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Turning Arab Spring youth opinions into data - and change

Protesters wave Egypt's flag. Photo: <a href="">C. Elle (flickr)</a>
Protesters wave Egypt's flag. Photo: C. Elle (flickr)

This story was republished in The Christian Science Monitor.

No one needs a report to explain what ‘Arab Spring’ youth continue to demonstrate for: jobs. But evidence that quantifies their sentiments could be the ticket to real policy change.

That’s the idea driving a partnership between an organization focused on Arab youth employment, Silatech, with the world’s leading polling and analysis company, Gallup. Rather than analyze a country’s problems by comparing traditional economic and demographic metrics—GDP and unemployment rate, age and level of education—Silatech and Gallup turn the opinions of Arab youth into comparable data.

Twice a year since 2008, the team has asked thousands of Arab youth their views about three areas the group sees as essential to driving change: job creation and availability, access to the resources they need to find meaningful employment, and the policies they see in the way of their success.

“The report offers a fresh approach to understanding how young people across the Arab world are being affected by, and are responding to, the global economic downturn. Further, this report offers a realistic view of how young people see their future, their prospects, and the paths they so earnestly wish to pursue.” - Rick Little, Silatech's chairman of the executive committee and member of the board of trustees.

With more than 100 million people between the ages of 15 and 29 in the Middle East and North Africa—30 percent of the population—the region is experiencing an unprecedented “youth bulge.” We’ve already seen how the stability of the region depends on whether these educated, healthy, young people have opportunities to be productive citizens. Policymakers have no choice but to get things right given current circumstances.

The latest Silatech/Gallup poll was conducted just before the uprisings in the region began, in late 2010, and found a mixed bag of progress. According to the report:

  • Young Arabs are more optimistic about the direction of their local economies, while their perspective of national economies has soured. Policymakers should harness this sentiment by focusing economic interventions at the local level, aimed at individual cities instead of nationwide programs.
  • Mobile phone access has soared among youth. Internet penetration remains low, but rising. Silatech notes that this development provides policymakers with new opportunities to communicate with this key demographic, as well as the strong potential for online- and mobile-based youth businesses.
  • Fewer Arab youth perceive they can afford good housing, which correlates with limited GPD growth and skyrocketing property prices documented in the region. Youth see the lack of affordable housing as a barrier to achieving independence.
  • In a number of countries, youth do not trust their government to allow new businesses to earn much money, significantly reducing their willingness to risk starting a new venture. Suggestions include policies to scale small- and medium-sized enterprises and streamline paperwork for transparency.
  • In some countries, youth perception of the judicial system has improved, which helps youth feel confident that their assets and property will remain safe. Countries trailing behind in this indicator would do well to implement similar legal reforms to create the environment needed for healthy entrepreneurship.

Download the full Silatech/Gallup report here.

Silatech and Gallup’s analysis of Arab League members’ progress toward creating a better climate for job creation and entrepreneurship results in realistic policy prescriptions. These course corrections could create the change these young people catalyzed and bring significant growth to the region. But the prescriptions cost money; money the region doesn’t have, especially during ongoing global financial crises.

If President Obama’s proposed 2013 budget request is approved, some governments in the region may benefit from an influx of more than $800 million to support “long-term economic, political, and trade reforms to countries in transition—and to countries prepared to make reforms proactively,” according to Reuters.

It’s hard to change policy based on anecdote. But when emotions can be turned into cold, hard numbers, lawmakers can harness the world’s largest and most untapped resource—youth—with policies that create real change.

Gallup analyst Ahmed Younis speaks at Mercy Corps. <a href="">Details</a>
Gallup analyst Ahmed Younis speaks at Mercy Corps. Details

Editor’s Note: Ahmed Younis, senior consultant with Gallup and a senior analyst for the Gallup Center for Muslim Studies and the Abu Dhabi Gallup Center, speaks at Mercy Corps’ Portland, Oregon, Action Center. "Youth in the Arab World: The Reality of Change," Wednesday, February 22 at 7pm.

Details and tickets here.

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