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The economy: At the heart of the problem

Much of the pressure for reform is about jobs and the dignity of being able to put bread on your family’s table

Peter Millett

Published: Updated:

Much of the pressure for reform is about jobs and the dignity of being able to put bread on your family’s table. Mohammad Bouazizi, the Tunisian fruit seller whose protest started the so-called Arab Spring almost four years ago, set fire to himself because he was not allowed to sell his produce. His humiliation was a powerful motivator towards action which sparked a revolution.

The upheavals that followed had an impact across the Arab world. They have been the subject of endless analysis and comment. Much has been said about the politics of the different countries and the risk of terrorism and extremism. But at the heart of the popular uprisings were economic issues: the demand for jobs, the lack of growth and accusations of corruption.

It is well-known that millions of new jobs will be needed in the Arab world in the next few years. How will countries make themselves competitive to attract the investment they need to soak up youth unemployment? How can other economic challenges like energy and water be tackled effectively? These are big questions that merit debate.

It is well-known that millions of new jobs will be needed in the Arab world in the next few years

Peter Millett

These questions are the subject of an innovative series of programs being broadcast on a Jordanian web TV channel . Written, produced and presented by Jordanians they tackle some of the biggest economic challenges facing Jordan today.

Mobilize grassroots opinion

The aim of the production team is to provide information on issues that touch their everyday lives. They want to mobilize grassroots opinion and encourage debate among members of the public. In doing so, they hope to change the mindset of those who think that their voice doesn’t count.

Each program opens with a presentation by economist Yusuf Mansur. There follows a short film illustrating some of the key aspects of the problem. Dr Mansur then chairs a debate between two experts in the field followed by short comments by members of the public.

The first such program covered Unemployment. It highlighted the statistics on youth unemployment and the fact that Jordan has the third lowest percentage of female participation in the labor market in the world. It linked joblessness with the complaints by companies about the lack of suitable skills among new graduates. The experts said that education and the mind-set of students needs to be much more flexible to meet the demands of employers.

The second program featured Energy. It questioned why there was a crisis when Jordan had plentiful deposits of oil shale and huge potential for renewable energy. The commentators did not shy away from identifying the frequency of Ministerial changes and bureaucratic issues as root causes of the problem. Various steps were suggested to speed up the implementation of a coherent energy strategy.

There are more programs in the pipeline covering Transport, Water and the Rentier State.

Response of the viewers

The most encouraging aspect of this initiative is not the professionalism of the programs (which is high), nor the quality of the debate (honest and controversial), but the response of the viewers. The programs have been widely watched, with more than 15,000 people contributing to a vigorous online debate.

This debate has revealed how controversial these economic issues are for the public. Some might argue that challenging authority and stimulating controversy is dangerous. But calm, rational and well-informed analysis of the issues is the best way to support the development of new policies.

That was no doubt the aim of His Majesty King Abdullah when he described “active citizenship” as local communities engaging in constructive debate on issues facing society and resolving differences for the benefit of society as a whole.

Despite the title of this blog, people aren’t stupid. But they want their views heard. So I am pleased that the British Embassy has supported Aramram in producing these programs as part of our Arab Partnership Program. The vital factor is that the policy debate it has stimulated is entirely Jordanian led and owned.

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Peter Millett is the British Ambassador to Jordan. Previously he was British High Commissioner to Cyprus from June 2005 to April 2010. He has served in a number of positions in the British Diplomatic Service since joining in 1974. He was Director of Security in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office from 2002-2005, dealing with all aspects of security for British diplomatic missions overseas. From 1997-2001 he served as Deputy Head of Mission in Athens. From 1993-96 Mr Millett was Head of Personnel Policy in the FCO. From 1989-93 he held the post of First Secretary (Energy) in the UK Representative Office to the European Union in Brussels, representing the UK on all energy and nuclear issues. From 1981-1985 he served as Second Secretary (Political) in Doha.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.