Six lessons in creating decent work through Start-ups and Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs)

18 November 2020

Oxfam, with support from the Danish Arab Partnership Program (DAPP), is implementing the five-year Youth Participation and Employment project (YPE) to improve economic opportunities for young women and men in Egypt, Jordan, Morocco and Tunisia. The YPE, Oxfam’s commitment to the Global Initiative on Decent Jobs for Youth, aims to create job opportunities and an employment- enabling environment for young people through cooperation with a range of local organizations across Morocco, Tunisia, Jordan and Egypt. Implementing the YPE project has taught us some important lessons that can help creating decent jobs for young people.

A vast range of studies from around the world show that small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) play a vital role in local-level economic development[1]. They account for a significant share of gross domestic product (GDP) in all economies and are the main contributors to the creation of jobs and wealth, the generation of income and the alleviation of poverty. New businesses are not well supported in their early start-up phase due to the risks involved. This can act as a barrier to creating decent jobs as without the needed support businesses can fail to follow labour standards. Here are some lessons the YPE project can teach us in the creation of decent employment opportunities through start-ups and SMEs:

Protect young workers’ jobs, incomes and health: The current crisis has further emphasised the need to focus on decent jobs for youth. The YPE project supported entrepreneurship and creation of jobs using digital means by providing training and creating awareness about new opportunities. According to an Oxfam report, Fighting inequality in the time of COVID-19, the coronavirus pandemic has swept across a world unprepared to fight it, because countries had failed to choose policies to fight inequality.  The policy response to the pandemic should ensure the protection of young workers’ incomes, jobs, and health through the provision of social protection and unemployment insurance benefits.

Inculcate entrepreneurial culture: The current education system does not produce workers with skills demanded by the  labour market. Learning job-oriented skills and developing soft skills can go a long way in enhancing youth employability and transition into work. Traditional skills transferred by the family also need to be upgraded  in order to compete with the market demand. For example, support to the handicraft sector through professional designs has been useful in the YPE project. Fostering entrepreneurship remains a challenge. In order to tackle this, there is a need to act upstream i.e. empower youth from an early age to embark on an entrepreneurial journey.

Identify and promote jobs of tomorrow: Universities are not well equipped to train youth for the jobs of the future. According to the World Bank’s recent study[2] on the changing nature of work, the majority of youth going to school today are trained to work in jobs that will not exist in the future.  Young people are more at risk than any other age group from automation.  The ILO, in its recently published report Global Employment Trends for Youth 2020 highlights that the risk of automation peaks among young workers, as they are more likely to be in more automatable occupations. We need to provide the right skills to prepare young people for future jobs. Businesses providing training for employability and job placement to reduce the mismatch between graduate skills and business needs/demands can help young people. YPE designed assessments and job-fairs to stay updated with market needs and shared the information with those who needed it. 

Measure the impacts of interventions: It is crucial to ascertain that the jobs are sustainable, decent and impactful. For this reason, and to better gauge the impact of interventions, Impact Partner has proposed a new methodology to measure and certify impact using the Impact Management System(IMS). The system can help SMEs and start-ups. The YPE project will monitor the application of this method.

Engage with the private sector: Decent jobs can be facilitated by strengthening the ecosystem and resilience of SME’s through a multi stakeholder- One way to do this would be to engage with the private sector who play various roles in a business such as funders, business experts, mentors and, most importantly, business partners in SMEs and start-ups. A private sector network developed by YPE has helped in linking young people with formal sector jobs that offer decent work as compared to the informal sector, which is largely unregulated and lacks protection. 

Follow an inclusive approach for facilitating resilient and decent work: Women’s economic empowerment is essential for economic growth. The YPE partners prioritized working with women as an integral part of their approach. An assessment and mapping developed by the YPE helped in creating gender equality action plans and targeting women through gender transformative interventions.

Anis Sassi, 30, is one of the young people the YPE project has supported in developing entrepreneurial skills in Tunisia, with help from two local partners, FIDEL and Impact Partner. Impact Partner works with accelerator programmes providing training and coaching to entrepreneurs. After the training, they facilitate financing businesses. Anis got the technical and financial support to develop his company, including a certification as a senior technician in electro-mechanics, and through that was able to make the transition to a decent job. He tells us about his career before the support from Oxfam and partners to start up his own business: “The employers wanted me to work hard with no insurance and at all hours of the day. In those days I had no choice but to accept anything to work.”  His company is just one out of the total 547 jobs and businesses created by Oxfam IBIS’ partners in Tunisia.

Watch his story here:

[1] International Finance Corporation (IFC). (2010). Scaling-Up SME Access to Financial Services in the Developing World.; Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). (2017). Entrepreneurship at a Glance 2017.

[2] World Bank Group. (2019). World Development Report 2019: The Changing Nature of Work.

This article is part of the Decent Jobs for Youth Blog Series: Youth Rights & Voices. The Blog Series highlights the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on young women and men in the world of work and discusses action-oriented policy responses and solutions. If you would like to comment or contribute, please contact




Naghmeh Mahmoudi Kashani

Youth Technical Advisor – Youth Participation and Employment (DAPP) – Maternity cover

Louise-Christine Bæk Andreis

Intern – Youth Participation and Employment (DAPP)
Oxfam IBIS

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18 November 2020