Disbelief & Discomfort about Immolations as new Gov’t program debated

I spent much of my day talking with taxi drivers, business leaders, friends, and waiters about two topics that are unfortunately related: the self-immolation by five graduates over lack of jobs and reactions to the programs being announced by the new government.

Disbelief and discomfort seem to permeate everyone’s remarks about the immolations, particularly “nothing like this has ever happened in Morocco.” Older middle-class Moroccans were shocked and blamed the unrealistic expectations of the young men for government jobs. This was repeated later by young professionals who were angry that the only interest of these protestors is to secure public sector employment — jobs for life that are among the least productive in the country according to these sources. Those in the lower economic strata said that it was “haram” — forbidden — and it proved that these people were not good Muslims. However another, a taxi driver, moaned the loss of those young men, now depriving their families of much needed support. I didn’t hear anyone mention “martyr,” but that will be turning up on some websites/social media soon.

It is a quandary. Without oil and gas and huge foreign reserves, Morocco is unable and unwilling to broaden public sector employment beyond the largesse of jobs added last year in response to the demonstrations. On the other hand, everyone believes that something must be done but there are few solutions that aren’t tied to longer term reforms of the economy and educational system. Although some claim that promoting entrepreneurship among the demonstrators would generate jobs, it contradicts the demands of the crowd for subsidies rather than the calculated risks of going into business.

The new government is very sensitive to the challenges that they have inherited. Jobs, transparency, equality before the law, and social development are top priorities and there is talk of increased pressure/incentives for the private sector to ratchet up their hiring. Labor laws, however, are an impediment to some since regulations on labor mobility and terminating employees are still not well advanced. In addition, the continued deterioration of Morocco’s main partners in Europe: Spain, France, and Italy, are compounding the slowdown in trade and investment. The debate in Parliament over the government’s program should be instructive regarding the willingness of its members to face their own future unemployment by a half-hearted agenda to provide opportunities that can make the young, believers.

The hope of Marrakech and the frustration of Rabat are captured well in Isobel Coleman’s blog from the PNB-NAPEO conference at: http://blogs.cfr.org/coleman/2012/01/19/education-and-employment-in-north-africa/

Some like it not: no emerging consensus on the new government

I returned to Rabat two months after the election that brought in a moderate Islamic party to lead the new coalition government. Having spent the last three days at a conference in Marrakech, I was astounded by the news of five young graduates who immolated themselves during a protest for jobs. When one contrasts the hopeful expectations of the participants in Marrakech with the great sadness of young people destroying themselves through some mixture of despair and recklessness, it brings into sharp focus the challenges ahead.

It is difficult to follow the news about the damaged young men without wondering how the new government will meet this severe test one day before it was scheduled to unveil its program in Parliament on Thursday. In discussions with government and opposition supporters it becomes clear that many fear there are short fuses for long-term problems such as closing employment and education deficits. The strongest asset for the new government is the mixture of old and new, professionals, technocrats, and politicians who understand that business as usual will not suffice. Even the palace, which has ensured that its representatives are in key ministries, has been taken aback by Wednesday’s dramatic actions, marking a turn from the usually peaceful demonstrations in the capital.

I spoke with former and current members of Parliament, supporters of the new government, and those who are taking a wait-and-see attitude. While there is no consensus on how it will perform, there is agreement that the immolations are a reality check on thinking that they have the time to make hard decisions. The new government seems poised to take up the challenges quickly if one follows its public statements. Having spent so much time negotiating the distribution and structure of the various ministries, there appears to be a commitment to visible results even if it requires shifting priorities away from reducing deficits and government expenditures.

While Morocco has initialed several commecial and investment agreements with Spain, the EU, and several Gulf countries over the past three months, implementation will take time. In addition, it is hard to convince graduates that after attending university they should return to less populated areas where there are jobs, many of which don’t require any kind of degree. How the government manages expectations and its relations with the palace will demonstrate quickly if the intellectual and operational leadership is there to convince Moroccans that their futures are secure and their lives will improve. No public relations campaigns will work–only results.
This article was originally published on Morocco On The Move.

