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UAE’s March with Youth Empowerment

by on 24th September, 2016

Achieving sustainable production and consumption requires additional levels of collaborative efforts between policy-makers, Emirati youth and other stakeholders in order to generate more value

On August 12, we celebrated International Youth Day, which aims to highlight and recognise the role of youth in enhancing the global society. A topic that is very dear to my heart — as I would like to still assume that I belong to this category, although sadly and shockingly I came to realise that the United Nations defines youth as someone who is between the ages of 15 and 25 years. Which means, I have surpassed that age-group by almost a decade.

In line with the Sustainable Development Goals, the theme and the focus for this year's International Youth Day was 'Eradicating Poverty and Achieving Sustainable Production and Consumption'. A very ambitious goal that requires us to shed some light on some of the many strides and entrepreneurial achievements that have been realised by our youth here in the UAE, and also perhaps think about how this theme could be adapted to our local context based on my reflections on some experiences from the developing world.

As the UAE steadily moves towards the Vision 2021, our leadership recognises the instrumental role that youth plays in the development of the country as they account for about 42 per cent of the UAE's national population. Youth empowerment is a top priority in all national strategies and actual implementations and initiatives on the ground. The best recent examples of this would be the appointment of a Minster of State for Youth Affairs, with a mandate to ensure that the voice of the youth is brought to the table and to implement strategies that empower and engage youth in the development of the country, as well as the Youth Development Index launched this year by the UAE Government to help decision-makers in shaping youth-oriented programmes

Furthermore, as the UAE strives to diversify its economy and minimise the over-reliance on the public sector as the main source of job-creation, entrepreneurship and development of small businesses have been recognised as two of the main avenues for channeling the efforts and maximising the full potential and capabilities of the mostly-young Emirati population. Within the Middle East and North Africa region, the UAE is one of the very few countries that have successfully created an eco-system that supports youth in developing and implementing their business ideas in terms of providing seed funding, interest-free loans, as well as economic policies that give certain privileges and exemptions for Emirati start-ups.

A recent detailed study conducted by the Khalifa Fund for Enterprise Development in Abu Dhabi highlighted the fact that despite all of these efforts that are in place, entrepreneurship activity in the UAE still remains very low in comparison to other parts of the world. Moreover, there are still many challenges that impede the development of small and medium enterprises, such as the lack of policy coordination, mismatch between the education system and the market needs, absence of bankruptcy laws, lack of active mentorship and role models and others, which have been organised into micro, macro and meso support levels of the existing entrepreneurship eco-system.

I believe that within the last seven-ten years, the Emirati youth mentality and perception of self-employment and risk-taking have significantly evolved, which must be acknowledged. I personally know of a number of friends and acquaintances that decided to leave their very promising and stable government-based careers to follow a passion that was translated in one way or another into some entrepreneurial activity or a start-up of some sort. This certainly reflects a mindset shift from the previous generation that mainly either turned solely to the public sector or resorted to a usually well-rooted family business that would be enforced upon them for continuity purposes or as a source to an additional supplementary income.

The other major trend that has emerged is the noticeable increase of women running enterprises, which is something that can be directly attributed to the advanced gender parity levels that the country has reached and the tremendous support and empowerment that the UAE government has extended to women in particular.

However, it must be noted that this observation is mostly based on anecdotal experience as official figures still remain scarce and fragmented. With the outburst of social media penetration in the country, small businesses have probably benefited from this hype as it is has reached a larger segment of the society with greater purchasing and influencing powers.

It is still slightly disappointing that in many of these small ventures, there is over-repetition and lack of genuine creativity, foresight, proper business planning and lack of a realistic pricing structure. Most of the ideas are focused on temperamental fads that for the most part are very short-term and not sustainable. Furthermore, there must be a realisation that the market can only absorb a certain variation of the same concept or product where most of what is on offer falls within the categories of food and beverages, homemade cosmetics or costume-designing.

In my capacity as Senior Programmes Officer working for a philanthropic organisation such as Dubai Cares, I have had the opportunity to experience and observe a different aspect of the world where entrepreneurship is often not an option for most people, but actually it is a survival necessity and one of the very few outlets to break out of the cycle of poverty. Moreover, in most of developing countries that I have visited to oversee Dubai Cares initiatives, existing eco-systems and support available to small businesses are very limited as local governments are struggling with other overarching priorities.

Yet, we see a thriving non-governmental and civil society sector that plays an integral role in capacity-building and — more importantly — bridging the gap between national policies and actual initiatives that have the potential to support the livelihoods of small business owners. What is also impressive is the emergence of social entrepreneurship and business solutions that offer locally-based approaches to addressing some of the pressing matters that local communities are facing. An example of this is an early-childhood enterprise in Kenya called "kidogo", which is an initiative that provides access to affordable high-quality child care and education in urban slum settings in Nairobi. In such as setting, parents rarely have access to child-care facilities for their young children and as a result a lot of children miss out on the opportunity to attend quality pre-school, which is essential for early learning. Kidogo identified and addressed this gap and today, this venture is both successful and popular and provides a very strong case for replicability and sustainability.

Vocational training is also something that is of paramount importance, especially within developing countries, as it provides alternatives and further options for individuals, especially those most vulnerable and marginalised. There are many examples of successful partnerships between governments and civil society organisations in this sector. One of these is the Youth Economic Empowerment initiative in Tanzania, which is a consortium led by one of our long-term partners, Plan International, in collaboration with the Vocational Education and Training Authority. The focus of the programme is to improve and increase access to employment opportunities and promote economic empowerment for marginalised young women and men aged between 15 and 35 years.

Young people are not only our future — they are our present as well. They are the most connected, the most outspoken and the most open-minded generation the world has ever seen. A young and fast-growing, productive and self-sufficient national population in the UAE will certainly have a positive impact on the overall economic growth of the country. We must realise, however, that achieving sustainable production and consumption requires additional levels of collaborative efforts between policy-makers, Emirati youth and other stakeholders in order to generate more value, adding enterprises and business activities that would both lead to greater sustainable development and have greater impact on our society.

Saeed Al Ismaily is a senior programmes officer for Dubai Cares.

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