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Arab youth and the politics of recognition
April 14 2019 12:58 AM
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An Algeria protester marches with a sign reading in French “the system is the enemy of the future of our country” during an anti-government protest in the centre of the northern coastal city of Oran in this April 9, file photo. Policymakers need to take note that the situation is changing and for the Arab young generation today (the millennials), they are becoming major social actors and Active Citizens.

By Dr Darim Al Bassam

Politics of recognition can play a great role in strengthening the philosophical foundations of the Arab youth social inclusion thinking. Recognition is fundamental to their sense of self, their wellbeing, and their ability to function with freedom and at full capacity within society. As for national youth development policies, I put emphasis in this article on “Institutional Recognition” more than the “Inter-Subjective Recognition” although they are both important for social inclusion of the youth.
By institutional recognition I refer to ‘Participation’ and ‘Social Citizenship’ both of which conceptually mean that any national policy for the youth should link between ‘Politics of Recognition’ and ‘Politics of Redistribution’ or the non-material and the material. Social inclusion for the youth is a dynamic and multi dimensional process that encompasses from one side: the lack of denial of resources, rights, goods and services, and from the other: the inability to participate in the normal relationships and activities available to the majority of people in society, whether in economic, social, cultural or political arenas.
Arab young generation can contribute significantly, as a result of their energy, eagerness, cutting-edge ideas, knowledge of technology, and willingness to take risks, all of which are needed for credible societal transformation. In this way, youth can come to view themselves as partners in the process, stakeholders in securing peace, and agents for positive change. Policymakers need to move from the the deficit model of identifying youth with the negative attributes and pathologies of adolescence (stress, rebellion, immaturity) and which characterised national Arab policies towards youth for decades, and replace it with a positive development model that stresses instead the rights and opportunities which will enable youth to make the most of their potential capabilities and competences.
For that paradigm shift to happen, policymakers need to take note that the situation is changing and for the Arab young generation today (the millennials), they are becoming major social actors and Active Citizens. In their cognitive map aspects like societal accountability, transparency and authenticity of governance are becoming more and more essential elements of a society, and these, together with the immediacy and interactivity that are hallmarks of social networks, create a new equation of social citizenship of paramount importance. The digital world and social networks as main players are providing new social spaces where young people spend much of their time creating and sharing moments, experiences, thoughts, and aspects of life.
More importantly, for these millennials, the issue is not only having a permanent connection, which is not just a novelty but a necessity that allows them to interact in any social, political and family setting. What is truly important to them is that principles, commitments, etc., do not mean simply making comments on social networks, but should be manifested in actions as well. What is happening now in Algeria is an illustrative case or a case in point.
In this sense, getting to know the politics of cognition and recognition among Arab youth in a deeper way, along with their concerns and expectations, is indispensable for the purpose of aligning national policies with social citizenship, and for placing a value on the real possibilities of social and civic participation for the youth in the decisions that affect their life.
National policies should adjust to the new realities of the new young generation by linking the politics of recognition to the politics of redistribution through enhancing their entitlements and integrating them in the society as economically active citizens and major drivers of change. The Arab Youth are impatiently yearning to secure an economic future.
Statistically speaking, our region has the world’s youngest population and it is growing rapidly. At present more than 28% of the population is aged between 15 and 29. Representing over 108mn young people, this is the largest number of young people to transition to adulthood in the region’s history. Young people – 15 to 24 – constitute approximately 20% of the populations in Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, Oman, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, Yemen, Jordan, Algeria, and Saudi Arabia. In the Arab countries’ populations, young people are the fastest growing segment; some 60% of the population is under 25 years old, making this one of the most youthful regions in the world, with a median age of 22 years compared to a global average of 28.
Moreover, the Arab region has the highest rate of youth unemployment in the world. With 25.5% rate, one in every four young Arabs is unemployed according to the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. The lost job opportunities cost the Arab world up to $50bn annually, according to a new survey conducted by the Arab thought Forum based in Amman. And with more than 27.6mn young people entering the workforce in the next five years, the region requires even higher growth rates, equitable development and income generation activities to make progress.
Although governments across the Arab region have invested heavily in education, and the past decade has witnessed a rapid expansion of primary, secondary and tertiary education, yet it is widely regarded that the quality of human capital being produced in such courses does not adequately match the needs of the labour market. As a result, job readiness suffers and unemployment among the educated remains at elevated levels.
A persistent gap exists due to the mismatch in skills acquired at university and the requirements of businesses. Moreover, many of them lack the necessary soft skills, experience and an exposure to international practices and standards. A majority of the students enrol for courses in social sciences and the arts, while a relatively smaller proportion of students pursue disciplines required by the job market, resulting in a quantitative and qualitative skill mismatch.
But one has to qualify that although promoting vocational and entrepreneurial skills training is a crucial supply side policy, adjusting the workforce to create a skills-match with what jobs there are will never, in itself, be enough to move the bulk of the unemployed youth (and under-employed) into work, or more importantly perhaps into the kind of high-quality, formal, fixed-contract work which brings with it the regular pay and entitlements that in turn create confident, tax-paying, bought-in citizens.
It is a political economy and good governance question. To put it starkly, one can ask: what use are vocational training and entrepreneurial skills to an Arab youth when he or she still has to contend with top-down policymaking that lacks accountability and transparency and linked to deeply entrenched corruption, bureaucratic strangulation, and economically self-interested elites who subvert development policies and processes for their own privileged self-enrichment.
Obviously the prescribed medicine will not cure the patient. Economic liberalisation packages which attract low-cost, low value-added, foreign investment into politically unstable environments characterised by an absence of good governance, accountability and transparency in many Arab countries will not lead to hundreds of thousands of jobs for the youth, let alone jobs which offer them fulfilment and career trajectory.
In conclusion, Arab countries must redefine their social contracts and draw up bottom-up national youth development policies based on the two pillars of recognition and redistribution, both of which can be translated into deliberative and participatory decision-making process that encompass social, economic and political rights and responsibilities of both the youth and the state.

* Dr Darim Al Bassam was former chief economic adviser at UNDP.



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