Words into Actions: Theme and Challenge for NAPEO conf. on Economic Growth

It’s hard to form a simple conclusion about the second day of the second regional NAPEO conference in Marrakech. Based on quality of presentations/discussions and strong and effective presenters and participants, the overall program merits a strong A. Those who attended last year’s launch in Algeria were struck at how much had been achieved in one year. And to hear the list of project launches announced during the day, next year’s conference in Tunisia should be even more stimulating and productive.

What’s driving the participants is a hard to distill confidence that the economies of the Maghreb cannot go back to the largely opaque systems that benefited few and disappointed many. It was quite interesting to have a few minutes with Ambassador Stu Eizenstat, whose name graces the first program to promote regional economic integration – the Eizenstat Initiative of 1998. He finds some satisfaction in how quickly the vision of regional economic growth has mushroomed, driven hard by the realities of the Arab Spring. Now, thanks to the tenacious vision of former Fulbrighter Julie Egan and her cohorts at the State Department, along with the Aspen Institute and Partners for a New Beginning, ably staffed by Toni Verstandig and her PNB-NAPEO team, using the model of building local partnerships to take ownership of developing and delivering projects that create opportunities and jobs, you walk into a room full of North African entrepreneurs, advocates, business people, and aspirants who want to make a difference as soon as possible.

I moderated a discussion on cross-border opportunities and challenges in the hospitality and tourism sectors. It was quite telling that Algerians filled half of the room. While Tunisia and Morocco strongly endorse and support tourism as a national priority, Algeria still has rigid entry requirements and lacks sufficient infrastructure for broad-based tourism. This didn’t stifle any of the enthusiasm in the room for trading ideas, floating concepts, and engaging in thoughtful exchanges about how to promote regional as well as national tourism programs. Having worked on tourism promotion a generation ago in the Arab world, I too shared some of Ambassador Eizenstat’s satisfaction that the North Africans in the room really get it…and they’re going to make it work.

It was also quite interesting that the strongest applause during Ambassador Ed Gabriel’s group discussion on Cross Regional Business Opportunities was when presenters said that it was time for North Africa to be treated on its own merits, not as adjunct to the Middle East. Several people raised the difficulties of doing business in the region because of arcane transportation regulations and lack of transparency in business and legal codes. Yet, as Nawal Elaidaoui, the P&G Manager for NW Africa concluded, that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth the effort to keep banging on the door and building local partners to advocate for change. Regimes are calculating how to survive, and win-win economic growth may be the smart money option.

This article was originally published on Morocco on the Move.

Emphasis on Youth and Women a major Pillar of the NAPEO Conference

The presenters at this year’s PNB-NAPEO conference in Marrakech are impressive. Most speakers have demonstrated expertise in a variety of enterprises or are enablers of ingredients for building businesses and jobs: venture capital, training, angel investors, and entrepreneurs. Most of the achievers are from Morocco, Tunisia, and Algeria, while the enablers are from the US–a heady mix of visionaries and realists intent on changing the landscape of economic growth in North Africa.

The theme was set on Tuesday in a “discussion” featuring former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright; Walter Isaacson, CEO of the Aspen Institute; Mostafa Terrab, CEO of OCP Group; moderated by Hisham Melhem, Washington Bureau Chief of Al-Arabiya, on the topic of “A New Paradigm: Public-Private Partnerships.”

Ms. Albright paid homage to the youth of the Arab Spring, recognizing that the events that transpired and the transitions following, despite the media hype, are very complicated and important shifts in region. She emphasized that empowering youth will take a while. Secretary Albright noted that political and economic development go together and that the new governments must deliver what people; and private-public partnerships are a means of facing common needs. For the youth, it is overwhelming a question of justice and dignity. She was quite passionate about empowering women to have opportunities to make their contributions.

