Interview: Yousef Shamoun

What role can digital and social media play in reducing unemployment in Jordan and the region?

YOUSEF SHAMOUN: Over the next 20 years countries in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region will have to create more than 100m new jobs just to keep unemployment rates steady at their current levels. Given that unemployment among MENA nations is already quite high, we can safely say that policymakers in the region face an immense challenge.

As most analysts would agree, the majority of new jobs in the region will come from the private sector. However, the linkages in the labour market between workers and private sector employers in the MENA region should be stronger. It can be difficult for businesses and job-seekers to match effectively with one another.

Through several channels, and across a range of platforms, digital and social media can play an important role in addressing this jobs crisis. For example, increasingly popular websites like LinkedIn provide a venue for employers to review the qualifications of potential workers, while allowing jobseekers to increase their professional visibility. More informal sites like Facebook, meanwhile, allow workers to leverage their personal networks to identify and learn more about career opportunities. In addition, by creating a virtual space in which individuals can share ideas and plans for business, these sites have the power to help to facilitate both entrepreneurship and innovation.

Of course, another form of new media that can bridge gaps is the online career network. By providing a highly accessible and user-friendly platform for job applications, useful evaluation tools like the Myers Briggs test and information for job applicants about resume writing and job interview strategies, such sites bridge information barriers very efficiently. Online career networks are also able to bridge geographic barriers – an important point given the wide economic disparities in MENA between urban and rural communities.

Copyrighted job application software provided by online career networks can help companies in the region transform their corporate websites from basic informational pages into effective hiring tools. In my view, this segment has immense potential.

How do you assess room for expansion when it comes to digital and social media in the region?

SHAMOUN: The growth potential is enormous, as evidenced by the fact that there are over 48m Facebook users in the Arab world. Still, growth in this market will depend on media-friendly government policies, the affordability of internet-enabled devices, and online penetration rates. Here in Jordan, we have seen a number of positive signs in the latter area. Due to the government’s National ICT Strategy (2007-11), as well as the recent drop in internet fees, online penetration in the kingdom increased from 29% at the end of 2009 to 38% in 2010. According to some current estimates, penetration in early 2012 stood at nearly 50%.

In terms of computer and device affordability, I must say that prices for electronics in the kingdom are still too high for large segments of the population. High prices, of course, are partly due to our tax structure, which levies a 16% charge on sales.

How might digital media networks encourage democratic reform in the Middle East?

SHAMOUN: Democracy requires freedom of expression, and this is something that digital and social media can provide to all people irrespective of age, gender, economic class or social status. Moreover, in the Middle East, new forms of media such as blogs and Twitter are able to compensate for certain inadequacies in print publications, which in some cases are overly influenced by government voices.

Of course, it would be difficult for digital media networks to encourage democratic reform in countries that employ internet censorship. Fortunately, in Jordan, as well as in some other countries in the region, there is no Internet censorship whatsoever. I hope that the rest of the countries in the MENA region will follow suit.