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Protests in Ouargla: Focusing on Job Creation in Algeria

[Image of a shopkeeper in Algeria. Image by Ademe Amine/Magharebia.] [Image of a shopkeeper in Algeria. Image by Ademe Amine/Magharebia.]

[The National Committee for the Rights of the Unemployed (Comité national pour la défense des droits des chômeurs, CNDDC) made a call for protests that brought together thousands (more than ten thousand, according to some) of people in Ouargla, in the south of Algeria, on 14 March 2013. Despite the regime’s accusations that Tahar Belabbès (national coordinator of the CNDDC) was "plotting against the integrity of his country" with assistance from Qatar and other foreign powers, Belabbès stressed the "national and peaceful character" of the protests, which called for increased employment and development of the southern regions of the country.  These protests signal the growing unrest that has been demonstrated by sit-ins, riots, and attempts at self-immolation, since the beginning of 2013.]

The recent protests in Ouargla, Algeria, brings to light the complexity and the pressing need for a truly efficient policy of job promotion. Most governments claim to give priority to creating employment, but few of them have a real job creation strategy to address this problem.

The protests in Ouargla have occurred while the turmoil of the "Arab world," which started in January 2011, is far from subsiding. The major cause of this unrest is mass unemployment (although there are also other causes that have sparked these flames). We speak of turmoil or boiling (ébullitions) to avoid the controversial term of "Arab Spring." This massive unemployment is particularly difficult for the youngest members of the population, who cannot enter the labour market. Throughout the twenty countries of the Southern Mediterranean (classified as the "Arab region"), the working-age population under thirty (many of which hold diplomas and are desperately searching for employment) are often forced to find work in the informal sector. A very small minority manages leave the country legally to find work elsewhere. The more adventurous do not hesitate to brave the seas and the deserts to find employment. But because they are “illegal” they live under the threat of criminal law. Here there is a double punishment: they are rejected from the inexistent or narrow labour markets at home, where they come up against the walls, both literally and figuratively,[1] and from the labour markets of the Northern industrialized countries. It seems that everywhere we look, employment policies are address this sad reality of our current world.

The demonstrations in Ouargla were remarkable due to the sheer magnitude of the movement, but above all because of the maturity of its management. It has indeed avoided the trap that was set for it, according to which it had been handled by a "foreign hand" to undermine national unity. Old story, well-known trick, although one must also be wary of idealism in international relations...

Most importantly, this grouping of unemployed activists seems well aware that serious solutions to their rightful claim will take time. They are not asking for the impossible, but they want to be involved in finding solution to this problem. We can certainly improve the administrative management of unemployment, improve systems of recruitment and avoid nepotism. But the problem of employment - because of its scope - requires a very different approach. Indeed, the fundamental question of employment has to be answered through job creation according to demand, and must find a response articulated at different levels of intervention. More explicitly, there are actions that can and should be undertaken at the local level, others at the national level, and finally at the international level. This is especially the case given that the so-called “globalization of economy” is spreading more intensely but is generally uninterested in promoting employment (the time of the triumph of greed and the "financialization of the economy," as Joseph Stiglitz has noted).[2]

On the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of the independence of Algeria, I wrote an article for El Watan[3] in order to revisit the economic policies that have been put into place during the past half-century. Initially, to face the challenges facing Algerian society, we looked to industrialization and the public sector to find the answers. From the 1980s onwards, with the policy of "Infitah" and the so-called structural adjustment programs, we courted and bet on multinational corporations’ Foreign Direct Investments (FDI) to address the issue of employment. Both types of policies have also failed, first because we relied too much on foreign companies through the widespread use of the so-called “turnkey” contracts (clé ou produits en mains), and second because we have been expecting too much, and continue to do so, from the FDI. In both cases, the issue of building national capacity, condition sine qua non for a "self-reliant development" (développement autocentré) has not been directly addressed - either due to ignorance of the needs of a real employment policy, or because building a “self-reliant” economy that is geared towards the general interest clashes too much with powerful vested interests.

The employment issue is complex. It is certainly a social issue to the extent that every family needs a source of income (usually from work). But it is also an economic issue, especially with the technological revolutions and the introduction of the knowledge economy. In other words, the social treatment of unemployment through money transfer systems, and the sprinkling of subsidies (through institutions such as employment agencies and banks) have their uses.  Yet at the same time, they are often just a balm to soothe the pain – or a set of temporary solutions (solutions d’attente) because the magnitude of problem is simply too great. This is especially true of the economies in the Southern Mediterranean, which are marked by  “extroverted” growth. Clearly, even if the fruits of growth were more evenly distributed (worldwide social justice has a lot of work to do in front of rising inequality), growth in itself would not be able to qualitatively and quantitatively keep up with the demand. Thus, we should aim for a completely different economy that is geared towards economic growth of “quality” (une croissance économique de “qualité“). This would be an economy that can provide skilled jobs in the era of the knowledge economy and that can be "pulled" by the largest number of actors. This would allow for a "ripple effect" and employment multiplier to operate. In the case of Algeria, it would require diversifying a growth driven only, or essentially, by oil exports.

