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Private sector collaborative action needed to combat the world's highest youth unemployment in the Arab world

Badr Jafar, the Co-Initiator of the Pearl Initiative, the GCC-based, private-sector led organization promoting good governance, transparency and corporate responsibility, and President of Crescent Petroleum, delivered an address at the closing session of the United Nations Economic and Social Council in New York, giving the 500 delegates a bracing analysis of the employment problems facing the youth of the Middle East.

The event at the United Nations headquarters in New York entitled 'Breaking New Ground: Partnerships for More and Better Jobs for Young People', was organized by the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA) and the International Labour Organization (ILO), in collaboration with the United Nations Office for Partnerships (UNOP) and the United Nations Global Compact.

In his speech, Badr Jafar gave a sobering assessment, highlighting that the Middle East and North Africa has the highest youth unemployment in the World, currently recorded at over 25%, with pockets of youth unemployment reaching up to 60% in places like Egypt and Tunisia. 

Female youth unemployment is even higher, exceeding 39% in the Middle East. Jafar pointed out that the persistent failure of educational systems in the Arab world to provide youth with the necessary skills to compete in an evolving job market that is in a continuous state of evolution and flux, instead of fostering creativity and innovation, has compounded the problem.

Jafar also noted that a staggering 5 million jobs must be created in the MENA Region every year just to prevent unemployment from rising further. "We must find an answer to this soon, or risk long-term instability in our Region," he said. 

Describing the continuing instability as "a reaction against the ever-widening deficit in economic opportunity for tens of millions of young people", Jafar added that "creating the millions of jobs needed to stave off social crisis will require a Herculean effort."

"The business sector, together with government and civil society in public-private partnerships, has a vital role to play in delivering innovative solutions to the growing youth unemployment problem", he argued, adding that businesses "can take pro-active action in all three critical areas of education, employment and fostering entrepreneurship". 

Small and Medium Enterprises play a central role across the entire MENA Region, and the expansion of this sector is a key engine of future economic growth and employment. Every prosperous society in modern human history has had a vibrant SME sector, accounting for a high proportion of employment in most countries, averaging 70-75 percent in Europe and North America, for example, but only 33 percent in the MENA Region.

Jafar said that immediate "make work" infrastructure projects are desperately needed to employ large numbers of workers, such as construction of highways and bridges, and large rural or agricultural projects, and that the MENA region alone needs to invest $75-100bn in infrastructure annually, which in turn could generate over 11 million infrastructure-related jobs.

Representing the Pearl Initiative at the meeting, Jafar talked about the collaboration between the Pearl Initiative and the United Nations Office for Partnerships, and the value this creates in helping drive global UN initiatives with active private sector engagement in the Arab world. He highlighted how the Pearl Initiative is working with the ILO and the United Nations on various issues of common interest, in such important areas as ethical labor practices, human rights, supply chain practices, and workplace issues, as well as corporate governance, anti-corruption and reporting practices, in order to work towards what is a shared goal: to enhance the capabilities of the private sector to develop and implement new ideas and better business practices in the Arab World.

Jafar stated that "These immense challenges cannot be confronted without the Private Sector, and the companies of the Region must lead by example, engaging with governments and educational institutions to ensure that training and education meet the need of the job markets." 

"At the Pearl Initiative, we are providing a platform for the coordination of these efforts, in the hope that in the not too distant future, the Arab world will be able to regain its former glory as a region of great opportunity and innovation." he concluded.

Badr Jafar was joined in speaking in the closing session by Sha Zukang, Under-Secretary-General for Economic and Social Affairs of the United Nations; Jose Manuel Salazar-Xirinachs, Executive Director, Employment Sector, ILO; Ron Bruder, Founder, Education for Employment Foundation; and His Excellency Miloš Koterec, President of ECOSOC.

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