A strategy for the Mediterranean: employability for young people and women

The Mediterranean: bridge between cultures

The Mediterranean region has been a crossroad between civilizations for millennia, facilitating the spread of cultures, trade, religions, as well as conflicts and empires. Different civilizations across three continents have met and mingled in this semi-closed basin, getting accustomed to each other, and getting linked together in wider global value chains.

The Mediterranean has also historically been “the door of Asia” for European and Muslim traders, that crossed our small sea to visit port cities in the East Mediterranean, as the last leg of the Silk road, and even today the Suez Canal shows its potential in linking Asia with two other continents.

When looking at the many fields where international cooperation holds a clear added value, the Mediterranean holds a supersized role when compared to its relatively small geographical dimension in many respects, including economic, environmental, and social considerations.

Just to name a few examples, it remains a prized trade hub, especially for sea shipping lanes, as it has been for centuries; it is a biodiversity hotspot for marine life; it is one of the regions most affected by climate change.

Clearly considering that many Mediterranean challenges and opportunities could not possibly be tackled without a real partnership spirit, the regional dimension of this region has been developing for quite some time now.

A new era of cooperation

Twenty-six years ago, in 1995, the Barcelona Process launched a new era of cooperation in the Mediterranean basin, joining together in the same forum the North and the South shores in an effort to achieve what were called the three baskets: Political and Security Basket, Economic and Financial Basket and finally Social, Cultural and Human Basket.

This regional approach was continued when the EU unveiled in 2004 its Neighbourhood policy, which assigned special emphasis to what it called the Southern Neighourhood.

Finally, in 2008, the Union for the Mediterranean (UfM) was established as the intergovernmental forum for advancing a positive agenda between the two shores. The UfM targets cooperation in what is called the Euro-Mediterranean region, which includes 42 Countries coming from the European Union and the Southern and Eastern Mediterranean, joining hands from the realization that breath of contemporary challenges requires common solutions.

Along the years, this stance has led to the development of a unique methodology based on three complementary pillars: political declarations, multistakeholder policy platforms, and labelled projects. Acting as a catalyst, the UfM has seen since 2012 the labelling of more than 50 projects, and over 300 ministerial and expert fora gathering 25,000 stakeholders.

Focusing on concrete aspects of cooperation, the UfM has identified priority areas, based on Human and Sustainable Development, and defined as its main beneficiaries youth and women. Its political direction is given by a UfM RoadMap approved in 2017 and during the past decade celebrated many Ministerial gatherings, including the UfM Regional Forum, where last November Ministers of Foreign Affairs celebrated the 25th Anniversary since the Barcelona process.

Focus on a topic: Education, Employability and Innovation

Taking the example of a sector to highlight the challenges and opportunities of the region, it might be useful to start with what is a snapshot of the status of the sector of Higher Education and Research in the Mediterranean.

First, with a young and highly educated population, there is already a strong case for trying to exploit to the fullest the potential of its youth, which is the most educated generation in Mediterranean history.

Additionally, the Euro-Mediterranean region, (including both all EU Member States and the Southern and Eastern Mediterranean Countries), boasts more than thirty-three million students.

Finally, the need for a quick and strong recovery after the disruption created by the COVID19 pandemic also calls for investing as much as feasible in the multiplier effects brought by education and innovation.

Still, our region is unfortunately no stranger to global issues such as unemployment, that in an area characterised by its own demographic features becomes particularly alarming when it comes to youth unemployment.

In the Southern and Eastern Mediterranean, where 40% of the population is under the age of 25, youth unemployment has been among the highest in the world for more than two decades, despite high levels of educational attainment.

Again, there are many interlocked causes, but one of such reasons is certainly skills mismatch, according to 32% of enterprises. In other words, in our region, despite substantial differences in political, social, and economic conditions, the un- and underemployment of university graduates has been and is a major challenge.

And, unlike in other regions, unemployment is highest amongst those with tertiary education reaching an average of 30% across the region.

A point of particular importance that cannot be ignored is the strong gender dimension of unemployment in many sectors, in ALL countries of the Euro-Mediterranean area. While young women have made remarkable progress in educational attainment, their respective unemployment rates are almost double those of young men in some parts.

As a whole, the issue of youth un- and underemployment in the region has all the characteristics of a so-called ‘wicked problem’ – it is socially complex, suffers from many interdependencies and multiple causes, has no single solution, and is perceived differently by different stakeholders. This is issue is further compounded by a structural global barrier to career development and employment: the gap existing between academia and business. 

Collaborative approaches and inclusive dialogue

Collaborative approaches often offer a great help against such challenges, and this is where the Union for the Mediterranean excels.

Specifically, there is a need to engage all stakeholders to reinforce a common vision and narrative, and co-create strategies aimed at achieving a higher degree of innovation in the region and thus, employability.

One fairly obvious, yet difficult, approach is increasing the interconnections between academia, enterprises and policy-makers, without forgetting the role of civil society.

Facilitating the development of such “connective tissue” among these actors could definitely help address what is often a lack of communication between interdependent worlds, and that can hamper employment and job creation, if left unaddressed.

This would a long way in addressing many of the consequences associated to youth unemployment, especially among those more skilled. If unable to find decent job opportunities, young graduates and researchers risk going into under- and unemployment, or moving to another country offering more opportunities in their fields, contributing to brain drain.

Efforts to tackle such challenge have been and are considerable in the Mediterranean, as they have long been perceived by many stakeholders as one of the main way to supporting an inclusive and sustainable growth in the region. Particularly, they fit into the broader strategy agreed by UfM Foreign Ministers to encourage sustainable models for growth, and supporting digital transformation whilst maintaining the UfM’s longstanding focus on both women’s empowerment and employment, especially amongst young people (5th Union for the Mediterranean Regional Forum).

