IFAD and ILO join forces in tackling the “MENA paradox” through a grant-funded project on gender monitoring and evaluation in the Near East and North Africa

By Nerina Muzurovic, NEN/IFAD, and Drew Gardiner, ILO

Rates of female education in the Arab World have increased dramatically—a factor usually leading to higher levels of employment. Why, then, is female labor force participation in the Arab World not only the lowest in the world, but also rising very slowly?

This was one of the questions addressed at a policy forum on gender and labor markets in the Arab world on 3 July 2017 in Amman, Jordan. Panel members hailed from Jordan’s Ministry of Planning and International Cooperation, the International Labour Organization (ILO), Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ), the Jordan Enterprise Development Corporation, and the University of Minnesota.

The forum was part of an executive course on evaluating labour market programmes conducted by ILO, under the IFAD regional grant on gender monitoring and evaluation in the Near East and North Africa (NENA). The IFAD and ILO partnership, also known as the “Taqeem Initiative”, looks to build evidence on “what works” in effective rural labor market strategies for women and young people.

The five-day course brought together more than 60 participants from 9 NENA countries, including Algeria, Egypt, Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan, Palestine, Tunisia, Turkey and Yemen. It also included co-financiers, such as the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) Development Centre, the International Initiative for Impact Evaluation (3ie), GIZ and the Economic Research Forum who contributed financial and in-kind support.

In his opening remarks, the Labour Ministry’s Secretary General Farouq Hadidi highlighted the need for evidence of investments’ impact, when it comes to generating job opportunities. He also noted the importance of supporting positive labor market outcomes in Jordan, as well as drawing from good practices when drawing up policy recommendations.

The keynote lecture, “Gender and Labor Markets in the Arab World,” was delivered by Ragui Assaad, a professor at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota. Professor Assaad discussed what he called “the MENA paradox.”

"Rural young women are both increasingly educated and increasingly unwilling to engage in traditional agriculture work,” said Assaad. “Thus, because of limited mobility and limited modern employment opportunities in their local labor markets, they are increasingly unemployed or withdrawing from labor force altogether."

Arguing against the idea that “this is strictly a story about conservative cultural values restricting labor supply,” Professor Assaad introduced the idea of “reservation working conditions”—the minimum working conditions that a woman (and her family) will accept.

“Educated women in the Arab World are seeking higher rates of market work if such work can meet their ‘reservation working conditions,’” Assaad explained. In countries like Jordan, Egypt and Tunisia, this means work places must do the following: preserve women’s sexual and reputational safety; prevent contact with male clients or owners and bosses in non-public spaces; be geographically accessible without excessive commuting; and be located inside fixed establishments, protected from passers-by. “Generally, this means larger workplaces with many other women present,” said the professor.

To support his claims, Professor Assaad cited primary data gathered from some 1,000 interviewees as part of a recent ILO report on Jordanian labor market challenges by Susan Razzaz. “As long as I am alive, I will never let my sister work in manufacturing,” said one male Jordanian manufacturing worker. “The employers are very rough. I don’t trust them to not yell at my sister or harass her.” When these conditions are not met, many women stay home.

Furthermore, safety and harassment were considered common concerns. As one unemployed Jordanian woman said: “I’d be willing to work in a hotel if the job was in reservations, at the front desk, or in food service. Of course, I can’t work in housekeeping or room service because it is near the bedrooms.”

Long commutes were also a concern: “I wouldn’t want to spend 3 hours a day on the road,” said one female Jordanian worker. “I could barely stand the time spent getting to and from work in Amman, so I wouldn’t work outside of it.”

However, change is possible: An IFAD-supported initiative under the Agricultural Resource Management Project (ARMPII) in Jordan tapped into the region's traditional knowledge base to initiate 400 small-scale enterprises for women in the southern part of the country. Relying on the sustainable use of local resources, these businesses centered around food processing, dairy and pickle production, and the harvesting of mushrooms.

Interviews with the women involved showed they felt empowered, managing small-scale income-generating enterprises. They reported increased levels of independence and status, as well as more effective participation in decision-making at both the community and household levels.

Findings like these indicate that effective policy interventions should look into improving opportunity structures for women. Peter van Rooij, ILO’s Director in Cairo, Egypt agrees, “Women and men need to have equal opportunities in the world of work, especially in the agriculture sector which represents the most important source of employment for women. Achieving gender equality goals under the 2030 Agenda can only be achieved through concerted effort and unique partnership, such as that between the ILO and IFAD in the Near East and North Africa”.

Indeed, the panel discussion that followed recognized positive trends: factors affecting female labor supply are moving towards increased participation. These factors include educational attainment, later marriages, access to improved infrastructure like water and sanitation, access to household technologies, and access to markets for time-saving goods and services.

The panel also noted that incentivizing private employers to offer shorter work days, low-cost transportation, telecommuting, and flexible and part-time work opportunities would make a difference. Other important changes would include shifting maternity leave pay to social insurance, specifying a minimum wage on an hourly basis, establishing better public transport systems--where women can feel safe—and taking steps to gradually expand the range of jobs considered acceptable for women in conservative societies.

Creating a more attractive environment for investors to invest in remote rural areas, as well as making agricultural sector more attractive, should also be considered a priority.

“With a rising population and growing demand for food, there is an ever greater need to invest in agriculture and rural development. Investment in agriculture is two to four times more effective in reducing poverty than investment in any other sector. The agricultural sector is also a rich source of employment for young people, especially women. Thus, creating job opportunities in this sector will improve the lives of poor farmers, and serve indirectly as a means to combat migration to cities and beyond, ” said Khalida Bouzar, Director of the Near East, North Africa and Europe Division, IFAD.