This post is part of a year-end series by MBA students at California College of the Arts’ Design MBA Program. Read more about our annual partnership here.
By Ali Musleh
According to the World Bank, the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) are to face an unprecedented challenge in the next two decades. More than 65 percent of the region’s population are under the age of 24 and soon they will start heading to the market place looking for jobs. The MENA must create a 100 million new jobs within the next two decades for its youthful population. This effort will only be enough to sustain the current rate of unemployment in the region at 10.6 percent of labor force.
Will the huge capital of potential economically active individuals be an economic, social, and environmental burden or will it be a bliss for the MENA? This is a daunting issue due to its complexity and urgency.
Change is the word that has been dominating the conversation around the MENA and surely, change must impact the region’s economies, societies, policies, industries, and all sectors while keeping site of the main objective which is creating jobs. However, the breadth and scale of this change can easily create a climate for new problems to arise, adding to the region’s current challenges. Change must be managed to ensure that stress factors aren’t creating fractures in society due to the fundamental changes that should take place, at the same time the implementation and effectiveness of solutions shouldn’t be compromised. The solutions that are to be implemented should successfully address short-term needs and add to long-term growth as population growth rates remain a factor. And surely, it is most critical that these solutions are being based on stakeholder engagement.
The challenge at hand, the nature of the strategic solutions and the need for space to effect change got me to think about the necessity for innovation. For a long time now, the MENA has been importing solutions in different forms to address its needs. This process has been proved harmful and ineffective. The uncritical transfer of solutions is wasting time and effort as whats happening in the health sector where health ministries in many countries in the region try to implement international programs that in many occasions fail due to cultural and organizational differences that haven’t been taken into consideration. This is diverting attention from the real problems and stopping the people from addressing what really matters. A solution that might work in a certain context can be useless in another. Falling in the trap of assumptions is costing the MENA dearly. The second side-effect to this process is the lack of investment in innovation, hence the low new business creation rate. Dependency on imported solutions compromised the capacity of many institutions to innovate and is extremely discouraging for entrepreneurs.
Building innovation competencies must be one of the MENA’s main priorities. Finding the most suitable solutions is not the only value that comes out of innovating. Innovation is at the heart of sustainable change. When solutions emerge from local innovation initiatives, it is more likely that they be adopted. When people see a change affected and sustained through their actions, they’ll have a change they own.
This type of empowerment and continuous investment in local innovation initiatives in different sectors will create an environment that welcomes entrepreneurship. Ultimately, it will help countries of the MENA accumulate knowhow, compile knowledge, build experience, and most importantly gain the much needed confidence so that in such pressing times, they know they have the capacity to lead innovative change.