Additionally, inclusive dialogue is also an important way for establishing joint priorities that are widely shared, in order to be being more effective in tackling them together.

The work of the UfM in Mediterranean

A concrete example of such efforts at agenda setting in this field can be found in the case of 4th UfM Ministerial Conference on Employment and Labour, held in Portugal in 2019, where a dedicated event on the challenges related to the employment of Mediterranean university graduates was held. During this gathering, representatives of ministries of labour, chambers of commerce, employers’ associations, but also university networks, startups, academics, among others attended and discussed together concrete venues for enhancing education and careers. What emerged was a very clear set of priorities as way forward, among which:

  1. Supporting decent job creation and entrepreneurship.
  2. Mobilising public and private stakeholders to create partnerships and synergies.
  3. Building inclusive labour markets to integrate potentially vulnerable and disadvantaged groups.
  4. Investing in quality education systems and training, skills and employability in a changing world.
  5. Increasing regional stakeholders’ visibility on existing policy instruments that can be implemented by university and research centres in order to increase employability of their students and researchers, while fostering innovation in the regions.
  6. Encouraging policymakers to invest into systematically collecting data about higher education graduates and their employability.

Concerning the approaches being undertaken in order to implement above recommendations on the specific subfields of research, innovation, and employability, the UfM is currently moving along two main axes.

The first axis is dialogue for regional cooperation on research and innovation in order to identify fields with potential to create opportunities for innovative job creation and entrepreneurship. In the Euro-Mediterranean region, the UfM is facilitating multistakeholder and multilevel platforms in order to find agendas where it could be easier to leverage societal transformations, in the framework of the UN Sustainable development goals (SDGs).

Ministers of Research have already endorsed in 2017 three topics for research through a Ministerial declaration held in Valletta: Sustainable Agriculture, Blue Economy, and the Deep roots of migration. From these political efforts, two very important Research and Innovation initiatives were endorsed and supported, the Partnership for Research and Innovation in the Mediterranean Area (PRIMA) Initiative, which is R&I projects on Agriculture, Water Management and crosscutting issues (such as Climate Change), and BLUEMED, which has finalized a shared Strategic Research and Innovation Agenda on blue economy actions specific for the Mediterranean context.

Finally, the UfM Regional Platform in Research and Innovation, which joins together the EU and the 42 Ministries of Research, is exploring new roadmaps for research on topics of common and regional interest for the future. Possible topics include Climate Change, (especially given that the Mediterranean is one of the main Climate Change hotspots of the world), Renewable Energy and Health.

Given the relevance of these topics for development, the above efforts should continue supporting a particularly sustainable strand of development and a general rethinking of current economic practices.

Concerning the second axis of work, the UfM is highlighting the already wide variety of initiatives and best practices involving academia, policymakers, industry, and the third sector that exist, and are up and running.

However, the many initiatives and activities operating in the Mediterranean are not yet achieving the best possible impact in our region in terms of job and startup creation, employability, and so on, particularly if the UN 2030 Agenda in the Mediterranean are held as a benchmark.

That is why the UfM decided to renew the call to action to policymakers, industry, academia and civil society by launching an initiative to support them by showcasing best practices, peer-learning and presenting ways in which the Triple Helix can be reinforced. This initiative, called ‘Reinforcing the innovation-employability nexus in the Mediterranean’ is also benefiting from the support of different partners, including the German Development Cooperation (GIZ).

The aim of this initiative is not “reinventing the wheel”, but rather to showcase how existing best practices, and projects, and institutions are increasing connectivity between academia, industry and government, push innovation and employability.

The main goal remains allowing students and researchers to learn relevant skills for rapidly changing labour markets, and to be prepared for their future careers.

Particularly, in the Mediterranean region it is still challenging to break silos, incentivise industry to contribute through collaborative research, offering internship opportunities and participating in curriculum development. It is therefore key to raise awareness on what exist, what has been done and what can be done.

International institutions, universities and university networks, projects and programmes have a decade-long experience on concrete instruments such as internships, industrial doctorates, university-business dialogue and the many other policy tools at our disposal.

As first outcome, through a multi-stakeholder approach, the UfM produced a first publication in handbook format, highlighting initiatives that could be joined, and actions that could be replicated locally. It focuses on topics such as teaching methods, adapting curricula, lifelong learning, partnerships, quality assurance, qualification systems, financing schemes and educational governance.

Dedicated trainings are now being prepared, with a final high-level regional seminar with the involvement of all concerned stakeholders being foreseen. Targeted beneficiaries include higher education institutions, companies, ministries, international organizations, intermediary institutions, and civil society associations, with the goal of advancing strategies and create new initiatives.

The UfM believes that by working together, it is possible to reinforce this nexus between innovation and employability and contribute to the sustainable development of our region through higher education and research. It is one of the way to contribute to the mantra that there is no security without development, and that shared challenges require shared solutions.

Given the global dimension of employability and research, of youth and women education and employability, the time is also ripe for a broader discussion on how to cooperate and increase peer learning with other geographical spaces, such as Asia, in order to bring education and inclusive development at the center.


*Giuseppe Provenzano is an Advisor for Research and Innovation at the Secretariat of the Union for the Mediterranean, where he focuses on topics connected to research, innovation and employability. He has previously published on Blue Economy, the EU external policies towards Southern and Eastern Mediterranean, and on sustainability issues of the Iranian energy policies. He holds a second-level MA in International Public Affairs at LUISS School of Government and a Master in Relations and Institutions of Asia and Africa at L’Orientale University.

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