x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

A Palestinian project - and a model to empower youth

The private sector must work with governments to end the crisis of unemployment in the Arab world – before it's too late.

Leaders are finally waking up to the harsh reality that the Arab world is about to face a major demographic crisis. Sixty per cent of our population is under the age of 25 and most face bleak economic prospects. In fact, the revolutions of the Arab Spring began just a year ago on Saturday when a young Tunisian man frustrated by his economic situation set himself on fire.

The unemployment and under-employment faced in the Arab world does not bode well for our future. We are failing to prepare our youth to lead us into the next generation. Even those of our children who graduate from university are often unprepared to enter the workforce, a problem many of my fellow business leaders often grumble about.

And, so, to use an old cliché, we must remember that it does, indeed, take a village. This is not a problem that will be solved only by our government leaders, but it requires all aspects of our societies to help, including quite importantly the private sector.

While programmes that support entrepreneurship and small business development are important and necessary, I do not think they alone will solve this problem. We must begin with our education system, not at the university level and not even at the high school level, but in our primary schools. Our children must learn critical, creative and innovative thinking.

For far too long, our system of rote memorisation education has failed us. We must teach our kids to be quizzical, to think about their environments and the problems surrounding them critically and to think outside the box for solutions. Our children must grow up thinking they have the power to change their environment, their communities, their countries and the world.

It is this type of thinking that will lead to real change in our societies. Children who grow up thinking this way, independent and empowered, will be the next scientists, engineers, doctors and businessmen. But they won't only follow the example of others, they will come up with solutions and new ideas to lead our region to the next century.

I had the honour to witness this power in October at the Celebration of Innovation, the first project of Palestine for a New Beginning (the Palestinian chapter of Partners for a New Beginning). The project was the culmination of a competition of primary- and secondary-school students who entered their innovative ideas and projects from across the Palestinian Territory.

The majority of the top 40 projects, which were showcased in Ramallah on October 5, directly responded to problems our youth face in their everyday lives. The students, some as young as 6 years old, presented to an audience of business leaders and fellow students with confidence and pride in their accomplishments. I am sure that this experience will now compel them to continue to think innovatively about their environments. To help, Palestine for a New Beginning will continue to support and train these students.

Change is not going to happen overnight, so we must begin now. As the private sector, we must get involved in the process - this is not simply a job of our governments. We can support the government to identify the skills that our companies currently need and will need to grow. We can support projects like the Celebration of Innovation and other innovation competitions in the region. We can also support programmes like INJAZ Al Arab, which helps to prepare our next generation of entrepreneurs, and the Education for Employment Foundation, which helps to fill the gap between the skills of our graduates and the employees we need. Finally, we must continue to strive for excellence and support foreign investment in our countries.

At this important time, we cannot and must not let our youth down. They have done their part by finally speaking up for themselves, it is now our duty to listen.

 

Zahi Khouri is the chairman and chief executive of the National Beverage Company in Ramallah