Thu, Jul 9, 2020

Past, present, and prospective: The demographic dividend opportunity in Arab youth

Issue Brief by Nicole Goldin, PhD

Education Middle East Resilience & Society Youth

Palestinian entrepreneur Yasmine Abu Salim (C), who developed the "Image Reader" mobile application that reads texts and images for blind people, works at UCAS Technology Incubator office in Gaza City October 31, 2016. Picture taken October 31, 2016. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

Over half of the population of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region is under the age of 25. While often referred to as the “youth bulge” and seen as a challenge that needs to be dealt with, young people in the region have the potential to yield a “demographic dividend” that can present a turning point for the Middle East. 

As the MENA region continues to face social and economic transitions, in an ever-shifting global economic and social landscape marked by globalization, migration, urbanization, and technological shifts, one question is whether and how the countries of the region can see a demographic dividend before the window posed by their transitional population structure fully closes, likely in the next 10 to 20 years.

 In a new report from the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East and the Global Business and Economics Program, “Past, Present, and Prospective: The Demographic Dividend Opportunity in Arab Youth” Dr. Nicole Goldin examines the opportunity for a demographic dividend in the MENA region, using four countries with varying economic and social dynamics—Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Tunisia—as case studies.

In recent years, the demographic dividend concept has (re)surfaced in the development discourse, most notably in considering the challenges and opportunities associated with large youth populations in the low- and middle-income countries of the Middle East, Africa, and South Asia. Such discussion in the MENA region gained even more steam in the wake of the Arab Spring—the protests were attributed to discontent, a sense of economic, political, and social marginalization among young Arabs—and the global recession of 2007-08.

These two shocks disproportionately affected young people. They worsened already dim economic prospects for youth, driving up unemployment and underemployment rates. And if history repeats, the economic slowdown resulting from the current novel coronavirus pandemic is likely to disproportionately affect youth as well. 

Goldin argues that near- and medium-term opportunities do exist for countries in the Arab world to harness the productive potential of their youth and reap a demographic dividend in economic growth. It will, however, require more immediate education-enabling reforms and investments in human capital, similar to those made in East Asia in the 1960s and ’70s, but specific to the context, market landscape, and regional dynamics of today and (post-pandemic) tomorrow.

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