Yemeni youth ambassador provides a voice for the region’s youngsters [Archives:2008/1153/Reportage]

May 8 2008
Al-Thawr in Egypt forum
Al-Thawr in Egypt forum
The Youth Ambassadors connect via new media such as social networking sites and many meet during participation in conferences organized by the many initiatives targeting youth in the region
The Youth Ambassadors connect via new media such as social networking sites and many meet during participation in conferences organized by the many initiatives targeting youth in the region
By: Amel Al-Ariqi
Nineteen-year-old Abdullah Al-Thawr has the honor of being Yemen's – and the world's – first youth ambassador for the Middle East Youth Initiative (MEYI), a youth policy development think tank sponsored by the Dubai School of Government and the Wolfensohn Center for Development at the Brookings Institution, a Washington D.C.-based independent research and policy organization.

Last year, Al-Thawr won an international essay competition co-organized by the World Bank for a piece he wrote about corruption in Yemen. MEYI caught word of him through this and made him their very first “youth ambassador” for the region.

“He [Al-Thawr] was requested to apply based on his critical thinking around development issues. He was further identified by his commitment to youth development and proactive participation through his involvement with civil society,” said Samantha Constant, communications specialist at the Wolfensohn Center for Development, which helps run MEYI.

MEYI's program, which began in early 2006, has an ambitious goal to change regional government policies in an effort to reintegrate an often-frustrated youthful population and help ease the transition between education, employment and marriage.

However, at this stage, the organization simply is attempting to better understand the needs of Middle Eastern youths through ambassadors like Al-Thawr, who blogs about several focus sections MEYI has singled out as the main challenges facing today's Middle Eastern youth: education, employment, marriage and family formation, civic participation, housing and credit.

Although MEYI still is determining how best to use these youth ambassadors, the group is hopeful that in time, these young leaders will help change policies and make a difference. So far, only four youths have been selected from the Arab nations, staying in touch with each other via new media such as social networking sites and regional conferences.

“All [youth ambassadors] are active in promoting youth leadership among their peers, as well as being involved in development through various sectors. MEYI provides a platform for youths to share their local/youth perspectives and personal experiences around our focus areas of analysis. Such insights then may be channeled into our policy documents,” Constant says.

Critical problems within the regional youth population

Although poor education, unemployment, difficulties getting married, lack of civic participation and lack of financial credit are all serious problems, Al-Thawr believes that Yemen's core problem is education.

“Public school graduates can't adapt to the work environment,” he observes, adding that this prevents people from obtaining work, leaving them unemployed and without any future prospects.

“Education and employment are directly linked,” Constant agreed, “We focus on addressing the outcomes of increased education attainment – a niche that requires greater attention – because despite attaining higher education, students are graduating with limited job prospects due to skills mismatch in the market.”

The general unemployment rate in the Middle East region is one of the world's highest, hovering around 15 percent. Brookings Institution studies show that youth unemployment in the Middle East is even higher – around 25 percent. Yemen's unemployment rate is approximately 35 percent (est. 2003), according to the latest available figures.

Also a youth programs officer at the Democracy School in Sana'a, Al-Thawr has attempted to acquire knowledge and skills that will enable him to continue reflecting his generation's issues.

Besides his blog, which features posts pointing out specific flaws in Yemeni education, such as poor teaching methods in public schools, Al-Thawr also visits rural areas and encourages debates that highlight young Yemenis' attitudes toward their future.

“We should focus on youth, who already are depressed and feel that they have no potential to do anything. It's a problem because they don't feel motivated to learn new things,” he says, adding, “Youth aren't babies, so you don't have to spoon-feed them knowledge because they also should look for things themselves.”

MEYI plans to send researchers to Yemen to conduct field studies to prepare its later strategies; however, this portion of the program has stalled due to the current security situation in Yemen.

“While we are expanding our network,” Constant points out, “to date, we've consulted with a wide range of stakeholders, including ministers and top officials in the region, policymakers, civil society, international and regional organizations, academic institutions, the private sector and of course, youth, all while developing our work agenda.”

Although this process of including Yemeni youth will take years to implement, Al-Thawr is optimistic that there's still time for young Yemenis – who make up half of the population – to improve their lives.

“The problems of Yemeni youths are similar to those among Arab youths. Many Arab governments could fix certain problems, such as the quality of education and empowering their youths to participate,” Al-Thawr notes, “Yemeni youths can face these challenges if their voices are heard and if their needs and demands are clarified within government plans and strategies.”

He adds that although the Yemeni government showed an interest in its young folks by launching the 2006 National Youth Strategy, he thinks it's “complicated and confusing and focuses mainly on reproductive health issues.”

“Many of this integrated youth policy's critical parts have yet to be implemented due to lack of investment and capacity,” MEYI director Navtej Dhillon says, “Thus, one area that the Middle East Youth Initiative is promoting is a regional platform for countries to share experiences and resources.”

He adds that it's a well-known fact that investing in youth is critical in order to increase future prosperity in Yemen and the Middle East at large.

Long-term problems require long-term solutions

So, what are MEYI's specific solutions to help the region prosper? Constant notes that education recommendations include improving university admission policies by adding more writing and critical skills testing rather than standard examinations based on memorization.

MEYI's employment recommendations focus on improving government hiring practices by requiring previous work experience in the private sector and insisting on skills such as the ability to write well.

However, problems in the Middle East do not remain static; they are constantly shifting and transforming. “While the region is highly politicized and ever-changing, demographic trends – as shown by the youth bulge – are long-term,” Constant says.

Because youth-related policy reform will require time, MEYI's approach will need strong youth involvement and participation; thus, Al-Thawr's role as ambassador is only the first step.