Mostafa Terrab spoke of the need to shift the perception of the role of corporations from “corporate social responsiblity” to “shared values”–the first carrying the burden of being perceived a ’cost’ to companies for doing business, while shared values takes a longer view and places the emphasis on the benefits of long term investing in local communities. This emphasis on local action was echoed by Isaacson who reminded the audience that business leaders, particularly at the local level, have a better ability to solve problems related to job creation than governments.

Terrab said that the paradox of Arab Spring–record corporate profits in 2011 while disparities between rich and poor widened–has not been resolved. He believes that companies have the capacity to make productive social investments but regulatory regimes do not recognize this as a value.

Throughout the day, there were announcements of specific initiatives to assist companies and entrepreneurs, from a $20 million franchising fund in Tunisia to new venture capital funds for the region. The Aspen Institute model, according to Mr. Isaacson, stresses local results from specific projects. There was a general consensus that corporations, students, and governments have to work closely together to generate the educational and training opportunities that make young people job ready in the shortest possible time. Mostafa Terrab added that entrepreneurship has to be valued within cultures and that a key objective is integrating soft skills into the education and training approaches.

It was a powerful introduction to follow on sessions that probed specific topics related to empowering, developing, financing, and creating enabling environments for new jobs and companies.

Speaking of supporting local businesses, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention three discoveries in Marrkech new to my itinerary that I recommend highly. For a most relaxing and reasonable hammam/massage experience, try marrakech.massage@gmail.com. Of course this must be followed by some of the freshest fruit drinks this side of California at www.cafe-extrablatt.com; topped off by excellent thin crust pizza and fried calamari at Catanzaro, which can be found in numerous guides to Marrakech or at lecatanzaro@espace-maroc.com. And for this I missed the hip-hop night at the hotel!!

This article was originally published on Morocco on the Move.

US-backed program hopes to build youth employment opportunities

At Marrakech, the US and its regional partners are hosting the second “US-Maghreb Entrepreneurship Conference”to build the capacity of local entrepreneurs to meet demands for economic growth and jobs. And by ‘local’, they mean the countries of Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia. With more than 400 people in attendance beginning on January 17, there is very strong interest to see if private sector values can emerge from people whose talents have often been submerged or limited within state-driven economic models of the past.

Before the conference started, there was a series of 11 “workshops” on topics ranging from a Startup Boot Camp and Becoming an Angel Investor to Venture Capital Best Practices and an Introduction to Google Advertising Networks & Tools. The organizers realized that the attendees needed fewer presentations and more hands-on opportunities to acquire skills to maximize their experience here.

The illluminati have arrived: former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright; Walter Isaacson of the Aspen Institute; Mostafa Terrab of OCP – the world’s largest producer of phosphates, based in Morocco; Ambassador Stuart Eisenstat; four former US Ambassadors to Morocco; brilliant economist Hernando de Soto; US Assistant Secretary of State Jose Fernandez; and the newly installed Moroccan Minister of Economy and Finance, Nizar Baraka.

Among the other 50 presenters and panelists are the three winners of last year’s TechTown incubator competition from Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia. Whew. All of this before we even talk about how this is part of the US strategy to assist countries respond to economic issues by accelerating private-public sector partnerships to tackle employment and business development concerns to achieve specific and measurable results. While some have expressed concern about the costs of putting on such a conference, at the same time it brings home the message that probably the best tools that America has to convey to the Arab peoples are those same tools that helped the US become the world’s leading economy.

It all begins with instilling a set of operational principles about work, its value, its role in society, and the necessity of retooling throughout one’s life to respond to the shifting demands of the global economy. It also emphasizes the importance of recognizing and nurturing skills in everyone, not selecting out those who don’t meet certain social or ethno-cultural criteria. So this program is about giving people choices…about options for personal and professional growth, for understanding that job creation is as much about dignity as it is about compensation, and for integrating young people into economies in transition. BTW, the assumption is that this time governments are listening…

This article was originally published on Morocco on the Move.