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Reaching Children and Youth in Middle East and North Africa

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February 17, 2004—What risks do children and youth face in a region as volatile as the Middle East and North Africa? What opportunities do they have? How does constant conflict affect young minds? How can the World Bank help them?

These questions are the backdrop for the Bank’s work on children and young people in the Middle East and North Africa region, particularly those who are vulnerable, says Regina Bendokat, World Bank Education Sector Manager for the Middle East and North Africa region (MENA).

More than a half of the region’s population is under the age of 25. Conflict or economic downturn in one country regularly isolates the region from the rest of the world, arresting trade, investment and tourism flows. The number of poor people increases, and more children and youth fall through the cracks. At very young age, children end up on the streets and in labor markets without education and training.

As poor rural people migrate to cities in search of better opportunities, cities continue to expand and slums continue to grow. These substandard living situations are giving rise to new problems, which previously didn’t exist in the region. Slums are slowly becoming a source of various afflictions such as drugs, child beggars and HIV/AIDS, a burgeoning epidemic whose impact the region yet has to realize.

Taking care of children and youth, especially the most vulnerable and disadvantaged ones, is necessary for the economic, social and political well-being.

"There is an urgent need to understand the characteristics of vulnerable children--why they don't attend school, why they drop out of school at a very early stage, and what economic and social factors keep them out of school. The challenge for us is to help governments develop programs to re-integrate these children," explains Bendokat.

“In the past, some countries didn’t pay adequate attention to how central the welfare of children and youth was to the development of their countries,” says Iqbal Kaur, World Bank Social Protection Specialist in the MENA Region.

“Now they have started to look for ways to address the needs of children and youth through their national development agendas and have turned to the Bank for technical guidance. They are exploring ways to use existing sectoral projects and national bodies to increase focus on this work, not just to finance isolated projects. These governments see the Bank's comparative advantage in three areas: sectoral and analytical expertise; comprehensive country portfolios; and financial resources.”

As an institution that undertakes development in a comprehensive manner, the Bank has become a valuable partner who can help these countries design an adequate children and youth strategy. Improving their condition is more complex than a simple focus on education, health, or another sector tackled in isolation from the rest.

In addition to ministries of social affairs, the Bank is finding other local partners interested in alleviating children’s plight. The Conference on Children in the Cities last year convened municipal authorities to address the plight of slum children. It produced unexpected partnerships which are gearing up to improve the situation of these children and youth, including a Development Grant Facility to help municipal authorities start adequate child protection schemes.

“Children begging on city streets can be a big problem for mayors, who want to present their cities as tourist destinations,” says Arun Joshi, World Bank Senior Education Specialist in the MENA region. They have an economic incentive to help children and youth living in slums.

In cooperation with several governments, the Bank is preparing a regional study on children and youth that will define the magnitude of the problem, analyze activities already in place and point out the gaps where more work is needed. The paper is based on national studies in Morocco, Egypt, Yemen and Jordan, and grew out of a workshop held in June 2003 on the needs of disadvantaged children.

More importantly, these governments are integrating the study’s lessons into their own national strategies focused on children and youth. A follow-up workshop is planned for June, where two additional countries will participate: Iran and West Bank and Gaza.

The Bank is working to weave in the focus on children and youth into all projects. Making this a standard feature in project design will ensure that all subsequent initiatives conscientiously consider how their outcomes will affect and benefit children and youth.

For example, Second Basic Education Project in Yemen will focus on providing learning opportunities for working children by finding options that won’t compromise their income opportunity. In Egypt, recently approved Child Labor Prevention Grant will help prevent child labor by identifying those children at risk, finding ways to integrate them into schools and supporting the families.

Thus, the MENA region in the Bank is taking an innovative approach in developing children and youth strategy, and benefiting from looking at the synergies that come from addressing several sectors together, and focusing on the client needs.

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