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IOS Minaret Vol-1, No.1 (March 2007)
Vol. 11    Issue 15-16   16 December 2016 - 15 January 2017

Youth and the Prospects for Human Development in a Changing Reality

A Window on the Arab World

Professor A. R. MOMIN

On January 1, 2016 the United Nations released an important document 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The document represents a vision for transforming global development over the next fifteen years in a framework of peace, sustainability and prosperity. It focuses on a set of 17 Sustainable Development Goals, which are aimed at mobilising global efforts at ending all forms of poverty and inequality and pushing for all-round, sustainable development. These goals include:

  • Ending poverty
  • Elimination of hunger
  • Good health and sustainable well-being
  • Quality education
  • Gender equality
  • Clean water and sanitation
  • Affordable and clean energy
  • Decent work and economic growth
  • Industry, innovation and infrastructure
  • Reduced inequalities
  • Sustainable cities and communities
  • Responsible consumption and production
  • Climate action
  • Life below water
  • Life on land
  • Peace, justice and strong institutions
  • Partnership for the goals

The document focuses on youth as critical agents for social transformation and sustainable development. The goals identified in the document are undoubtedly laudable, but leave out at least four equally important goals, namely, cultural diversity, social capital, human rights, especially minority rights, and inclusive economic, political and cultural institutions and policies. The United Nations’ Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity (2001) regards cultural diversity as the “common heritage of humanity.” This invaluable heritage is under threat from the resurgence of ethnic, majoritarian and exclusionary nationalisms in many parts of the world. Robert Putnam has spoken of social capital to describe the sense of connectedness and the formation of social networks that bind people together. In the context of the disintegration of family, neighbourhood and community and the fraying of social bonds in large parts of the world under the pressures of rapid urbanisation, accelerated mobility, the unprecedented pace of technological and social change and globalisation, it is necessary to emphasize the central role of social bonds and networks for the well-being of individuals and groups. Violations of the rights of minorities and vulnerable and marginalised communities by military dictators, autocratic governments and powerful groups are a painful feature of the contemporary global scenario. Therefore, the protection of human rights must remain a fundamental goal of all development programmes.

In their book “Why Nations Fail” (2012), the Harvard political scientist James Robinson and the MIT economist Daron Acemogly argue that nations thrive and prosper when they develop inclusive economic and political institutions, and that they are doomed to failure when these institutions become exclusive and “extractive” and concentrate power and opportunity in the hands of a small minority. They suggest that the key to a nation’s progress lies in the building of political and economic institutions that seek to empower each and every citizen and to harness his or her potential. An authoritarian state with exclusive political institutions, like China, may make impressive economic gains in the short run, but such gains are unlikely to be sustainable.

Arab Human Development Report 2016

The Arab Human Development Report 2016 seeks to contextualise the vision of 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development to the Arab region. It looks upon youth as a highly significant resource for development.

The Arab region consists of 22 Arabic-speaking countries with a combined population of around 422 million. These countries are Algeria, Bahrain, Comoros, Djibouti, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco, Oman, Palestine, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, United Arab Emirates and Yemen.

Population growth in the Arab region has been among the highest in the world, thanks to a combination of high fertility and declining infant mortality. Young people between the ages of 15 and 29 account for nearly a third (some 105 million people) of the Arab region’s population while another third are below the age of 15. In other words, nearly two-third of the population is below the age of 30. This “demographic momentum” is likely to be in force over the next two decades. The report notes that the 2011 popular uprisings in the Arab region, which were spearheaded by youth, underlined the economic and political marginalisation and exclusion of youth and their deep sense of frustration, anguish and despair. The Arab Spring, which has brought about a fundamental transformation across large parts of the Middle East, in fact provides the thematic backdrop and focus of this document.

The report notes that the present generation of young people in the Arab region is more educated, better informed about their societies as well as the wider world, thanks to the growing access to modern information technologies, and are deeply conscious of their rights as well as the challenges and impediments that contribute to their marginalisation, exclusion and disempowerment. The Arab Spring, in which youth played a prominent and central role, emerged as a catalysing agent which led to significant political and economic changes in many Arab countries. Since the 2011 uprisings more and more young men and women have been raising their voices against their disempowerment.

The Arab region is one of the most urbanised in the world. More youth are living in urban areas, and the proportion is as high as 81.9 per cent in Jordan and 67.4 per cent in Tunisia. However, in many urban areas in the Middle East, almost two-thirds of people live in slums or dilapidated settlements. Youth living in these areas often experience pervasive poverty, economic deprivation and marginalisation, absence of employment opportunities. social exclusion, massive inequalities and violence.

High youth unemployment rates are one of the most distinctive features of Arab labour markets. Unemployment among youth in Arab countries is the highest in the world: 29 per cent in 2013, compared with 13 per cent worldwide. The Arab Human Development Report 2016 estimates that the Arab region needs to create more than 60 million new jobs in the next decade to stabilise youth unemployment and to cater to the needs of new entrants to the job market.

The Arab region has made substantial progress in respect of education. The primary enrolment rate rose from 76.6 per cent in 1999 to 84.5 per cent in 2013 – close to the world average of 89.0 per cent. Many Arab countries are close to achieving universal primary enrolment. However, the overall quality of education in the Arab region is poor. The score of students from the Arab region in standardised international tests in education such as Trends in Mathematics and Science Study and Programme for International Student Assessment is lower than the world average.

