Making Cents Conference: Making sparks for youth economic opportunity in the MENA region

September 9, 2011

Guest blogger Brenda Schuster (Youth and HIV Technical Advisor for Catholic Relief Services) reports back on the Making Cents Global Youth Economic Opportunities Conference’s final morning plenary session, “Youth Economic Opportunity in the MENA Region.” This session included Brandee McHale, COO of Citi Foundation, Svava Bjarnason, IFC Senior Education Specialist, Jamie McAuliffe, President and CEO of the Education for Employment Foundation, and Awais Sufi, Vice President for Work Programs at the International Youth Foundation.

Young people in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) are living through seismic changes in their government and social systems. At this final morning plenary at the Making Cents Conference, panel members are using words like “Optimism! – a fresh start – a BRIGHTER future – hopepositive change” when they talk about youth prospects…prospects that are so good, presenters claim, that they include those of us in the youth enterprise development field too.

“Any of you that are doing this work but doing it somewhere else,” challenges the President and CEO of the Education for Employment Foundation (EFE), Jamie McAuliffe, “wherever you are, whatever it is, just drop what you are doing and come. Come and get involved in this time of tremendous change. We are shaping the future!”

What’s that future going to look like? If all goes as hoped, it should be something like this:

A young person in secondary school talks with her/his counselor, thinks realistically about the future, and enrolls in a post-secondary training program that, after graduation, will translate into a set of targeted, demand-driven skills and a guaranteed job in the private sector.

It sounds fantastic (as in, both wonderful and hard to believe). But EFE is already doing it in six MENA countries.

“Our goal is to bridge the gap between education and employment,” explains McAuliffe. “We customize training programs to meet needs identified by employers who then pre-commit to hiring our graduates. And at the same time, we’re imbedded in the universities, giving advice and helping them really prepare their graduates for employment.”

Focusing on “builders versus buyers,” this approach also creates institutions that will one day replace foreign capital, structures, and expertise. “We’re designed for obsolescence,” says Awais Sufi from the International Youth Foundation. “This is a flexible, demand-driven, alliance-based framework.”

The moderator reminds us that 50 to 70 million MENA youth will enter the workforce in the next few years. Do the presenters have any last advice for us on how we can help?

“Innovate. Create,” cries Svava Bjarnason from the International Finance Corporation (authors of a newly released in-depth survey of youth in 22 countries). “Maintaining the current status quo is clearly not going to do the job.”

This, the panelists insist, is a time of tremendous opportunity. We, the audience members, listen to them and nod. We applaud. And as we file out the door, we’re repeating to ourselves McAuliffe’s parting words:

“What are YOU going to do to help spark some action?”