Smarts and Skills To Help Build Their Communities

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How Teen Girls are Leading Their Own Revolution

Many articles have been written on the importance of including youth and women in national development and employment strategies in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). Despite all good intentions, however, women are still a small percentage of the labor force in Arab countries, and government programs are skewed towards young men because they are considered a priority as lifelong earners while women face the challenge, if they choose, of balancing work and families.

Successive US Administrations have made women’s empowerment, employment, and education a priority in foreign assistance programming. Unfortunately, the aftermath of the Arab Spring has not been friendly to women’s empowerment and youth enfranchisement, with few exceptions. One of them is Morocco.

Fifteen years after King Mohammed VI delivered a speech – soon after acceding to the throne – calling for extensive reforms to promote the role of women in society, the country’s commitment is continually being tested and progressing. And the US government is helping by funding programs for youth, with a strong emphasis on inclusion. One such program has just concluded in Washington, DC, and I was fortunate to meet with the group on their last day.

The program is TechGirls, “a U.S. Department of State initiative, which is an international exchange program designed to inspire and empower girls from the Middle East and North Africa to pursue deeper levels of training in technology through hands-on skills development,” as part of America’s continuing commitment to advance the rights of women and girls around the world. The program’s manager, since 2012, is Legacy International, which has been managing cultural exchange programs for 30 years.

According to Mary Helwig, VP of Legacy International, “While in the United States, TechGirls participate in an interactive technology and computer camp, join a tech company for a day of job shadowing, and participate in community service initiatives.” This year’s cohort included young women from seven Arab countries, and their energy and vision are great antidotes to the feelings of frustration with the lack of progress in the region.

We talked about entrepreneurship and what they want from their governments – mostly to provide the necessary eco-system of legal, financial, training, and incubating services – and how their experiences in the US gave them ideas about how to take initiatives when they return home.

 Moroccan Voices

techgirls3It should come as no surprise that the TechGirls are avid bloggers, tweeters, and Facebook users. #TechGirls provides hourly tweets of their daily activities and daily Facebook postings filled with pictures and narrative. They were able to pursue their interests in technology and community service during many of the program’s activities. On their last evening, they visited with Girls Who Code DC and General Assembly, a meeting that brought together the 27 MENA participants with 30 young women from DC who share their passion for technology.

The program involved quite a wide variety of projects. For example, they started with a traditional summer camp experience at Global Youth Village, visited Virginia Tech University for an orientation to STEM programs, and spending a day on community projects after visiting Goodwill Industries in Roanoke.

The four Moroccan participants were Amina Abou Ali (16), who wants to take her experiences back home and motivate other young women to embrace technology; 17 year-old Karima Lakouz, who plans to use her interest in technology as a driving force to help close the gender gap in engineering and technology; Khadija Chaibi (17), who will start a club at her school that will offer weekly classes to better inform her peers who might otherwise be illiterate in information technology; and 16 year-old Rihab Boutadghart, who wants to be a doctor because the area where she lives lacks medical services, and who hopes to use her medical and technology skills to develop medical materials to help people.

They all were engaging, unafraid to speak their minds, clear in their interests in serving their communities, and encouraged by the many new friends they had made both within the group and in the US. One of their most satisfying experiences was to get to know Americans beyond media stereotypes and to appreciate the diversity and hospitality they found here. In turn, they were interested in learning more about American perceptions of Morocco and its society.

To really get a sense of how the US is making very important investments in the youth of the MENA region, particularly those who have acquired English language skills and are grounded in technology, I encourage you to visit them on Facebook and experience US foreign assistance dollars well spent with young women who will change their communities.

Translation Please – What Does this Gibberish Mean?

Morocco Gets Positive Evaluation from IMF – In So Many Words

A colleague dropped by my office yesterday and said, “This looks like something for you; it’s just gibberish to me,” handing me the latest review by the IMF Executive Board of Morocco’s second PLL Arrangement and its final assessment of the first PLL. Yes, it certainly did sound incomprehensible to those of us uninitiated into the vocabulary of financial instruments related to government fiscal behavior (have I lost you yet?). So I decided that the good news story underneath the jargon needed to be translated so that more people are aware that Morocco continues to be headed in the right direction in its spending policies.

A PLL or Precautionary and Liquidity Line is a two-year arrangement whereby the IMF provides Morocco insurance against external risks, such as defaulting on government loans or excessive borrowing against its foreign currency reserves. Essentially, it meant that during the first PLL, Morocco could draw up to $5 billion to support its balance of payments, if needed. The PLL facility, as these instruments are called, introduced by the IMF in 2011, is designed to support countries that have the right budgetary policies but are experiencing difficulties due to external circumstances, such as natural disasters that devalue local agricultural or commodity production, excessive increases in imported energy costs, or other factors that upset their normal fiscal stability.

Morocco is now in its second two-year PLL. It treated the first, and now the second PLL as insurance policies and has not drawn down any of the available funds, preferring to implement budgetary and fiscal measures that strengthen the country’s capacity to absorb challenges to its economic health.

The IMF, as a matter of policy, reviews the PLL after the first year to assess how successfully the country manages the facility. So this year’s Executive Committee meeting both completed the final review of the first PLL and carried out the second evaluation of the current PLL.

Why so many assessments? The IMF does not give away money; rather, it provides financial means to countries under strict conditions linked to performance and agreed-upon metrics, sometimes requiring reforms on the part of the recipient country. In other words, no free rides.

