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Too Few Solutions from Algeria’s Leadership for Economic Woes

The economic news for Algeria, tied to its opaque political-business regimen, is hardly heartening. Despite the recent decree of yet another attempt at reform, the country remains stagnated within a system that inspires little confidence in international investors and drives away its talented youth looking for opportunities elsewhere.

Robert Looney in Foreign Policy, argues that the country has done little to a significantly change its business culture, characterized by an interlocking coterie of politicians and businesses that still regard foreign investment as a Trojan horse for breaking their stranglehold on the commercial life of the country. Worse still, the country “is perceived to be among the world’s 10 most corrupt.” Its indicators are all moving in the wrong direction as “Fiscal and trade deficits have shot up, international reserves are falling rapidly, and the currency has been devalued by nearly 30 percent.”

Similar negative outcomes are project for GDP growth, which will end up around half of last year, largely due to the over-reliance on all things hydrocarbon. Looney paints a damning picture. He asks, “Will the new strategy [New Economic Growth Model] be the stabilizing force the government needs? If Algerian history and international experience are any indication, the answer is no.”

He goes on to note that on critical indicators such as quality of governance, rule of law, control of corruption, government effectiveness, and regulatory quality, it ranks below all of its North African neighbors. Algeria is unable to mobilize its population of 40 million, shrinking foreign reserves now around $150B, and proximity to Europe and Francophone African countries to take steps as its neighbor Morocco has done to implement a more sophisticated and open investment regime.

Looney mentions that there are “too many vested interests with a stake in blocking economic, social and political reforms have been created. Since it appears that the new reform plan was designed precisely by such vested interests in the corrupt government inner circle, it is unrealistic to expect the plan to set off a virtuous circle of reforms.”

Downward Trends

Some indications of how far Algeria has yet to go were noted in an article in the Sada Journal. It says that “This new approach has failed to convince some Algerian economists, who insist the current system needs a wholesale transformation, including tackling the structural obstacles that deter foreign investors or the emergence of a dynamic private sector.”

ITs over-reliance on hydrocarbons has stagnated Algeria's development

Over-reliance on hydrocarbons has stagnated Algeria’s development

This recommendation flows from the assumption that needed reforms, which would, among other steps, shift trade and investment responsibility to technocrats, free the financial and monetary system from its political albatross, provide transparency to contracting and commercial laws, and accept international accounting and banking standards, would be forthcoming. Not likely.

The basic structure of the economy, under the new model, like Saudi Arabia, is meant to move from its dependence on hydrocarbons to a more diversified economy. While the kingdom has Prince Mohammed bin Salman as the cheerleader-in-chief for Vision 2030, there is no comparable leadership in Algeria. It is ironic that it hosted the most recent meeting of OPEC, which will only continue to make it difficult to wean itself away from hydrocarbons if the price of oil even incrementally rebounds, thus making it easy for the Algerian leadership to once again postpone needed reforms.

The latest figures from Algeria paint a very difficult lie ahead. According to BMI Research, using Algerian government sources, “Cuts in public spending, mainly affecting capital expenditure, and higher taxes and import duties will be negative for investment and consumption. While Algeria’s remaining fiscal buffers will help to delay a more dramatic fiscal and economic adjustment, the next few years are likely to see subdued growth and rising macroeconomic challenges.”

The problem with business as usual is broad and deep. For example, due to declining hydrocarbon exports, the trade deficit went from a $4.3B surplus in 2014 to a $13.7B deficit in 2015, with the rate continuing throughout 2016. As the BMI report points out, “With investment largely dependent on public spending, there are few other domestic sources to pick up the slack. Private investment has long been constrained by Algeria’s byzantine operating environment, marked by difficult access to credit and numerous regulations and time-consuming procedures.”

There can be little satisfaction to watching Algeria weaken itself by continuing to bring on its own debilitation by continuing to rely on inadequate assumptions for economic strategies. Even the agreement with China to build and run a new port project valued at some $3.5B will not alleviate the long term consequences of failing to restructure and relaunch its economy based on a globally competitive series of assumptions that takes advantage of the keen human resources in the country.

 

Image: BBC.com

Security in the Sahara Not a Shell Game

Threat not Overstated; Remedies Require “Losing Old Paradigms”

Contradictions are not rare in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region when it comes to politics and diplomacy. This is particularly evident in the continuing efforts to resolve the Western Sahara conflict. While all of the parties voice concern over the lack of a resolution, most, namely the Polisario and Algeria, are unwilling to offer credible options for how to do so, essential for regional cooperation needed to address extremist threats emanating from ungoverned spaces and, unsurprisingly, a lack of regional coordination.

The stalemated negotiations atrophying in the UN Secretary General’s office have underscored these concerns about how this situation impacts regional security and yet have offered little in the way of realistic options for resolving the conflict.

