New review: UK aid’s approach to youth employment in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA)

8 Jul 2021

  • ICAI review finds UK aid supporting youth employment in MENA since 2015 has some positive elements but is unsatisfactory in most areas; improvements are required for UK aid to have a positive impact
  • Report finds overall approach of promoting economic stability and growth through macroeconomic reforms is relevant to the needs of the region, but that assumptions in programme design are often not supported by evidence
  • Aid watchdog commends coherence of interventions across UK aid actors, but finds they would benefit from more interdisciplinary working and a more even spread of technical expertise across countries
  • Evidence of effectiveness across the portfolio is limited, due to a combination of programme design limitations and insufficient attention to monitoring and evaluation.

ICAI has scored the UK aid’s approach to youth employment in MENA as amber-red, meaning it is unsatisfactory in most areas, despite a relevant overall approach to promote economic stability and positive collaboration between aid actors. The report provides five recommendations on how the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) can improve its impact on youth unemployment in the region, including for women and vulnerable people.

The review published today [Thursday 8th July] considers how well UK aid has supported youth employment in MENA since 2015, assessing the relevance, coherence and effectiveness of the UK’s approach. Whilst the UK does not have an explicit focus on youth unemployment in the region, ICAI identified 115 programmes with objectives that are directly or indirectly related, with a combined value of £2.4 billion. ICAI assessed the impact across five Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) country offices – Jordan, Tunisia, Lebanon, Turkey and Egypt – and sampled 19 programmes in the region. The methodology included a literature review on youth unemployment that details evidence of ‘what works’, which will be published separately.

ICAI commissioner, Tarek Rouchdy, said: “Youth unemployment is a complex challenge with no simple solutions. There are some positive findings in this report on UK aid’s approach to youth unemployment in MENA, in particular the work with the World Bank and the Arab Women’s Enterprise Fund. However, there are areas requiring attention for the UK to contribute towards positive impact on the issue. Given that MENA is a region of strategic importance to the UK, and that youth employment is a major challenge across the region, with around a quarter of people aged 15 to 24 in the labour market unemployed, and particularly young women, it is important that the FCDO accepts the recommendations in this review.

“In addition, while youth employment has not been a major priority for UK aid in MENA recently, a significant number of active programmes include objectives around employing young people in the region. With the forthcoming UK government MENA strategy expected to emphasise economic growth and job creation, it is important to learn lessons from past programming.”

The review scored the relevance of the UK’s approach to youth unemployment as green-amber, meaning there was satisfactory achievement in most areas but partial achievement in others. The overall approach, to promote job creation through wider economic reforms and business stimulation, was deemed relevant to address the ‘demand-side’ problems inherent in the region: a lack of quality jobs on the scale required. However, the report also noted some UK investment in ‘supply-side’ solutions such as skills training which was less relevant and in contradiction to the findings on ‘what works’ in the literature review, including DFID’s own analysis.

In addition, the report did not find sufficient effort to tackle cultural barriers to youth employment, especially for women, for whom social and cultural norms are often the prime barrier to employment in many countries in MENA. Where the UK had invested in these barriers, programmes had demonstrated success, for example the Arab Women’s Enterprise Fund. Whilst many programmes cited improving stability in the region as an objective, ICAI noted that the evidence linking job creation for young people and improved political or social stability is weak.

The review scored the coherence of the UK’s approach as amber-red meaning there was unsatisfactory achievement in most areas, with some positive elements. The review found there is a good level of coordination across the UK departments working in this area, but that this is undermined by a lack of cross-disciplinary work between economic and conflict specialists, and a lack of technical capacity in offices without a strong contingent of former DFID staff. The aid watchdog observed that UK aid’s engagement with donor coordination on youth employment in the region was limited. Engagement with multilateral partners, in particular the World Bank, was better, but overall a greater focus on strategic partnerships rather than programme management would be beneficial.

The review also scored the effectiveness of the UK’s approach as amber-red. There were some successful interventions to support entrepreneurs and small and medium-sized enterprises and strong short-term results from cash-for-work programmes, but relatively weak employment results for large refugee-focused programmes, principally due to weak design of programming not taking adequate account of refugee needs. Results at a portfolio level were modest, despite some successful programmes. Monitoring, evaluation and learning systems were inadequate in a number of respects, and there were distinct failings to deliver on gender and social inclusion objectives.

ICAI offers five recommendations in the report to help shape the forthcoming cross-government MENA strategy 2021-2030, to improve future youth employment programmes in the region, and to strengthen relationships with multilateral organisations:

  • Employment-related programmes should articulate clearly how they expect to contribute to job creation and economic development or address fragility, and ensure that these outcomes are monitored and evaluated.
  • When promoting employment through economic reform, FCDO should undertake complementary interventions to tackle the specific barriers to employment faced by target groups.
  • Employment-related programmes should be shaped by gender and social inclusion analysis, including of cultural barriers to the employment of women.
  • FCDO should routinely consult with the young people expected to benefit from its MENA programmes and use the feedback to shape programme design and implementation.
  • FCDO should strengthen its in-country partnerships with multilateral organisations by ensuring consistent strategic-level engagement.


Read the review

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