programs in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Iraq and Iran, based in Beirut, Lebanon. In this capacity, he led the Bank engagement on the Syrian refugee crisis and its impact on the region, including the creation of new financing instruments to help countries hosting forcibly displaced people; the ramping up of the Bank drive towards the reconstruction and recovery of Iraq during and after the ISIS invasion and the scaling up of the Bank's commitments to Lebanon and Jordan. 

Before taking up his Mashreq assignment, Mr. Belhaj served as World Bank Director for the Pacific Department (2009-2012), where he developed a regional strategy that scaled up Bank engagement in small and fragile states, and tripled lending operations of the International Development Agency, one of the five institutions under the umbrella of the World Bank Group that provides interest-free loans and grants for Low-Income Countries. 

From 2007 to 2010, Mr. Belhaj was the World Bank’s Special Representative to the United Nations in New York, where he engaged with various UN agencies on a range of programs, mainly climate change, the Millennium Development Goals, fragile and post-conflict states and the global financial and food crises. 

Ferid Belhaj served as World Bank Country Manager for Morocco (2002-2007), where he developed a new and multifaceted dialogue with one of the best performing Middle-Income countries. 

A Tunisian national, Mr. Belhaj joined the Bank in 1996 as Senior Counsel in the Legal Department, managing a number of legal and judicial reform projects. He also served as Bank Counsel for countries, including Egypt, Morocco, Iran, Algeria and Thailand. 

Rabah Arezki

Rabah Arezki is the Chief Economist for Middle East and North Africa Region (MNA) at the World Bank. Previously, Rabah Arezki was the Chief of the Commodities Unit in the Research Department at the International Monetary Fund. He also was a senior fellow at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, a non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution, an external research associate at the University of Oxford, a resource person for the African Economic Research Consortium and a research fellow at the Economic Research Forum.


A dual citizen of Algeria and France, Mr. Arezki received his M.S. from the Ecole Nationale de la Statistique et de l’Administration Economique in Paris, M.A. from the University of Paris-1 Pantheon-Sorbonne and Ph.D. in economics from the European University Institute, Florence.


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