About 30% of the Arab population is between the age of 15 and 29 years-over a 100 million youngsters. The two biggest issues facing them is unemployment and unemployability.
What Silatech set out to undertake was a challenge to begin with—provide thought-leadership, invest and innovate technologically, towards one goal of youth empowerment; but developments across the region over the last year have made its climb that much steeper.
CEO of Silatech, Dr Tarik Yousef’s worries that new regimes might, albeit with best intentions, end up reinforcing the very practices for which the old ones were criticised and overthrown. Especially in a society where the measure of success is getting a public sector job, which comes with security, tenure-a job for life, he points out. Just one of his many worries, as he guides Silatech’s operations through taut times. But what excites Dr Yousef are the opportunities that have opened up for direct communication with civil society, almost an impossibility not so long ago.
Harvard educated and of Libyan origin, with stints in the UN, IMF and World Bank are a combination of factors that afford Dr Yousef a sharper insight into the needs of the region.
He believes, with the Arab Spring, Silatech has become more relevant, as earlier it operated within immense constraints, where governments controlled the process and they wanted to manage the outcome, and reaching out to the youth directly was much more challenging.
Speaking to Vani Saraswathi, Dr Yousef says: “Now the question is ‘can you respond to the magnitude of demand and interest?’ This is where we have to adjust our own operations, expand our capacities, beef up our resources and gear up to delivering.”
At this point does it seem like you’ve taken on more than you can manage?
Of course, it’s always the case. In a region where you have very few players, very few with a track record in responding to the youth agenda, us and others in the same space become incredibly important at this particular juncture. We represent some of the fresh thinking and innovative ways and we can champion the cause of youth.
This is a moment of immense opportunity for anyone working on the youth agenda, let alone an organisation supported by Her Highness (Sheikha Mozah), which had regional support to begin with.
Given Qatar’s geopolitical role and diplomacy, how is Silatech viewed? Is there a conflict?
There is conflict in the minds of those who wish to connect these dots. From the perspective of NGOS, development institutions, they are able to differentiate Qatar’s geopolitical role from Qatar’s development mission.
At the minimum, they should recognise that not every Qatar-based entity has the same mandate. We have very specific and clear focus on youth issues. We have an international board of trustees that recognises the credibility of that mission. We have activities and programmes that we ought to be judged by. I would say, at no point since the Arab Spring have we encountered any resistance to us wanting to be present in a country. While people might be asking questions, ultimately they will judge you by what you achieve.
Let’s talk about Egypt and Tunisia in particular.
I would say they are priority countries for us right now. Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Morocco-countries with needs on the ground, and are in the process of political transformation that want to accommodate and respond to those needs. These four countries are going to witness a significant growth in our activities. We are expanding our youth microfinance operations; we are funding and supporting technical operations that provide seed funding to SMEs.
In Libya, we are working directly with youth organisations, helping them to understand their own needs, set their priority and national agenda. We will follow up with actual programmes.
We are also going to be doing more work in the policy field—How do you actually influence policymakers, to be youth-sensitive? How do you mainstream these issues policy-wise?
There are other countries we have not worked in before, where we will be making a significant commitment in 2012, including Mauritania, Sudan, Palestine, Comoros, possibly even Somalia.And in the Gulf region, Qatar and Oman have become two important countries where we will be expanding operations.
What about Bahrain and Kuwait?
Again our ability to go into a country is a function of whether we have a counterpart. And that counterpart need not be the government; it could be an NGO, the business community, even the banking sector.
If we are going to make an impact, it requires scaling up the resource. We need partners who are willing to go into the country with us. That’s what has happened in the countries I’ve mentioned (where Silatech is present), and hopefully that will galvanise others to do so too.
The Arab Diaspora is quite rich. Are there individuals interested in investing in the region? Venture capitalists or angel investors?
Unfortunately not. One of our aims is to help mobilise individual investors. Members of the business community, people who do not necessarily bring money, but bring knowhow and expertise.
One of our key goals, as an interlocutor, is to create the links for individuals and organisations from elsewhere to come in and for us to create the space for them to cooperate and commit to programmes. That activity on the outreach side could potentially have financial applications on the ground.
If you can find three to four good fund managers of Middle Eastern origin from North America or the UK and entice them to go back and start some of the SME operations, you will unlock one of the bottlenecks-which is not having technical people who can help.
No single intervention is going to be the key to unlocking the opportunities. You need venture capitalists, angel investors, policy analysts, people who can talk to the government, people who can talk to the youth. You want to influence this whole space. You want to be picking up in a number of these areas - trying to create momentum.
It is not a one-year problem or challenge; it is not a 10% of your population challenge.
If you take the base facts, not assumptions: two-thirds of the population is under the age of 30. About 25-30% are unemployed; and with under-employment you are talking about 40%.
The future of this region is going to be shaped by those who are young now. Whether they have opportunities or not, whether they are employed or not, whether they have skills or not, they are going to determine the face of the society. This is the magnitude of the challenge so we have to respond with an open mind, and also with a sense of ambition and determination that all of the levers are going to matter; all of the end reports are going to matter; all of the potential policy changes will matter.
Isn’t unemployability a serious concern in the region?
