Sunday, June 17, 2012

Saudi Youths Ready for Volunteerism, but is the Business Community?

This column was originally published in the Arab News.

IN the Eastern Province, 30 young Saudi men and women participate in a novel project. I say it is novel because they have acted upon what is usually just an idle thought for most of us when we see leftover food at a hotel or restaurant.

These young Saudis and the Eastern Province business community convinced some hotels and large restaurants not to throw away their unused leftovers, but leave it for them. The Saudis pick up the unused food, re-package it under strict health standards and distribute it to the poor. The project is the brainchild of a group of business executives who saw waste and decided to do something about it, while at the same time giving young Saudis a sense of purpose.

This fledgling grass-roots effort at volunteerism follows what was probably the first sign that young Saudi men and women were becoming aware of community service when they turned out by the hundreds to help clean up following the Jeddah floods of November 2009 and January 2011 that killed more than 100 people.

We know that social media led by the young generation of Saudis helped organized the clean-up efforts. Those same Saudis were also responsible for condemning through social media sites the inadequacies of the Jeddah municipality’s infrastructure that helped create dangerous conditions that led to the floods.

Civic-minded Saudis? Is that possible? We are well aware of our reputation among the expat community — with some justification — of the sense of entitlement among Saudis. Getting our hands dirty and exposure to the unpleasantness of poverty is for others, isn’t it?

Maybe not so for the new generation. Today’s Saudis reaching adulthood are more self-aware, worldlier and less patient than the old stereotype. Social media has led to social activism, but writing for an audience of like-minded individuals has its limits. Young people want to put their words into action.

The tragedy, as far as I know, is there are no, or few, organizations to channel that energy into productive community service. We spent the past 30 years developing an intense mistrust of our young people to the point that we view their even most innocent actions with suspicion. We had chased young men from malls, although a recent law lifted the mall ban in some cities. We gave young men no place to go other than the singles’ section of coffee shops, restaurants and sheesha parlors. There are no modern public libraries, clubs or parks to speak of. Public interaction with a woman is treated as a potential sexual assault. We ban women from driving cars because men can’t be trusted with their emotions. The guarantee of a government or private sector employment long since disappeared unless the job applicant possesses a university degree, and even then the competition is stiff.

Faith in the young Saudi male is so bereft that the Internet is their only solace. And it is the Internet and social media that young men and women discovered their own self-worth by reading and watching the example of others.

To ward off boredom and give young Saudis a sense of purpose, the local businesses with the support of the Saudi government needs to explore the benefits of community service. A building fire leaves a family dead because no one knew simple techniques to aid the victims. Volunteer service with a local Civil Defense fire station could prevent such tragedies with Cardio pulmonary resuscitation (CPR) and fire prevention training. Programs similar to the Explorer Scouts in the United States allows young people to work in police stations that helps them decide whether a career in law enforcement is an option. Delivering meals to the elderly and neighborhood cleanup are other options.

The consequences of failing Saudi youths are severe. Nearly three-quarters of the young women who graduated with university degrees have no job. The official overall unemployment rate among Saudis is 10.9 percent in 2010, up from 10.5 percent in 2009. As of 2008, the overall unemployment rate of Saudis between the ages of 15 and 24 was 28.2 percent. An estimated 45.8 percent of girls and young women in that age range were unemployed.

There are only so many malls that can be built and so many things to buy before the new generation realizes they are unfulfilled and yearn for a productive life that provides the emotional rewards beyond just earning a living.

Emotional rewards are found in those rare community groups like the 2-year-old Ita’am program, the food bank in the Eastern Province that scours the hotels and restaurants to bring food to the needy. Those 30 young Saudi men and women, with the support of their benefactors, do the heavy lifting in the project and are expected to help feed nearly 5,000 poor families by the end of 2012. The program isn’t just limited to feeding the poor, but also gives Saudis vocational training and job skills.

Those 30 Saudis are the lucky ones. Perhaps it’s time the rest of the Kingdom’s businesses step in and create similar programs. Social corporate responsibility is a concept that should be highly emphasized.

1 comment:

The Linoleum Surfer said...

This wastefulness is a tragedy all over the region, and beyond. The religious point of view is also clear - where is the "Commission" enforcing this particular "virtue", I wonder? I guess it's more fun chasing women in the mall with sticks!

This is a really admirable initiative, and an idea that I will pass on through other means now. I hope it catches on - but the principle of engaging unemployed GCC nationals in the voluntary sector, is perfect.