Although access to modern information technologies in the Arab region is lower than the world average, there has been significant progress in recent years. Arab youth are generally connected to electronic and digital means of information and social media have become a major part of their daily lives. Mobile phone use has surged from 26 per cent in 2005 – then below the world average – to almost 108 per cent in 2015 – higher than the world average. Similarly, internet use jumped from 8 per cent (5 million) in 2005 to 37 per cent (141 million) in 2015 – higher than the global average and highest among developing countries.

The report takes into consideration civic engagement and participation among young people in the Arab region and notes that there has been a significant increase in civic engagement and activism among Arab youth in recent years, particularly after the 2011 uprisings, which is slightly higher than the world average. Civic engagement is highest in more democratic countries with greater media penetration, such as Algeria, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, Palestine and Yemen.

The report identifies the major and multiple challenges that youth in the Arab region continue to face. These include poverty and economic stagnation, the disconnect between the existing education system and the requirements of labour markets, high youth unemployment rates and exclusion from the formal economy, suppression of human rights by authoritarian regimes, and large-scale violence which has led to loss of lives, livelihood and disability. These challenges have engendered resentment, frustration, alienation and despair among Arab youth and have led a section of youth to join extremist groups.

The report goes beyond identifying and analysing the dynamics of youth disempowerment and suggests a blueprint for the empowerment of young men and women in the Arab region in the framework of human development. It underscores two interrelated prerequisites for the empowerment of Arab youth: identifying and modifying the economic, political and social factors that lie at the root of youth exclusion and disempowerment, and enhancing the capabilities of youth through productive and critical investments in education, healthcare and other social services. The report notes that the betterment of the education and healthcare systems, expansion of opportunities and resources for employment and entrepreneurship, elimination of all forms of discrimination and the creation of a political environment that allows freedom of expression and active participation in public life can go a long way in enhancing the capabilities of youth and consequently in their empowerment. The report calls upon Arab states to make a critical investment in young men and women and to urge them to participate and involve themselves in development processes. It emphasizes that the engagement of youth with development processes and their empowerment at this critical juncture in the Arab region’s history is essential for laying the foundations of societal and political stability, peace and sustainable development in the Middle East.

The report suggests specific measures for the economic empowerment of youth in the Arab region. These include active labour market policies that could facilitate the youth’s smooth transition into the labour markets, vocational training, infrastructure investment, labour market integration and upgradation of the business environment.

Fallacy of “Islamism”

The Arab Human Development Report 2016 makes frequent references to “Islamist political movements,” “Islamist organisations” and “Islamist parties.” Political commentators and the media in the West frequently use the terms “Islamism,” “Islamist parties” and “Islamist governments” to refer to a wide range of ideological and political affiliations in the Muslim world. In a special issue on the Arab Spring, the Economist defined Islamism as the belief that “politics is and must be an extension of the faith,” and adds that Islamism takes on many shades “from the blacks of al-Qaeda to the dark green of Saudi-style Wahhabism to the palest of modernizing shades.” Thus, the militant al-Qaeda-affiliated groups, Tunisia’s moderate Ennahda party, the hardliner Salafis, the Muslim Brotherhood and the governing parties in Malaysia and Indonesia are indiscriminately lumped together as “Islamist.” Turkey’s Justice and Development Party and Morocco’s Justice and Development Party are described as “mildly Islamist.” It may be pointed out that, like “Islamic fundamentalism,” the term “Islamism” is extremely vague, obfuscating and misleading. It fails to take cognizance of the fact that the differences between the so-called “Islamist” parties overshadow the shared beliefs. For example, if one compares the views and ideological orientations of Rachid Ghannouchi, al-Qaeda and the Salafis (who are lumped together as “Islamists”), one can scarcely fail to notice that they stand wide apart and have very little in common. Ghannouchi, head of Tunisia’s Ennahda party, has consistently argued over the past three decades that democracy and political pluralism are compatible with Islamic values and principles. He espouses a tolerant and inclusive vision of society and polity and is against the forcible establishment of an Islamic state. He is highly critical of extremism and denounces all forms of violence. On the other hand, the al-Qaeda unabashedly espouses and glorifies the cult of violence in furtherance of its goals. There is no logic or justification for joining these divergent views and ideologies under the rubric of “Islamism.”

The term “Islamism” not only beclouds our understanding of the phenomenon of Islamic resurgence in the contemporary Muslim world but also has pejorative connotations and reinforces stereotypes and prejudices against Islam and Muslims. Terms like ‘Islamism’ and ‘Islamic fundamentalism’ bristle with semantic confusion and contradictions and should therefore be avoided in political analysis.

It may not be out of place to make a reference in this connection to Christian democracy, which seeks to synthesize Christian values and principles with democratic institutions. Christian democratic parties are particularly influential in Germany, Switzerland, Italy, Austria, Norway and France. Ironically, while the ideology of Christian democracy has been accommodated in mainstream political discourse in the West, Western commentators and the media tend to have a negative view of political parties and governments in the Muslim world which are trying to synthesize Islamic values and principles with democracy.

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