What I told your Finance Ministers: don’t lose sight of your priorities
It has been too long since I last wrote about the jobs situation in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), and an account of what actually happened when I met your senior financial authorities at the World Bank Annual Meeting in Tokyo is long overdue.
I apologize for the delay. I took time off to deal with some personal issues, and since my return I have been wholly absorbed with urgent, daily pressures. This has led me to neglect our ongoing discussion on jobs. The irony is that this is precisely the dynamic I witnessed in Tokyo, and continue to see throughout the region – the daily pressures absorb everyone’s energy and attention, with little left over for the important longer-term planning and choices.
But let me start with the good news.
We had a brilliant presentation of the findings of the Jobs report in Tokyo. This was thanks in no small measure to an excellent panel of senior policy makers, academics and practitioners. The event was very well attended with standing room only, followed by a lively discussion during the question-and-answer period.
We were off to a flying start.
Unfortunately, there was much less focus on the jobs issue in subsequent meetings with delegations (What’s a delegation? Every year at the Annual Meetings of the World Bank, member countries send teams of ministers – usually Finance – and other government officials. They’re the delegations). So many of the countries in the region are faced with immediate fiscal and monetary policy challenges, that discussions naturally focused more on the short term. Almost everybody mentioned the challenge of jobs, especially for young people, but mostly as background for other, pressing economic issues.
As promised, we did raise many of your excellent suggestions with the delegations. There was broad consensus that indeed we need to tackle the jobs problem on several fronts – to create an equal playing field for a dynamic private sector, reduce subsidies on capital in favor of labor, make labor markets more efficient, enhance protection of incomes and reform education systems to make them more responsive to the needs of the private sector.
But what to do now?
The immediate pressures of the new, more open politics appear to be pushing many in the region toward actions that will not help job creation in the long run. For instance, more hiring in the public sector and improving public sector job conditions without insisting on higher productivity in return, will not help. Raising pensions for the few who are already covered will just mean more unsustainable systems that continue to benefit a privileged minority.
Fortunately, some countries have begun to work on key reforms that will help both in the short and medium term. Several countries are considering lowering subsidies on energy intensive industries and using the money saved to help lower the cost of hiring new workers, and to strengthen safety nets for the most vulnerable. Others are actively reforming their labor intermediation – the system whereby those looking for work are connected with available jobs and "second chance" training programs.
So there is good news and bad, as there are good actions and bad. So let’s keep the debate going, and let’s keep reminding each other and those in power that, in the long run, the only truly sustainable answer to the demand for freedom, bread and dignity is more and better jobs in MENA. We know what it will take, and we need to keep everyone’s eyes on the ball. Immediate problems have to be addressed, but no one can afford to lose sight of long term priorities.