Yes, and you have to enhance employability. For that, you have to cross the bridge that will put you in direct conflict with the education system. But what do you do with those who have already graduated? This is where we and others like us are experimenting with a number of new models for retraining, skill-upgrading, career counselling and development; part of the problem you also have in this region is that people come out of the education system and are thrown into the labour market. Nobody is there to advise them on approaching this as a career as opposed to a first job.
Take Tunisia. It had a vibrant tourism sector before the problems. That sector is going through an economic decline on account of the political instability. But once political stability returns, that sector will pick up, will probably grow, and we will need more investments to build resorts. Tunisia does not have an in institute that qualifies and trains youngsters for the hospitality industry. Someone will have to solve that problem.
This is where we can come in for example and suggest a solution for the industry—create incubators for entrepreneurs, link them to mentors…
Have you attempted mentorship programmes already?
We just ran an activity in Libya recently, where we brought in accomplished entrepreneurs from the Arab world. A female media personality, an entrepreneur from the IT sector and another from retail. We ran workshops with the youth in Benghazi in January.
The youth interacted with these personalities, heard stories from them. It allowed them to unpackage their success stories; demystify the notion that only a few can be a successful entrepreneur. It gave them a real feel for what it takes, how hard it is, and how challenging it is.
We can do more than that. These are just introductory sessions in a region that hasn’t had such intimate contact with people like this, without government interference.
We might be able to develop a network of mentors in some countries.
In this region, public sector jobs were the most sought after…
They still are.
It has not changed in any way, post-revolution?
I don’t think it has. There is a danger at this particular moment that these revolutions might in fact reinforce some of these older tendencies.
A lot of youth who could not get jobs in the public sector blamed government corruption, not the lack of merit in the public sector job. Their skill-set has not changed and it was more suited for a public sector job. The fact that they could not enter the sector was largely attributed to corruption, crony-ism and nepotism. Now that you possibly have more accountable or responsible governments, there is going to be more pressure on them to create these jobs as a way of responding to the wishes of the people.
A public sector job is not going to be the right job for most people, it is not going to be available for everyone and it is not going to be the job that achieves the broader goals of society.
We should ensure that regime change does not translate to more entitlements. I think there is that danger now, and we saw this early on in Egypt-one of the first moves made by the interim government was to take on tens of thousands of workers on the public payroll as a reward for the revolution.
In fact that could possibly undermine the revolution.
You can’t just tinker with the old rules. The trick here, at this particular juncture, is to change the mindset.
Are you saying that the ambitions of the youth haven’t changed?
I think they are more ambitious, and they feel their goals are more achievable. But those goals may not have necessarily changed. If you happen to be a product of the public sector education system, your best fit for a job, or perceived best fit, is going to be in the public sector. That has to be worked on. That is not a function of the revolution. That is not a function of political change.
You’ve got a short-term challenge, and a medium- and long-term challenge. You’ve got to deal with a stock of unemployed or unemployable individuals, but you have to work on the output of the education system. We have to change the priorities student level, the parents who advise them, the teachers, and you can also do so by amending policies on the public sector over time.
Make it leaner and more competitive, and not an entitlement programme for anyone who passes out of university.
Let’s talk about Qatar projects. There is the Bedaya centre, and Roudha centre, both run with Silatech’s support. Then there are Enterprise Qatar and QDB also working in the same area. Are the efforts too scattered or will it coalesce?
Everything is going to ultimately come together. Because the system is going to weed out the failed projects from the promising ones; it’s going to promote long-term projects, which is also a function of a country going through a growth spurt.
But this system also allows unsuccessful projects to fester…
A successful system will establish the right incentives for projects to succeed. At a moment in time you go through a growth spurt, with energy to launch too many projects. Part of it is because you don’t know what’s going to work and more because you perhaps want to create synergies. There’s also a chance that as you launch more projects you create opportunities for these projects to work together, specialise or somehow restructure and merge eventually.
I am not too concerned about the proliferation of projects - my concern is whether all of these projects have the right incentives built-in for them to succeed, change, adapt or ultimately shut down because they are not delivering, or producing results on the ground.
At this moment it’s ok to experiment, as long as these experiments are governed by the right set of incentives. Nobody is interested in having a failing project sustained by government hand-outs - that would be the wrong signal to send.
This problem is difficult anywhere in the world, let alone a country where there is immense wealth and ambition and a sense of wanting to do something. There is going to be a tendency to want to do too much, to launch too much.
So would you say, Qatar is handling employability issues well?
Not necessarily sure that Qatar is setting the trend on employability. There are challenges. You can employ all the Qataris in the public sector, but that’s not what you want. Dealing with the education system and what it produces is probably the biggest lever to tackle employability issues. You can’t throw money at the problem or somehow delay the inevitable.
But I am very tolerant of mistakes made by late developers. You need to give them space. Qatar is a late developer, and it has been active in this space only in the last decade. They can learn from the mistakes of others.
What is important is whether they are on the right policy trajectory at this time, and I think the pace of change and the ambition for change is sufficient now to give them room to manoeuvre, to make them learn from mistakes. As opposed to countries that have been doing this for 40-50 years, and some of them insist on repeating their mistakes and don’t seem to learn.