Lebanon may be officially classed as an upper-middle-income country by the international community, but it lags far behind other countries of a similar status. Serious deficiencies in the dynamics of the labor market—where youth unemployment is almost 40 percent, and women account for less than 25 percent of the workforce—are largely to blame.
It is hard to get a clear picture of unemployment in Lebanon. Statistics on unemployment are notoriously inaccurate, with official numbers putting the level of unemployment in 2018 at just 10 percent. Unofficial figures frequently reported in the media, however, put the level of unemployment at 25 percent. And it is the Lebanese youth who are most likely to be affected; finding job opportunities is challenging due to high competition and the unstable economic situation.
Lebanese youth are highly educated, with a large number of young people graduating from universities with higher degrees, such as a masters or a PhD. Yet, some reports say that an average of one Lebanese youth in three is unemployed.
One solution for tackling this high level of youth unemployment would be to equip young people with the skills they need to become entrepreneurs. Entrepreneurship has the potential to help countries achieve both internal and external targets. Several of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), including sustainable education and environment, and the eradication of poverty, could all be benefited by entrepreneurship. In Lebanon’s case, there are several intersecting opportunities that could be taken up by civil society organizations, schools, and universities, along with the government and the private sector, to establish proactive strategies to stop the brain drain and bolster the country’s economy.
There is a huge need to equip the next generation with the skills needed to bring about sustainable growth. Strategies to do so should go beyond education, focusing also on building capacity to provide youths with labor market opportunities. This need is becoming more urgent by the day, equal to the need for education, to help current and future generations get through difficult times and weather massive economic, social, and political challenges. Youth empowerment is essential—at its core, it is the incubation of human potential. By empowering Lebanon’s youth, we will bring considerable economic, social, cultural, and human benefits to our country at all levels.
Entrepreneurship for all
What draws youths toward entrepreneurship is their belief that it allows for creative freedom, unencumbered by obsolete organizational structures. Research on American millennials in 2014 found that 94 percent want to use their skills to benefit a cause. Social entrepreneurship attracts millenials because they want to engage in their community and become efficient global citizens. This is why social entrepreneurship is becoming more common in Lebanon. Youth are looking for solutions that can do for their community what the government is unable to do. But they lack the guidance to become young social entrepreneurs, as these kinds of skills are so far only being taught to those studying business or entrepreneurship itself. These skills should be taught to everyone, and at a young age. With a base in entrepreneurship those Lebanese university graduates currently struggling to find work at home despite their expertise could find their own solutions and work toward improving the Lebanese economy.
There are many possible routes that could benefit the youth and country as a whole, but the most feasible ones are education, media, and civil society. Education systems require constant improvement at all levels: curricula, educators, administrators, and students, as knowledge-based technology is intersecting with every aspect of our lives. Educational institutions must introduce entrepreneurship to students at an early age to enhance their creativity. Some institutions are adopting this approach, but it is not enough to cover the current needs of the market. Such a curriculum would provide students with better career orientation, which would help them in selecting their major at university.
For the past few years, my organization, Loyac, which works to promote youth development, has hosted several groups of school students from Kuwait, and enrolled them in school entrepreneurship programs with a mandate to assess, design, and implement solutions for underprivileged youth. This peer-to-peer approach has so much impact on communities. Teaching design thinking from a young age, as well as promoting peer-to-peer learning, comes with several benefits. It allows for active learning, and helps reinforce these skills through the teaching of them to peers, benefiting all sides of the equation.
Networks for innovation
Partnership between educational institutions and civil society is also vital. Civil society is the ecosystem for social change, as civic engagement helps youth observe, assess, and understand societal problems. This fosters empathy and an eagerness for change, encouraging youths to care about each other, and the planet. When engaging in civil society, they learn how to design their thinking to find pragmatic, sustainable solutions. According to the 2017 Global Entrepreneurship Monitor (GEM) for Lebanon, one in six adults in Lebanon cited fear of failure as preventive factor for starting a business; incubating youth at early age would perhaps help them counter these fears in later life.
With all the challenges that Lebanon is facing, entrepreneurship is one of the keys to stabilizing the economy. Of the eight MENA countries that participate in the GEM, Lebanon had by far the highest level of women-driven startups, almost twice that of the next highest, while, for both male and female entrepreneurs, most starting or running a new business were under 35 years old. Indicators such as these are worth celebrating and sustaining. Injecting entrepreneurship skills through education, civil society, and media literacy can help work miracles.