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Bahrain – A New Kind of National Service

April 3, 2011

Here’s a column I wrote recently for the Gulf Daily News. It appears in today’s edition

“In the long-gone days of my youth, whenever a fellow adolescent was found guilty of some misdemeanour – public drunkenness, vandalism or some similar anti-social act – the cry would go up: “Bring back national service! That’ll teach them discipline!”

National service in the United Kingdom – compulsory service in the military – was abolished several years before I came of age. In some countries, most notably in Switzerland, a country that hasn’t fought a land war for centuries, it’s still a requirement. Despite growing opposition among those forced to freeze half to death up in the Alps playing war games when they could be at home playing Internet games, Swiss advocates of the tradition still claim that national service brings people together from a wide variety of backgrounds and creates bonds that last for a lifetime. Maybe they’re right, and perhaps it’s just the military bit that’s not necessarily appropriate for the modern age.

Recently, I’ve been talking to Arab friends both in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia about ways of dealing with youth unemployment and, at the same time, instilling the work ethos and discipline required in the workforce of any successful economy. One acquaintance, Riyad, suggested that Bahrain would be an ideal place to launch a different kind of national service scheme for its youth – national civil service. He envisages compulsory call-up of young people to serve the country in contributing to infrastructure and public maintenance projects. He wrote:

“I have long advocated a type of compulsory civil service stint (similar to the military draft), where for two years one is put through a rugged “on the job” training programme that would inculcate productivity skills, and other skills needed in the labour market. This could be done through requiring that the draftees pick these skills up working on public service projects, such as building roads, buildings, bridges, or fixing equipment, etc”. He goes on to say:

“It would be critical, however, that the skills they are taught relate to what is in demand in the job market, and hopefully ones they would be willing to do once they leave the service, with reasonable salaries. We have to keep in mind that foreign labour gets tickets, lodging, and food that Bahrainis may need to be in cash, and somewhat better quality.”

Riyad also suggested some form of public-private partnership could manage the programme. I believe that he makes some very good points. To develop his theme, would it not be worthwhile if Tamkeen considered the possibility of using some of its revenue to subsidise schemes in partnership with the corporate social responsibility programmes of major companies in Bahrain?

With a little creative thinking, both government and the private sector could devise activities that could benefit not only the young people involved but the companies themselves. For example, how about a phone company using young people to teach the older generation to use their smart phones more effectively, and to use the Internet to speak to their offspring in far-flung paces? How about banks training youngsters in money management and then sending them to the schools to pass on their knowledge? What about construction companies and municipalities training people in horticulture and putting them on to community beautification projects? There could also be a military aspect – training young people in search and rescue, thereby enabling the military to take a more active role in disaster relief in the region.

Of course, the devil is in the detail, but a year or two of service either before university or after graduation for every young citizen is surely a better option than the boredom and frustration of unemployment experienced by many. Bahrain, as another friend pointed out, could once again lead the way with a creative approach that could be adopted throughout the region.”

I actually wrote the piece before things went critical here in Bahrain. But in the light of all that has happened since, I think that the idea of bringing young people together from all backgrounds to work on public projects between leaving school and going to work, or upon graduation, is still a good one.

Even if there is no work to go to subsequently, the experience they will gain will serve them well. It will take them out of their comfort zones, and give them a record of solid achievement to present to prospective employers. It could also be a good way to accelerate social reconciliation in the coming years.

Even better, would it not also be a good approach to binding together the local and expatriate communities if foreign school leavers were given the chance to take part, perhaps as gap year volunteers?

If had the money, I would probably think seriously about choosing a broad-based temporary employment scheme over expanding the staff of the Ministry of the Interior with 20,000 jobs for life. But I doubt if those applying for the new ministry jobs would agree with me.

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