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In the business of preventing extremism. Photo ©

Rawpixel.com on Unsplash, adapted from the original.

January 2018

A recent British Council All Party Parliamentary Group report emphasises the importance of addressing the underlying socio-economic factors that can push young people towards radicalisation.  With unemployment and economic stagnation causing problems across the Middle East and North Africa, we look at how boosting entrepreneurial skills could help build the resilience of the region to violent extremism.

State of the region 

When asked in the most recent Youth Arab Survey (YAS) what young people believed the biggest obstacle facing the Middle East was, the top answers were unemployment and the rise of Daesh. Despite international efforts to come up with solutions to these problems, there has been a rise in both in the past few years. What if the solution is simpler: focus on employment and that in turn will reduce the rise of Daesh? 

Currently 30% of the total population of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) are young people aged 15-29. This unprecedented demographic bulge against a backdrop of economic dislocation has fed youth unemployment rates and, in turn, the rise of political sectarianism. This is reflected in the 2017 Young Arab Survey (YAS), where the number of young Arabs ‘very concerned’ about unemployment increased by 9 points from 2016, meaning that 1 in 2 young Arabs are unsure of their employment options. This ties in with the lack of confidence in the government to improve the situation and provide employment opportunities, with only 53% having confidence in the government’s ability to create jobs.

What if the solution is simpler: focus on employment and that in turn will reduce the rise of Daesh?

Yet there is still a cultural expectation that it is the government’s job to provide employment opportunities. However, due to inadequate infrastructure, weak economic growth and continuing conflicts in some countries, the public sector cannot absorb such a large workforce, evident in the job cuts and slimming of the public payroll. This, combined with weak global growth, low oil prices, failing tourism revenue and nepotistic labour markets, means there are not nearly enough jobs for unemployed graduates. The high unemployment rates might normally indicate a lack of accessibility and investment in the education system. However, over the past 60 years’ countries in this region have increased their spending on education to 5% of the GDP compared to the world average of 4%. Despite the increased investment it’s the quality of the education, ranked among the lowest, that results in social and economic exclusion. Graduates are educated but unequipped with essential life and work skills. The frustrating reality for the majority of Arab young people is that they are being educated for jobs in a saturated market, leading to an ever-expanding gap between their aspirations and the actual opportunities available. Programmes to expand the number of graduates therefore risk increasing the problem, fueling further frustration.

It is this gap of exclusion that extremist groups have identified as prime recruitment potential. The situational factors of corruption, unemployment and lack of quality education lead to a lack of self-worth, motivation, and financial security. These push factors are forcing many educated young people into unemployment with career options limited to the semi-formal economy or to leaving the country in search of higher level work. In these circumstances a small minority can fall prey to extremist ideologies. It is therefore not that surprising that there is at least a correlation between the increase in youth unemployment and radicalisation in this region. 

The most important solution to this vicious cycle is meaningful jobs that provide purpose, motivation, financial reward, and bridge the gap of social exclusion by providing an alternative future. They would also increase tax revenues for governments, enabling them to improve infrastructure and develop higher performing public services. Given that governments are not likely to create more jobs and there is a lack of foreign investment to generate employment, job creation through entrepreneurship can therefore be an important means of filling the gap. It is this young demographic that could be the region’s saving grace when it comes to this priority. If viewed as an untapped resource, developing youth capacity through innovative business ideas would benefit not only the economy and society but also provide occupation and motivation to an increasingly dissatisfied and globalised generation. This would include them in society and provide alternatives to radicalisation. 

Looking South 

Entrepreneurialism is not a novel concept for the region. There are clusters of Silicon Valley inspired spaces providing training and mentors, such as Flat6Labs in Egypt, Seeqnce in Lebanon and Tenmou in Bahrain. However, most focus on investment opportunities and business advice rather than providing the right motivation and soft skills to prevent the pull of radicalisation. Given the potential social and economic impact entrepreneurism could have on the MENA region, it is imperative that international governments and NGOs work to develop an achievable strategy to encourage entrepreneurial spirit. 

Looking at Sub-Saharan Africa for inspiration, there are a number of successful long-term schemes already running and that provide the soft skills required to develop a business. One of the more established schemes is the African Entrepreneurship Award, which motivates through competitive rounds of mentoring, with finalists presenting their ideas to investors. This scheme aims to provide a high level of skills training, giving the candidates every opportunity to succeed.  

There is also The Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI) aimed at encouraging keen entrepreneurs to shift focus from starting a business to solving social problems. YALI also run centres teaching leadership, development and entrepreneurialism. These are two of many Sub-Saharan African organisations investing in and educating aspiring leaders and start-ups. The British Council’s Entrepreneurial Africa program is among them, hosting business clinics and competitions aimed at teaching business skills that can empower the next generation . 

While there is a lot to take from these schemes, one must question the feasibility of these models when applied to a region that can appear ravaged by conflict and instability. It is not only the obvious political and economic barriers that make it different and difficult for entrepreneurs in the MENA region.  There are significant legal barriers in some countries and also the cultural and societal norms that promote a fear of failure and risk, which are ultimately essential in a successful entrepreneurial endeavour .   

There is a lot to learn from African initiatives teaching entrepreneurial skills, such as the structure of the programs, civic engagement content and resources required to inspire and empower

Yes there is a lot to learn from African initiatives teaching entrepreneurial skills, such as the structure of the programs, civic engagement content and resources required to inspire and empower. However, the MENA region needs more than a skills based, short term intervention. In order to begin tackling two major threats the region faces - unemployment and radicalization - a successful entrepreneurial programme is needed to focus on developing qualities such as decision making, emotional intelligence, civic engagement and purpose. Effectively taught and applied in the context of a long-term strategy, these qualities can empower a generation. Looking even further into the future, to bring about a sustainable impact there needs to be significant regional education reforms to provide business skills, whilst aiming to lower the societal and cultural barriers attitudes towards failure, risk and entrepreneurialism. Only once the root causes of unemployment have been dealt with is there likely to be a long-term decline in radicalisation.

Jessica Jackson, British Council Partnerships and Innovation

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