MENARY Monitor – 2022 End of Year Review
The State of Youth in the MENA Region
MENAACTION’s Middle East and North Africa Region Youth Monitor (MENARY Monitor) has been running for nearly two years. It provides weekly overview of all youth-related news and updates from the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region within 6 categories: (a) politics and political engagement; (b) economics and entrepreneurship; (c) conflict; (d) development; (e) education; and (f) environment. In analyzing each of the 6 categories, this report provides in-depth analysis of the state of youth in the region over the course of 2022, with emphasis on the challenges and opportunities along with short-term recommendations for needed interventions.
Politics and Political Engagement
When it comes to youth political engagement, 2022 saw more challenges than successes for youth. As COVID-19 related movement restrictions were mostly lifted, protests broke around the region, particularly in Iran, sparked by the murder of young Mahsa Amini on the hands of the morality police. The still ongoing protests are led by Iranian women and youth who are facing existential crackdown from the Iranian regime, manifested in arbitrary detentions at best, and murky trials leading to executions at worst. Hundreds of protests have been killed thus far while tens of thousands have been arrested, with tens facing imminent executions.
The protests in Iran, and elsewhere in the region for that matter, are a culmination of years of marginalizing policies, and in some contexts, such policies are worsening. The democratic backsliding in Tunisia is marginalizing and alienating youth groups, as the new constitution provides the president with consolidated powers not seen after 2011’s Arab Spring uprisings. In Sudan, the military coup co-opted years of hard work by youth activists who had not had the chance to celebrate the ousting of former president Omar Al-Bashir.
There are two important statements that demonstrate the current state of youth marginalization in the region. The Iranian chief investigator who is in charge of interrogating youth detainees said “I have spent my life interrogating great political figures, but these days, I am doing the most difficult interrogations in my life, as I do not understand what they are saying, and they do not understand what I am saying.” As for Sudanese youth, observers believe that youth have become “instrumentalized but not trusted to lead.”
These two statements demonstrate a major gap between youth and decision-makers, grounded in (a) inability to understand their needs; (b) unwillingness to provide them with their rightful space within the political sphere; and (c) utilizing youth as an instrument to achieve certain gains within larger political competitions.
Economics and Entrepreneurship
Much like 2021, this past year brought continued economic challenges for youth across the region, with unemployment among youth still stagnant and government ability to create jobs is still subpar. These economic difficulties are placing the region’s young assets at risk of migration at best, or worsened mental health struggles, with education dropouts also on the rise in many countries, including Lebanon and Syria.
While there were indeed tens of government initiatives aimed at addressing the scourge of unemployment, they are yet to prove effective. This is due to a number of reasons, including a skills mismatch, challenges related to education, and a weak level of cooperation between the public and private sectors. Governments, nongovernment organizations, and economists are increasingly encouraging youth to turn more to the entrepreneurship track.
A certainly viable solution for many, entrepreneurship in the MENA region, however, also comes with its own sets of challenges. Many young Algerian entrepreneurs, for example, complain about government bureaucracy and delays in processing their paperwork, whether to register their enterprises or to acquire funding. Financial literacy and financial inclusion are also aspects hindering the progress of entrepreneurship in the region. For example, only 17% of young Moroccans use digital payments while only 1.6% buy products or services online.
To that end, the Arab Monetary Fund (AMF) emphasized the importance of financial inclusion to foster economic growth in the region and called on Arab governments and banking institutions to improve upon social responsibility and to resort to sustainable finance to empower the more vulnerable communities, such as the youth and women.
In addition to that, the UAE announced a monumental decision in the form of a new visa designed specifically for job seekers. The job exploration entry visa, as it is called, is 60-day entry permit that offers a variety of incentives, such as the ability to acquire the visa without the need for a host or a sponsor. This visa provides youth, who have been facing the challenge of unemployment in their countries, with a much needed shimmer of hope.
Most of the conflicts around the region continued to witness escalations and youth were constantly exploited as fuel for the fights or targeted and primarily victimized. They also continue to be targeted by armed violent extremist, terrorist, and sectarian factions. Youth also continued to fall victim to a number of human rights restrictions and violations along with a spike in the prevalence of drugs across the region.
At the forefront of these conflicts is the Palestinian-Israeli conflict in which Israeli occupation forces continued to systematically target young Palestinians, killing, wounding, and detaining Palestinian youth and children on a daily basis. MENAACTION reported on the death of at least 60 young Palestinians on the hands of the occupation forces throughout 2022, but ffficial reports from the United Nations indicate that the death toll of Palestinians killed by Israeli forces over 2022 is at least 200, 43 of whom are children, coupled with the arrest of about 7,000 Palestinians, 882 of whom were children and 172 were women.
In addition to that, at least 488 Iranians were killed during the ongoing protests, 60 of whom were children, which sheds further light on the authorities’ deadly resolve to crush the widespread, ongoing protests. The Iranian Human Rights (IHR) group said that more than half had been killed in areas with high Kurdish and Baloch populations. Additionally, a report by the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in early December suggests that at least 500 individuals were executed in Iran throughout the year, excluding nearly 450 who were killed during the protests.
