Unemployment, Young Populace Create Explosive Mix

In nearly all the countries in the Middle East and North Africa, about 30 percent of the population is between the ages of 15 and 29. Compare that to the U.S., where just 20 percent fall into that age group. Add the population numbers in Arab countries to the high unemployment among young people, and you have a combustible mix. Ragui Assaad, a professor at the Hubert H. Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota, studies that "youth bulge." He speaks to host Michele Norris.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

If you look at the demographics of nearly all the countries in the Middle East and North Africa, you find striking numbers. About 30 percent of the population is between the ages of 15 and 29. Compare that to the U.S., where just 20 percent falls into that age group. Add the population numbers in Arab countries to the high unemployment among young people and you have a combustible mix.

Ragui Assaad studies the so-called youth bulge and he joins us now. He's a Cairo native and a professor at the Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota. Welcome to the program.

Professor RAGUI ASSAAD (Planning and Public Affairs, Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs, University of Minnesota): Thank you very much for having me.

NORRIS: Obviously each country is very different, but could you help us understand the basic reason why we see this youth bulge in so many places in this region?

Prof. ASSAAD: I think essentially the whole region is at the similar stage in its demographic transition. About 20, 25 years ago, the babies started surviving. People were having a lot kids but because they were not surviving and infant mortality went way down, so these kids survived and created what we now call the youth bulge.

Now, since then, fertility has declined in many countries of the region. But we have our own baby boom generation to some extent.

NORRIS: And along with that came an increased standard of living in some countries but not necessarily the jobs that would go along with education or the sort of middle class aspirations.

Prof. ASSAAD: That's right. The governments made a very good effort and I think succeeded in increasing significantly the levels of education of the populations. So enrollment rates are close to being universal, especially at the primary level.

But education had, in the past, led to essentially people joining the bureaucracy. The people were getting these degrees and wanted to get these degrees because they became middle class officials. Now that became impossible for the governments to sustain, as they were moving from these state-led development plans to more market-oriented economies. And so the young people essentially were no longer getting any reward or any value for the education that they got.

NORRIS: For a long time, people just accepted the political autocracy that was sort of forced on to societies in the Middle East and North Africa. But suddenly, this new population, this young population, this youth bulge seems to have a real taste for democracy and freedom.

What contributed to that? Why are there so many people who seem to be willing to put so much on the line and take to the streets?

Prof. ASSAAD: I think this is where the link between economic issues and political issues gets to be very strong. In the past, the governments struck a sort of a bargain with their people, an implicit bargain, where we're going to give you - especially the middle-classes - we're going to give jobs, we're going to give you subsidized commodities, we're going to give you subsidized housing. But in return, you're not going to question the authority of the dictators, the people who control the government.

Now, many governments have maintained this bargain and basically used oil revenues as a way of financing that - those kinds of populist giveaways. A number of countries have been unable to do that and have had to abrogate the bargain, so to speak, on their side. And so young people are saying if we're not getting the goods, we might as well have a voice and democratic choice, what the governments do.

The Gulf countries in general are still able to kind of bribe their populations into accepting authoritarian rule, except for, of course, the poorest among them, Bahrain being an example of that.

NORRIS: So how do you harness this youth bulge and turn it into something that would be positive for some of these countries?

Prof. ASSAAD: You harness it by following economic policies that put the stress on employing young people. So the development programs that are labor-intensive and employment-intensive. And that rather than trying to make the elites richer, try to spread the goods to the middle class in such a way that they get good productive jobs.

The demographic problem itself is not the cause of this. It is the fact that these young people find themselves with no opportunities. Youth bulges have existed before, let's say in Asia, where they became an asset and they resulted in very rapid growth because the young people were put to work in productive employment.

And I think what's happening in the Middle East is because of the nature of the economy, there haven't been opportunities to put these young people to work. And therefore, they're frustrated and join these protests.

NORRIS: Ragui Assaad studies this so-called youth bulge. He's a professor at the Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota. Professor Assaad, thank you very much.

Prof. ASSAAD: Thank you.

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