Middle East youths tackle social problems by starting businesses

Youths in the Middle East confront the world’s highest youth unemployment rates. Some are creating new businesses with a social purpose, such as battling illiteracy or environmental degradation, while also generating new jobs.

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    A young woman participates in a Global Citizen Corps international youth gathering in Doha, Qatar.
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Reham Issam Di’bas had a new university degree and career plans when she began job hunting in the Palestinian Territories. Facing rejection, disappointment, and frustration, Di’Bas realized that her new degree wasn’t going to help her find employment.

So she decided to create her own.

After taking an entrepreneurial training course, she founded EZSakan, an online housing locator – like an

While many youth around the world struggle to find work, the Middle East and North Africa battles with the world’s highest youth unemployment rate. A quarter of young men and 42 percent of young women aged 15 to 24 were unemployed in 2012.

In contrast, unemployment among youth in the US was 16 percent, while youth in the European Union face 18 percent unemployment.

As Di’bas learned, a college degree does not guarantee employment.

The World Bank estimates that almost 100 million jobs – or double the current rate of employment – must be created in the Middle East by 2020 in order to close this employment gap.

While this “youth wave” appears daunting, young people with passion and skills can invigorate the region through social entrepreneurship.

And they are: Youth in the Middle East and North Africa are using their skills to create or join social enterprises that address many of the social issues plaguing the region, such as illiteracy, inequity, health problems, and environmental degradation, according to Synergos, a nonprofit organization reducing global poverty through partnerships with citizens, institutions, and sectors of society.  

Surveys and research conducted in the region show that youth are receptive to the idea of social enterprise, indicating a social enterprise movement could be successful. More than 70 percent of young people surveyed in Bahrain, Iraq, Qatar, Syria, and the United Arab Emirates believe that entrepreneurs help create jobs, according to a 2009 Silatech survey.

To meet the employment needs of the youth population and larger social and development issues, policymakers and other organizations are supporting entrepreneurial programs that give youth the tools they need to create social enterprises, including technical assistance, mentorships, and peer network exchanges.

Here are four initiatives dedicated to propelling the social enterprise movement among youth in the Middle East and North Africa:

  • Funded by the African Development Bank, the business incubator Yunus Social Business (@Yunus_SB) invests in young Tunisian entrepreneurs to get their businesses off the ground. Although the organization helps set up the social enterprises, the businesses are entirely run by the entrepreneurs. Yunus Social Business works with companies in plastics recycling, women’s handicrafts, biological agriculture, and ecotourism.
  • Created in 2008, the Arab World Social Innovators (@SynergosMENA) program supports 50 social entrepreneurs that serve underrepresented communities in Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, the Palestinian Territories, and the United Arab Emirates. The entrepreneurial ventures include education, garbage collecting and recycling, health, and microenterprise.
  • Education for Employment (@EFE_Global) provides economic opportunities to unemployed youth in the Middle East and North Africa through entrepreneurship training programs and placement. Since its creation in 2006, the organization has trained and found employment for more than 3,300 youth across the region.
  • TechWadi (@TechWadiorg) is a nonprofit collaboration between California’s Silicon Valley and the Arab world. The organization empowers Arab entrepreneurs through mentorships that focus on making business plans, expansion opportunities, and connecting with investors, clients, and strategic partners.

The number of entrepreneurs in the Middle East and North Africa is at an all time high. Business incubators, investors, nonprofits, and government organizations are coming together to create a better economic future for young people in the region.

“While many people will associate this decade with the Arab Spring, I see this as the beginning of a decade of entrepreneurship,” Ossama Hassanein, chairman of TechWadi, told the Skoll World Forum.

This article originally appeared at Global Envision, a blog published by Mercy Corps.

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