Today, the Middle East in North Africa (MENA) region faces the great challenges of social integration and economic diversification. According to an Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development report on youth in the MENA region, “young men and women in the MENA region face the highest youth unemployment levels in the world. With the share of youth (aged 15–29) exceeding 30 percent of the working-age population in most countries.” The MENA region is also host to an unprecedented number of refugees and internally displaced persons. In 2017, according to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, the MENA region hosted just 6 percent of the world’s population, but nearly a quarter of the world’s refugees, returnees, stateless people, internally displaced people and asylum-seekers. Many lower and upper-middle income countries are host to these refugees, such as Lebanon, Turkey, and Jordan. The dual challenges of needing economic diversification and addressing marginalized populations create competing demands. Countries must grapple with decisions about access to labor markets and social programs for refugees while also meeting the demands of its own citizens who may also be struggling with unemployment and access to opportunities.
The Hollings Center for International Dialogue has held numerous dialogues focusing on the economic and educational issues in the MENA region. One recurring theme in these dialogues was the important role entrepreneurship can play in growing economies, providing jobs, encouraging innovation, developing communities, and integrating migrants into social and economic structures. Entrepreneurship is seen as a critical driver of economic and social development. Currently there are numerous entrepreneurship and livelihood programs throughout the region, run by governments, international non-governmental organizations (INGOs), corporations, and local organizations. Incubation hubs are also flourishing. International and local organizations have invested large sums of funds into such programs. Yet, while the belief persists that programs like entrepreneurship training, vocational training, and financial education can provide a means of livelihood of the economically marginalized, the efficacy and long-term impacts of these programs remain largely unknown.
There is growing recognition that sustainable economic solutions are needed for both marginalized communities and refugees. Consequentially, integration of these populations is also integral to have a flourishing, sustainable entrepreneurial ecosystem beneficial to communities and nations. Many challenges, such as lack of formal education, capital, social capital, language skills, knowledge of local market and regulations and access to credit, exist for these people. “Local integration is a complex and gradual process with legal, economic, social and cultural dimensions. It imposes considerable demands on both the individual and the receiving society.” Entrepreneurship can serve as a tool to overcome some of these challenges if properly introduced.
To look at these issues and address the challenges of developing an entrepreneurial ecosystem in the MENA region, the Hollings Center hosted a dialogue program to look at current efforts and determine the efficacy of ongoing initiatives. Held in Amman, Jordan, in November 2018, the dialogue participants reached the following conclusions:
- Current entrepreneurship capacity-building programs merit some criticism. Too often, the programs focus on short-term inputs and have not displayed medium- and long-term sustainability. Expectations of these programs should be realistically scoped. Stakeholders and entrepreneurs need to be prepared for high rates of failure. But when breakthroughs do occur, they should be highlighted prominently.
- A communications gap exists between and within stakeholding sectors. The use of different standards and definitions has contributed to the patchwork approach to entrepreneurship in the region. The question of what does and does not constitute an “entrepreneurship program” and should be considered. Goals and expectations between stakeholders should be well defined.
- Understanding the local market is key in developing entrepreneurial ecosystems in the region.It is also the avenue with least barrier to entry and more likely to have positive impact on marginalized communities. Programs should take this into consideration.
- Barriers to economic entry in many countries of the region should be eased. Easier business registration and access to startup capital would help entrepreneurs enter the market. Throughout the meeting, outdated regulations and arcane processes were regularly cited as the primary hindrance to entrepreneurial and job development. Foreign actors, such as international governments and INGOs, can have a major impact in this.
- Regarding refugees and other marginalized communities, many countries are facing an inflection point, particularly with the Syrian crisis. Will the refugee groups be allowed to stay or not? Right now, many governments in the region are dithering on this question for one reason or another. As a result, many of these marginalized communities are excluded from the economy or forced into the informal one. Participants noted this is unsustainable.
“Youth in the MENA Region—How to Bring Them In,” OECD, December 2, 2016, www.oecd.org/gov/youth-in-the-mena-region-9789264265721-en.htm.
United Nations. “UNHCR Global Report 2017 – Middle East and North Africa (MENA) Regional Summary.” UNHCR. 2017. Accessed July 17, 2019. https://www.unhcr.org/en-us/publications/fundraising/5b30ba237/unhcr-global-report-2017-middle-east-north-africa-mena-regional-summary.html.
United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHRC), “Local Integration,” www.unhcr.org/local-integration-49c3646c101.html.