But this "extraversion" of economic growth, as economists say, is the common lot of all the economies of the Southern Mediterranean; their growth driven by the export of raw materials or services such as tourism, which provide income that may be considerable, but which do not generate an economy which is self-reliant; in short, these economies to not create sustainable skilled jobs. The Tunisian economy, for instance, has experienced a respectable economic growth, mainly driven by the export of the sun (tourism), despite efforts to diversify the SMEs in recent decades. But the "ripple effect" was not sufficient in terms of job creation (especially skilled jobs) for the majority of qualified graduates. This ripple effect, in the absence of deep industrialization, has occurred neither in Egypt nor in Algeria, two countries where attempts at industrialization were the most advanced. Since the "Infitah," systematic calls to FDI have had no impact on employment. Moreover, the multinationals corporations are mainly concerned with rapid returns on investment rather than creating sustainable employment.

What do we mean by model of "extroverted" growth? Recently on a tour of Algeria, Christine Lagarde, the director of the IMF, brought attention to the Achilles heel of Algeria’s economy: the oil that drives growth with a contribution of ninety-eight percent in total exports, and has an equally predominant role in the GDP (around fifty percent), generates only a meagre two percent of direct jobs. This reality, which Algeria has been experiencing for decades, has now been proclaimed by the premier international financial institution. Let me emphasize the role assigned to hydrocarbons, and the appropriation of this wealth as "national public good." It must be recalled that the question of oil prolonged the War of Independence by at least one additional year.[4] Let's be clear, this natural wealth is an opportunity for the country! Yet, unlike the present, oil was a means, and not an end in itself in the post-independence development strategy of February 1966. It was notably a way to support and enable a "deep industrialization," that is to say, a way to create the foundations of a dynamic economy whose "self-centered" dynamic would have been driven by actors, women and men who received extensive training. On the political level, it provided the foundations of a productive economy (rooted in agriculture and industry) that was supported by a fair distribution of income. Above all, this strategy was concerned with job creation that would meet the needs of the younger generations (see these four strategic objectives in the SGD of February 1966).

How to succeed in establishing a virtuous circle of income creation and redistribution? In a recently published book[5] that traces my professional memories (1963-1980), I recount this development strategy of 1966, which focused on the issue of job creation. In the conclusion, I return to the internal and external upheavals that have shaken us and wonder if, fifty years later, there are still some lessons to learn from this seemingly ancient development strategy. Even if seems utopian, I maintain that it is essential unite the countries of the Maghreb and the Sahel despite their differences in order to realize large-scale joint projects to exploit raw materials (grands projets communs de valorisation des matières premières). These projects would pool together the capacities of these countries, with each country bringing a little more (or less) of its development potential. The goal would be joint projects for sustainable development (rehabilitation of the Mediterranean and the Sahara), within a common strategy among countries that share relatively similar levels of development and common interests. This, I believe, is the only way to establish new productive economies around the twofold issue of food security and job creation - by and for skilled personnel. This development strategy is the only way to face the internal and external headwinds that are blowing so powerfully at this moment in time.

[This article was originally published in French and translated to English by Muriam Haleh Davis and Mickael Vogel.]

[1] Editors note: Hittistes is the word used for the unemployed youth in Algeria are often visible on the streets – where they seem to be literally holding up (by leaning against) the walls.  The root comes from hitt, the Algerian word for wall.

[2] In the 1970s, the ILO has launched a "World Employment Program", and in the 2000s, the ILO has called for a "decent work" for everyone in the world. In the era of globalization led astray by the triumph of the "financialization of the economy," it would be helpful if the means of action of these initiatives were considerably strengthened, for example in the context of the United Nations projects of system restructuring (see Nicholas Stern’s proposal).

[3] Editors note: El Watan is a largely read daily paper published in Algiers.

[4] Editors note: While the Algerian war of Independence officially ended with the declaration of independence in July 1962, the ensuing period witnessed a series of violence and conflicts among various nationalist factions.  Questions regarding the use and ownership of petrol resources, discovered in 1956, are often recognized to be a factor in this jockeying for power that accompanied the birth of the Algerian nation-state.

[5] Ourabah, Mahmoud. Premiers pas. Souvenirs autour d’un projet de développement de l’Algérie 1963-1980, Edition l’Harmattan, Paris, mars 2012.


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