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Yemen's "youth bulge" and unemployment - an explosive mix

Men at an intersection in Yemeni capital, Sanaa waiting for builders to take them to work on construction projects
(David MacDonald/IRIN)

Southern Yemen erupted again this past week - another flash in an ongoing, low-level rebellion against the government. International news reports have focused on the government’s siege of an alleged al-Qaeda stronghold, occurring against a backdrop of steady anti-government violence throughout the south.

Local analysts and international observers call for political compromise between the northern-dominated government and aggrieved southerners. However, Yemen’s structural, economic and demographic problems may be beyond the government’s ability to cope, analysts say. The twin crises of unemployment and population growth threaten to derail hopes that Yemen is headed towards a more peaceful future.

In an office building in the capital Sanaa 20 young Yemenis sit in a circle, discussing their future. The men and women are all in their twenties, and have university degrees. Despite their enthusiasm and educational achievement, most are unemployed. These graduates of a vocational training programme run by the Yemen Education for Employment Foundation (YEFE) speak optimistically about their hopes of finding personally and financially rewarding employment, but they are also visibly frustrated by their lack of success thus far.

One student with a degree in civil engineering has applied to nearly every engineering firm in the capital, and hasn’t been able to find an internship, much less a job. Having faced repeated rejection, students describe themselves as “destroyed”, “pessimistic”, and “disappointed”.

Maeen al-Eryani, head of YEFE, explains that while the unemployment rate in Yemen is a staggering 35 percent, the reality is even harsher for youth.

“We estimate that youth unemployment for the ages we deal with, 18-28, is about 50 percent,” al-Eryani said.

YEFE graduates have received specialized training in English language and computer skills which university graduates usually lack, and many will find a job within a few months of finishing the programme. But very few Yemenis have access to such opportunities.

A few blocks away, over 100 young men in working clothes mill about a busy intersection. They are waiting for builders to come by in pickup trucks and take them to work on construction projects around the capital.

“I wait here every day,” says Nouf, a 27-year-old high school graduate. “I’ll work with anyone who comes by. They pay 2,000 Yemeni rials per day [about US$9], but I only find work one or two days per week.”

Rapid population growth, particularly in rural areas, is one of the causes of food insecurity in Yemen

Adel Yahya/IRIN
Rapid population growth, particularly in rural areas, is one of the causes of food insecurity in Yemen
Sunday, July 18, 2010
One-third of Yemenis going hungry - report
Rapid population growth, particularly in rural areas, is one of the causes of food insecurity in Yemen

Photo: Adel Yahya/IRIN
Job-oriented training programmes are urgently needed

Many of these men are high school graduates, and a few even have university degrees. If relatively well-educated Yemenis struggle to find just a few days of low-paid work per week, what does this mean for the future of the economy?

“Youth bulge”

The prospects for youth employment in Yemen are especially dire because the country suffers from a “youth bulge,” a demographic phenomenon found in many developing countries as they move from high to low rates of fertility and childhood mortality. Mortality rates usually decrease first, and the temporary combination of low mortality and high fertility leads to a population bulge.

Yemen’s high fertility rate, with an average of 5.4 children born per woman translates into one of the world’s largest population growth rates, at about 3 percent. About a quarter of Yemenis are aged 10-19, suggesting that the unemployment crisis for youth could get even worse in the medium term, and with 46 percent of the population under 16, the long-term picture is equally bleak.

“By 2020 there will have to be two million jobs created just to keep unemployment rates at controllable levels,” said al-Eryani. He said the “youth bulge”, combined with increasing unemployment, could destabilize the country. “Young people with no hope can be very volatile.”

In recent years the “youth bulge” theory has become a more common lens through which social scientists study conflict. In a report for the Council on Foreign Relations, Lionel Beehner wrote that countries with youth bulges “often end up with rampant unemployment and large pools of disaffected youths who are more susceptible to recruitment into rebel or terrorist groups. Countries with weak political institutions are most vulnerable to youth bulge-related violence and social unrest.”

According to Population Action International, 80 percent of new civil conflicts between 1970 and 1999 occurred in countries where 60 percent or more of the population was under the age of 30.

Unemployment, instability

Yemen has a history of instability and whether it keeps a lid on the country’s various conflicts might be defined by whether young Yemenis have access to economic opportunity. Raidan al-Saqqaf, national coordinator of the International Labour Organization (ILO), believes unemployment will inevitably rise.

“I do see that there will be an increase in unemployment, given that the number of entrants into the job market is far bigger than the number of opportunities being created,” al-Saqqaf said.

Asked if higher unemployment would lead to increased instability, Yemeni political analyst Abdul-Ghani al-Iryani said: “The obvious answer is yes. All these challenges have their roots in economic hardship. More of one will mean more of the other.”

''The worst case is that these young people will turn from an opportunity to a disaster. That would further destabilize the country.''

Al-Saqqaf added that, while politics are an immediate cause of instability, unemployment is one of several structural causes, along with “poverty, poor quality of life, and lack of social services”.

That the northern conflict in Saada has persistently resisted a political settlement is evidence that short-term political solutions do little to mitigate the underlying economic causes of conflict.

“I think the only real asset the country has is human resources,” said Maeen al-Eryani. “If we are to survive, the government needs to allocate its resources to HR [human resources] development.”

While many nations have benefited from a “demographic dividend” as a result of a population bulge, where educated youth have contributed positively to economic growth, in Yemen investment in human capital has been very low. A relatively small percentage of the population is educated (nearly 50 percent of Yemenis are illiterate) and even those with university degrees rarely have the skills needed to succeed in the modern workplace.

Al-Eryani has had students with IT degrees enter his programme, only to find they are not competent in Microsoft Office. English graduates often cannot hold basic conversations with English speakers.

Investment in education needed

To deal with these deficiencies, and thereby turn the “youth bulge” into an advantage for the economy, he recommends increasing funding for technical education and vocational training (TEVT). “With an extension of job-oriented training programmes, work opportunities will increase dramatically.”

But with only 1.4 percent of Yemeni students currently enrolled in TEVT, there is a long way to go.

Al-Eryani also highlights the importance of Yemen’s Gulf partners. “If we are to survive at all we need to create more jobs regionally as well, especially in the Gulf, where there is a big market. But we need to provide better education, because they will no longer accept any unskilled labour, which they can get cheaply from Southeast Asia.”

As Yemen’s major security crises continue to attract media attention, it is vital that the plight of Yemen’s youth not be forgotten. “The worst case is that these young people will turn from an opportunity to a disaster,” says al-Eryani. “That would further destabilize the country.”


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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