Arab world facing brain drain

DOHA // As millions of young people across the Arab world reach the age of employment, many Arab economies are likely to lose a good number of their most prized human resources.

“The young folks that are most educated, most connected and most employed are the ones who want to emigrate more,” said Ahmed Younis, a senior analyst at the Gallup Center for Muslim Studies.

Nearly a third of young employed Arabs surveyed would like to leave their country permanently, while only 17 per cent of the unemployed felt the same way, according to the Silatech Index, released here on Tuesday.

Just over a quarter of those who have some college education, meanwhile, are interested in moving abroad, versus 16 per cent of those who never finished high school. These are also the people most likely to start a business.

“Brain drain is the kind of phraseology that’s used,” said Mr Younis, who is also the director of strategic partnerships for Silatech.

“But we’re seeing an SME [small and medium enterprises] drain, an entrepreneurship drain, and there will be less innovation, less enterprise development and less ability for these economies to create an atmosphere that convinces ambitious young people to stay in the future.”

The Silatech Index is the first survey to comprehensively gauge young Arabs’ views on opportunity and the job market. Silatech, founded in 2009 by Qatari First Lady Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser al Missned, seeks to foster job creation and entrepreneurship for young people in the region.

Partnering with Gallup last year, surveyors asked more than 40,000 15- to 29-year-olds across 21 Arab countries a battery of questions about their economy, job prospects, education and governmental support. With two-thirds of the Arab world’s population under 30, their perspective is vital.

The first data set came out in June 2009, highlighting three key metrics: mindset, which gauges society’s support for the economic contributions of youth; access, focused on access to skills training, entrepreneurial assistance and job placement services; and policy, measuring the government’s ability to increase employment opportunities.

The findings of the second Silatech Index suggest that Arab economies often fail to meet the needs of their increasingly informed and ambitious youth.

One key question concerned how to reduce “waithood”, the sometimes-lengthy period between college graduation and full-time employment in one’s chosen line of work. The overwhelming response was the need for more quality jobs.

But creating jobs is not a simple proposition. Just ask US President Barack Obama, whose economic stimulus package, enacted a year ago and aimed primarily at job creation, has mostly failed to stem the tide of job loss.

And most Arab economies face a much steeper climb. One of the key problems is that launching a business is so taxing, with stacks of forms to be filled out, endless red tape and weeks of waiting. According to the survey, nearly a quarter of all Arab youth would like to start a business in the next year. But the number that will actually do so is considerably lower.

“Policy structures are not encouraging for young people to start their own businesses,” said Mr Younis. “There needs to be a public discourse about how policymakers present the options to young people to join economic life in their country.”

Such entrepreneurialism may help build a stronger society, according to the index. The youngsters most likely to start a business are also those who know a reliable person who could serve as their business partner. They are also those most likely to have helped a stranger in the past week.

“This suggests that those who perceive a community are those that seek to start a business,” said Mr Younis. “We need to communicate to policymakers and developers that economic development and community development are intimately linked.”

The social and economic development of a country is also linked to the degree to which its youth are sanguine about their prospects. Thus, the index’s highest scores were found in the Gulf countries, which maintain the highest GDP and the best security and living standards in the Arab world; although about two-thirds of all young Gulf nationals remain outside the workforce, either as students or unemployed.

Qatar topped the mindset and access categories, while the UAE led in policy.

The lowest scores were in Palestine, Iraq and Lebanon, three countries mired in conflict. Some 15 per cent of Iraqi youth believe enough is being done to increase the number of jobs, and less than a quarter believe the government is maximising the nation’s youth potential. In Lebanon, just one in five young people think now is a good time to find a job and 88 per cent believe the government is not maximising youth potential. Less than a third of young Palestinians believe that children learn there every day – the lowest among all countries surveyed.

It is not only the war-ravaged economies that have problems. About a third of Algerian youth are unemployed, and only slightly more are confident about the job market. Morocco scored among the lowest on quality of education, with just 42 per cent of respondents saying the country’s schools were adequate. Only one in four Egyptians believe the economy is headed in the right direction, while nearly 70 per cent believe the West can help their country’s economic situation.

Amid the dark data, Mr Younis sees a silver lining. Those surveyed called for more education and training, better access to job placement and business development services, and a more responsive government.

“Young Arabs know exactly what they need, they just can’t find what they’re looking for,” said Mr Younis, who recommended greater co-operation among the 22 Arab nations surveyed. “If young people are given the resources to succeed in the economic life of their country, they would rather stay in their home country than leave permanently.”

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