In addition to that, irregular migration, violent extremism, and drug addiction remain other dangers facing youth around the region. Throughout the year, hundreds fell victims to recruitment by violent extremist groups, as thousands engaged in irregular migration, mostly toward Europe, and drug addiction became more prevalent throughout the region despite enhanced government policies.
Over the course of 2022, hundreds of youth development initiatives and programs were held with the aim of empowering youth capabilities in line with the needs of the region. Despite some successes, such efforts can be characterized as mostly traditional and seldom coherent with the actual needs of youth, perhaps due to the absence of efforts to solicit inputs from youth regarding their own needs and priorities. For example. An Egyptian journalist clarified that 60% of the Ministry of Youth’s allocations went to construction, 30% to support youth centers, and 8% for workers’ wages, leaving 1% for activities.
Throughout the year, youth led a number of grassroots, voluntary initiatives aimed at addressing different local challenges. At the same time, government and nongovernment organizations looked to build and sustain the culture of voluntary work among youth, which in fact proved effective. Given the importance of volunteer work in the world, the United Nations designated the fifth of December of each year as a date for celebrating International Volunteer Day. There were also several workshops and initiatives that addressed issues related to wellness, COVID-19 pandemic, and countering the scourge of drugs. This is important given the global pandemic, rising challenges related to mental health, let alone the increase in drug addiction, use, abuse, and related offenses among youth across the region.
Technology and media – whether traditional, digital, or modern – were heavily featured throughout youth-specific development efforts across the region over 2022. The stories monitored included youth efforts to preserve the culture and heritage of their traditions and countries along with several media training efforts, and an emphasis on newer approaches in media.
MENAACTION’s 2022 “What IF Youth Led the MENA Region” Survey found that 57.1% of the respondents stated that the education system should be the highest priority for public spending, 25.8% believe that reforming the education system should be the main focus for their governments, and 13.5% believe that the deteriorating education systems were the most pressing issue facing them in their countries.
Palestinians faced the most pressing challenges related to education over 2022. There are approximately 1.6 million young men and women in refugee and IDP camps, which lack educational rehabilitation centers to work on helping young people to build their capacities. According to the UN’s 2022 Humanitarian Needs Overview, an estimated 678,000 children are in need of child protection services, about 25% of children aged 16-17 are out of school, and young people face multiple obstacles securing a job once they do leave education. Moreover, university graduates in Gaza suffer from unemployment following their graduation.
Lebanese students also face a number of education-related challenges. A UNICEF report revealed 3 out of every 10 young men and women in Lebanon have dropped out of education to find job opportunities. UNICEF also reported that many young Lebanese have been cutting back on healthcare.
With challenges in education to employment transition, the region is also suffering from brain drain among its youth, as a report by Majid Al Futtaim business group and McKinsey highlights that higher education investment is direly needed to halt student brain drain. It indicates that the relative scarcity of top facilities to meet the needs of the region’s brightest has led to many “leaving to study abroad, and in many cases, not returning home.” More investment in higher education in the region, particularly in a way that promotes the necessary skills for the region’s labor market, can limit brain drain.
MENAACTION’s “What IF Youth Led the MENA Region” 2022 Survey found that 49.8% of youth surveyed believe that protecting the environment should be given priority, even if it causes slower economic growth and some loss of jobs, which signifies an important ripe environment for the engagement of youth in climate action. Government institutions and nongovernment organizations should widen the level and type of youth engagement in such efforts to leverage youth’s leadership traits and interest in leading climate action. This is because 2022 featured more emphasis on holding environment-oriented conferences and less interventions on the ground than expected. Supporting youth-led local efforts ought to be prioritized, as they proved effective in raising public awareness and achieving tremendous impacts on the ground.
MENAACTION’s Survey also found that 31.2% of the respondents reported that they have taken or regularly take actions out of concern for climate change and 49.6% of the respondents stated that they are becoming more interested in taking actions, which shows a tremendous level of civic responsibility, especially when combined with those who stated that they do take regular action. While civic responsibility is not entirely prevalent across the region, when given the chance, youth demonstrated that they are prepared and willing to take action on matters of interest for the general population.
UNICEF’s Regional Office for the MENA region and the UNDP Regional Hub for Arab States developed the Young Climate Activists Toolkit, which looks to equip youth with the tools, knowledge, and resources to enhance their engagement in climate action. The toolkit was developed in consultation with young climate activists from around the region to ensure an inclusive and a well-informed framework. The Toolkit is tailored to offer clear, concise, and easily understandable information on climate action to prepare youth for improved participation in climate action and debate. Additionally, Egypt held the 27th edition of the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP27) in November, which featured numerous initiatives leading up to the event, a number of efforts on the sidelines of the conferences, and some endeavors post the summit.