Can volunteering rescue the region from unemployment?

Yara al-Wazir

Published: Updated:

Youth unemployment rates in the Middle East and North African region have remained miserably stagnant over the past decade. Over 67 million young women and mean are currently unemployed, in education, or training. According to the International Labour Organization (ILO), the 28 percent unemployment rate is not expected to decrease any time soon.

Young people are caught in a viscous cycle: they do not have the required work experience to be given a job, and jobs are scarce, so they are unable to find work experience. The public education system is set up in a way that promotes learning ‘by the book’ and regurgitating word-for-word.

Nepotism, or ‘wasta’, is widely seen as one of the only ways that a job offer is guaranteed. From a global perspective, millennials, who have the highest unemployment rate in the region, are less motivated by money and more motivated by making a difference.

This is where volunteering comes in: some see it as a pass-time, a way to meet people, or even an entry position to getting hired by an NGO. However, this can be redefined. Volunteering is a method to develop skills in ones chosen subject area, all the while helping their local community. It provides people with talking points at job interviews, and equips them with the skills required to succeed.

There is not a single Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) or charity that does not require marketing, IT, and communications specialists. The possibilities are endless, the opportunities provide relevant experience, and are able to equip both charities and young people with the skills to survive and grow.

The region is not short of issues that require civic-society engagement, from poverty, to education, to the refugee crisis: there are millions of people in need of help, and millions of people in need of jobs. Volunteering is the gateway to solving both issues.

Perhaps local governments can play a role in promoting volunteerism by increasing public funding to charities that have such structured programs

Yara al-Wazir

What the statistics say

There are very scarce statics regarding the volunteering rates across the region. The Community Development Authority (CDA) in Dubai estimates that only 3.6 percent of Dubai’s population engaged in volunteering activities in 2015.

This compares to the UK average of 42 percent over the 2014-2015 periods, where youth unemployment is significantly lower. Similar statistics are shown across the world where engagement in volunteering activities shows a positive correlation with low unemployment rates.

Having personally worked in the industry, it must be recognized that a vast majority of the NGOs that are set up with systems to engage volunteers are foreign, and often also receive foreign aid.

To some volunteers, this casts a shadow of doubt over the actual purpose of the organization. Perhaps local governments can play a role in promoting volunteerism through increasing public funding to charities that have structured volunteering programs.

The overarching goal

Fundamentally, the “home country” of a charity must not deter young people from volunteering the first place: the overarching goal is to help local communities, and for them to develop skills that will help them in the workforce.

Local NGOs and charities need a stronger framework to attract, engage, and retain volunteers. Countries such as Kuwait have successfully managed to create this phenomenon, where organizations such as Eqauit have been set up to help local causes. Similarly, in May 2017, the UAE announced rolling out a program to increase the rate of volunteering to 10 percent by 2018.

Fundamentally, when it comes to a choice between developing a relevant set of skills to further ones career in an unpaid volunteer-based opportunity, versus a job that shows poor growth prospects but provides an immediate income, young people may be forced to choose the latter due to conflicting priorities.

Volunteering is not the be-all and end-all to solving the unemployment crisis. The situations is far deeper than to have such a simple solution. Volunteering will not end the crisis, but is a first step in laying the foundations to solve it, especially for the region’s graduates, who are more likely to be unemployed.

Yara al Wazir is a humanitarian activist. She is the founder of The Green Initiative ME and a developing partner of Sharek Stories. She can be followed and contacted on twitter @YaraWazir.

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