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Helping Complete the Arab Spring

5 Ways to Promote 'Just Jobs' in the Middle East and North Africa

SOURCE: AP/Amr Nabil

An Egyptian woman sits at a popular market in Cairo, Egypt. Creating just jobs must also be the focus of U.S. and European assistance to the Middle East and North Africa.

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Remember Mohamed Bouazizi, the street vendor who toppled the decades old dictatorship in Tunisia and sparked revolutions across Egypt, Bahrain, Syria, Libya and Yemen? The common impetus for these movements is discontent inspired by a crippling lack of employment and the opportunity for average citizens to make a better life for themselves and their families.

Just as the United States and Europe are focused on creating jobs to reinvigorate their own economic growth, creating jobs must also be the focus of their assistance to the Middle East and North Africa. With a soaring unemployment rate above 10 percent—above 16 percent among women and as high has 25 percent among youth—political and social stability in the Middle East and North Africa will be elusive until there are enough "Just Jobs," or work complete with labor rights including the right to organize and collective bargaining, appropriate remuneration, and economic mobility.

The Middle East and North Africa are undergoing an unprecedented transition that will either yield to free, equal, and stable societies or will be mired in conflict, violence, and instability. Just jobs are the essential ingredient to ensure that this geopolitically significant region embarks on the path to progress. Europe and the United States can take the following five steps help foster the creation of just jobs in the region:

Help governments in the region devise economic strategies with just jobs at the core

The Arab Spring proves that regular citizens in the Middle East and North Africa are no longer willing to put up with the jobless growth that characterized many of their economies for decades. As these countries struggle to get back on their feet, they must have an economic strategy with just jobs as the engine for growth, not the reverse. Europe and the United States can provide technical assistance to help governments in the region craft comprehensive economic strategies focused on the country’s most competitive sectors that will create jobs, harness the productive potential of youth, women, and men and create more equal and balanced growth.

Support public-sector employment and public works programs

Creating just jobs quickly is an urgent challenge in Middle East and North Africa. As Europe and the United States explore ways to support rapid job creation in the region, they must support the important role of public-sector employment and public works programs to put people to work. This may seem misguided in an era of austerity where advanced economies are rushing to trim their own public sectors, but public-sector employment and public works programs such as infrastructure projects are the most direct way to create good jobs quickly.

Use trade to raise living standards for more people in the region

Trade, if deployed well, can serve as a tool to help raise living standards for more people in the region. But it can also exacerbate inequality if the benefits accrue to the few rather than the many. Europe and the United States should not deploy trade as a strategy to generate economic growth in the region without also ensuring that governments have the capacity to institute and enforce good labor standards. They should support governments in instituting health care, education, training, job search assistance, and basic pension schemes to ensure that more people benefit from an expanding economic pie.

Build government capacity to support micro-, small-, and medium-sized enterprises

The private sector is essential for generating jobs and for diversifying economic activities including trade and exports, all of which help fuel economic growth. Europe and the United States can support Arab nations in instituting a regulatory framework in which micro-, small-, and medium-sized enterprises can prosper. They can help governments mobilize capital to finance small business as well as assist banks with risk assessments and loan guarantees to stimulate lending.

Ensure that the right to freedom of association and collective bargaining are written into law

Trade unions are crucial social institutions that help broker the relationship between employers and employees. They mobilize workers to foster political participation, and ensure that government policies are responsive to the needs of workers. The United States and Europe can advocate for the right to freedom of association to be written into law as these nations establish new governments and constitutions, and can help equip the labor movement with the tools and training they need to mobilize, represent, and coordinate their efforts to promote worker rights effectively.

Taken together, these five policy recommendations affirm the powerful ties binding work, economic opportunity and democracy. Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunisian street vendor had a job, but it was not a just job. That distinction made all the difference to him—and to millions of others in the Middle East and North Africa. Fostering democratic reform, promoting stability, and preventing conflict require just jobs.

Sabina Dewan is Director of Globalization and International Employment at the Center for American Progress and heads up the Center’s "Just Jobs" project.

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