US Secretary of State John Kerry said late Monday that the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region must look toward developing industries that give young people opportunities to build on their talents and dreams, and also give them alternatives to extremism and potential violence.
In a speech at the Middle East Commercial Center Leadership Dinner at the US Chamber of Commerce, Kerry addressed youth unemployment in the Arab world, as well as the low level of female participation in the workforce, emphasizing that "the region's future depends on the choices that these young people are going to make." "Aside from petroleum, MENA countries right now simply don't produce enough of what the rest of the world wants; they don't trade efficiently even among themselves; and they aren't making wise enough use of their human capital," Kerry suggested.
"Some countries are doing better than others, but overall the Middle East has the lowest share of intra-regional, non-oil commerce in the world. Across the Maghreb, the relative absence of integrated markets costs the economy two to three percent of GDP growth a year. Youth unemployment is above 25 percent. And only about one woman in four participates in the economy." He added that the shortfalls "are particularly harmful now, when countries from Morocco to the Caspian have large populations of young people who are ambitious, educated, hopeful, aspiring, linked by technology, and eager to start careers, but who often lack any real chance to do so." Describing the situation as a "germinator of frustration," Kerry said the region must ask itself, "where are the jobs of the future?" and equip youth with the right skills for that job market.
"Overall the region has a higher rate of educational achievement than much of the developing world. But there's a troubling disconnect between the skills that schools teach and the expertise that the job market demands," he said.
Along with a focus on education, Kerry proposed increased "trade and transparency" in the Arab world.
Citing the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), he stressed that "even modest trade liberalization would significantly increase employment in the MENA region." "The elimination of non-tariff trade barriers and better integration into global supply chains could unleash tremendous economic potential. And I sometimes think that the most valuable gift that any national economy could receive is not new oil discovery or the installation of a deep water port, it's the consistent and rigorous application of the rule of law," Kerry noted.
"If investors are going to risk their capital, they have to know that they will be able to enforce contracts and not be undercut by companies that violate fair labor and even environmental standards," he said referring to the need to tackle corruption within official state bodies.
"Bribery is an opportunity destroyer. It makes honest investors flee and every business more expensive to operate," Kerry acknowledged. "Corruption costs the global economy a trillion dollars a year, and it's everybody's responsibility to expose it, to stop it, to prosecute it, and to replace it with high ethical standards." Finally, Kerry highlighted "better infrastructure" as the key to a stronger economy, pointing to power stations built by US companies in Saudi Arabia, and "modernizing the trucking industry" in Jordan, also a job undertaken by the US private sector.
"Our job is to guide the changes that cannot be stopped into constructive channels. Channels that will harness the talents and energy of all, but especially those vast populations of young people. None of us acting alone can ensure what will happen, but I've got news for you: Together, there is no limit to what we can accomplish," he concluded.