Report Card on Morocco

So how did Morocco do? Well according to Mr. Min Zhu, IMF Deputy Managing Director, “Morocco’s overall economic performance has been strong. Following a slowdown in 2014, growth is expected to pick up in 2015. Policy action has helped reduce fiscal and external vulnerabilities and significant progress has been achieved on reforms. In an environment that remains subject to important downside risks, sustaining the momentum will be important to reduce remaining vulnerabilities and achieve higher and more inclusive growth.”

Min Zhu, Deputy Managing Director, IMF credit: IMF

Min Zhu, Deputy Managing Director, IMF
credit: IMF

So Morocco has been moving to lessen the negative impact of expensive energy imports; increased its exports to generate more foreign currency reserves; and continued with incremental reforms to its public budget to reduce inflationary items such as public pensions, to close the spending and revenues gap.

The IMF noted that Morocco is improving its banking sector by adopting the Basel III standards related to increased currency reserves and implementing a new banking law. It cautioned, however, that “an important further step should be the timely adoption of a new central bank law. Ongoing work toward a more flexible exchange rate regime and a new monetary policy framework, in coordination with other macroeconomic and structural policies, is welcome.” It also noted that “further progress on structural reforms, including improving the business environment, governance, transparency and the job market will help strengthen competitiveness, growth and employment and enhance the economy’s resilience to shocks.”

In looking back at the previous 2012-2014 PLL, the board agreed that Morocco had performed successfully due to sound economic fundamentals despite rising external risks such as decreased exports to Europe and investor concerns with stability in the region. In fact, the board commended “the authorities for not drawing on the arrangement in spite of external economic headwinds.”

All in all, it was a valuable report for both the IMF and Morocco. The country is more aware of the need to look at several medium-term policy challenges, such as controlling public expenditures related to salaries and increased imports of high-value items; and the IMF Directors “noted some useful lessons learned with regard to program design and implementation.”

So, gibberish aside, Morocco is acting responsibly and proactively to maintain fiscal discipline, reduce its budget deficits, and adopt even more helpful reforms to the business and financial policy environment. That’s the good news and why Morocco continues to deserve support from the IMF.

Plans Moving Ahead for Third US-Morocco Trade & Investment Forum

Coca-Cola to Host Event at its Atlanta Headquarters

Although security issues continue to dominate news about the Middle East and North Africa region (MENA), the Moroccan Embassy in Washington, DC is also focusing on how to bring greater prosperity and stability to the region through business development. It is busy preparing for its upcoming annual trade and investment forum to be held this year in Atlanta on October 13. Much like the very successful program in Dallas last October, the agenda will bring a strong public-private delegation featuring leading officials and businesses from Morocco.

Coca-Cola’s hosting of the Forum is an indication of its long-standing business relationship with Morocco,. The company has its regional headquarters there and has made Morocco a major transshipment hub for distributing its products. First introduced in Morocco 1947, Coke now rivals tea as the favorite beverage of the country. According to a feature on the Travel Channel, Morocco is the fourth-largest consumer of Coke products in Africa, following South Africa, Nigeria, and Egypt – countries with much larger populations. Hawaii, a fruit punch concoction produced by Coke, was pioneered in Morocco and is now sold around the world.

Morocco’s love affair with Coke products was well illustrated in an economic impact study undertaken by Al Akhawayn University, which indicated that more than 70,000 Moroccans are employed in upstream and downstream operations, where the company has a significant impact on multiple sectors of the economy, from small farmers to truckers, retailers, food and beverage services, sports teams, to its wastewater recycling plants in Marrakech and elsewhere.

Atlanta Skyline  credit:

Atlanta Skyline

So it makes good business sense for Coca-Cola to show other companies in the south why business in Morocco is a win-win proposition. According to a draft program of the Forum, three key areas will be highlighted: Agriculture and Food Investment Opportunities, Banking and Financial Services, and Manufacturing. In addition, there will be sessions devoted to Morocco’s rapidly growing renewable energy sector and its leadership in water management technologies.

A number of state and local public officials will be on hand to tout the bilateral relationship with Morocco and encourage Moroccan companies to source more products made in Georgia and the surrounding states. From the Moroccan side, you can expect high level participation from the Ministry of Industry, Commerce, Investment, and the Digital Economy, Casablanca Finance City, AMDI (Morocco Investment Development Agency), agencies dealing with renewable and hydrocarbon energy projects, and US companies doing business in Morocco.

In the agricultural sector, Morocco is introducing new technologies and crops to reduce fluctuations caused by variable rainfall. Through its Maroc Plan Vert (Green Plan), the government is providing support to small and large farming enterprises to improve their productivity and timely access to markets. As a result of its well-developed transportation and distribution infrastructure, Morocco has already established itself as the regional hub for doing business in West and Central Africa, including the Casablanca Finance City (CFC), where a diverse group of financial services companies are based to address the region’s needs.

Aeronautic and automotive manufacturing are the success stories in Morocco that continue to blossom. Automotive now is the leading manufacturing sector in the country, with more than 300 companies in the supply chain – a valuable market for regional businesses in Atlanta. Similarly, the aeronautics manufacturing sector, with its more than 100 suppliers based in an around Tangier and Casablanca, is an attractive destination for its counterparts in the southern US.

Of course, networking is the primary purpose for the forum, getting into the details of how to do business. Time has been set aside for individual meetings between companies and with government leaders as well as a novel format that provides for face-to-face meetings with the US and Morocco Ambassadors together to address company requests.

We will continue to update the program as details become available.