By Masood Ahmed

After an unprecedented global economic downturn, recovery is beginning to take hold across the world. Nevertheless, the downturn has heightened the core challenges that countries faced before the crisis took hold. Among these, one that stands out in the countries of the Middle East and North Africa is youth employment—or a lack of it.

Simply put, the region is facing unparalleled demographic pressures. Population growth over the past two generations has been among the fastest in the world: the region’s work force is projected to reach 185 million in 2020, 80 percent higher than in 2000. And the region is one of the most youthful in the world—with about 60 percent of the population less than 25 years old.

But employment growth has lagged far behind the demands of growing populations, even when the region was experiencing good economic growth. Now with growth rates likely to be more modest after the crisis, the task of generating enough jobs for young men and women is becoming more challenging. Job creation must therefore be a top policy priority going forward.

Softening the impact

Creating meaningful jobs in any economy is difficult and requires action on different fronts. In the Middle East, historically people have looked to the government to provide jobs but increasingly it is clear that a thriving private sector is key to creating meaningful, productive jobs on the required scale. Of course, governments still have a critical role in providing a sound macroeconomic and financial environment in which the private sector will operate, and in ensuring that the educational and training systems in each country provide students with the skills and aptitude they will need to be successful workers in the 21st century.

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How can the International Monetary Fund (IMF) help in this regard? Mainly by working closely with the countries of the Middle East and North Africa to help devise policies that provide for macroeconomic stability and spur strong and sustainable economic growth that is essential to creating employment. But the economic challenges of the next generation also require a broader engagement—one that must include the young people who will inevitably be called upon to address these challenges as they enter into business, government, academia, and other walks of life.

Talking with the next generation

With this in mind, the IMF has started to engage with the young people of the region to help define forward-looking solutions. Part of this effort is a Middle East Youth Dialog —a series of roundtable discussions with students from renowned universities across the region. From Morocco to Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates to Pakistan, IMF staff have sat down with the next generation of leaders to discuss the policy measures needed to secure sustainable economic growth that, in turn, will help generate new employment opportunities.

This new initiative includes the establishment of a social networking site where young people of the region are encouraged to transcend their own borders by sharing their questions, concerns, and visions of their economic futures.

On April 4, IMF Managing Director Dominique Strauss-Kahn meets with about 50 students in Amman, Jordan, for a town hall meeting at the culmination of the roundtable discussions. The session is being broadcast live via BBC Arabic on television, radio, and the internet. Beyond this groundbreaking event, additional roundtables are planned for other countries in the region, as well as continued discussions on the social networking site. These first steps take place as countries of the Middle East and North Africa begin to rebuild the momentum of growth to help their citizens fully benefit from the opportunities of the 21st century. And that includes the youth whose future we all will depend on.