From the UN perspective, one needs look no further than the UN Secretary General’s report on his trip to the region. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon noted “The frustrations I witnessed among Western Saharans, coupled with the expansion of criminal and extremists’ networks in the Sahel-Sahara region, present increased risks for the stability and security of all the countries of this region. A settlement of the Western Sahara conflict would mitigate these potential risks and promote regional cooperation in the face of common threats and regional integration to bolster economic opportunity.” And yet, rather than use the security imperative to spur action towards a resolution, Ban Ki-Moon’s actions prior to the report put a negotiated political compromise further out of reach.

The Security Council’s response has been to once again reiterate the importance of working with the parties on a negotiated political settlement. One can only hope that the future of the UN’s presence in the territory will move forward toward a realistic settlement that would not rely on dead initiatives like a referendum, but engage in discussions built on achievable solutions. Only then will the region be able to revive some sort of effective security coordination among all the state actions.

This has yet to be realized despite clear deterioration of security in the Sahel-Sahara region, largely because of ongoing regional rivalries and the antiquated thinking of Algeria and the Polisario. As Professor Mohammed Benhammou, President of the Moroccan Center for Strategic Studies, noted in recent article, “Regrettably, in the Maghreb the conditions for cooperation do not always exist due to antiquated thinking, particularly over the Sahara. The closed border between Morocco and Algeria has impacted most regional relationships. For example, Tunisia, Libya, and Mali are forced to develop security strategies with both countries separately at the expense of a more effective coordinated regional strategy.”

Some of the challenges to developing such a regional strategy, particularly with regard to Algeria’s role, are outlined in a recent article in the Sada Journal about the reconstitution of Algeria’s security forces. As the author indicates, the restructuring of the security services (DRS) over the past two years, designed at least in part to improve counterterrorism capabilities, has done little more than eliminate a competing power center to the presidency.

Another part of the current strategy – highly visible counterterrorism operations to “rebuild popular confidence in the Algerian military’s ability to maintain public security,” thereby, “sending a message to France, its neighbors in the Sahel, and other countries interested in regional security that Algeria is still the dominant player,” also rings hollow given Algeria’s increasing difficulty in securing its own borders. Not to mention when one considers the failure of Algerian regional initiatives such as the Joint Military Staff Committee (CEMOC), which purported to be a regional security mechanism that was convened without Morocco, largely because of the dispute over the Sahara issue.

This is hardly a recipe for effectiveness and conflict resolution. Unless the old paradigms dissipate in order to activate true regional security cooperation including all stakeholders, Ban Ki-moon’s fears will become even more tangible and immediate.

 

 

 

What’s at Stake in 2015 for Morocco?

Will the reform agenda, growth targets, and regional security goals be attained?

In the past few months, I have written several blogs marking the progress of Morocco’s bilateral relationship with the US, including highlights from 2014 ranging from expanded security cooperation and several high level business conferences, to highly visible and successful participation in the US-Africa Leaders Summit and Vice President Joe Biden’s meeting with King Mohammed VI.

While these are useful hallmarks for 2014, they are in some ways benchmarks for viewing challenges and opportunities in the year ahead. There is much to be done if Morocco is to maintain its momentum as a liberalizing and secure country.

When looking to 2015, three key categories of issues stand out. The first of course are issues related to the Western Sahara including the MINURSO renewal, disruptive actions of the Polisario Front supported by Algeria, and the potential for US foreign assistance to be extended to Sahara to advance human development.

Closely related to this are regional security and stability concerns including combating violent extremism through internal and external efforts; counteracting the ISIS threat inherent in militants returning from war-torn areas in the Levant; and supporting stronger regional economic ties to boost employment.

Finally, Morocco has quite a diverse domestic reform agenda, which includes legislation addressing key constitutional issues and continued efforts to expand its commercial and investment opportunities, promote entrepreneurship, and advance its role as a business platform for Africa.

Although the agenda is quite complex and requires heightened cooperation and collaboration among government, the private sector, and civil society, the seeds have been planted for potentially beneficial outcomes. And regardless of what some pundits claim, Morocco alone, among the Maghreb countries, has the domestic leadership stability to take risks to advance its agenda.

Western Sahara

The annual renewal of the MINURSO mandate by the UN Security Council, required to enable it to continue its mission as observers in the Western Sahara in support of a sustainable resolution to the conflict, is anything but routine. Despite recent attempts to impose a human rights monitoring role on MINURSO, Morocco has been able to demonstrate that it takes its role in the territory quite seriously and extends human rights protections throughout all of Morocco. This has enabled Morocco’s friends on the Security Council to promote extensive collaboration between Morocco and UN agencies on this issue and avoid inserting a human rights monitoring role in the MINURSO mandate.

Despite Morocco’s steps to improve the lives of the people in the South, the Polisario Front, fully supported by Algeria, continues an extensive campaign to challenge Morocco’s presence in the area, with some of its members aligning themselves to trafficking, smuggling, and militant elements who are a significant threat throughout the region. Algeria plays its part by maintaining the closure of its border with Morocco, opposing Morocco’s diplomatic initiatives, and refusal to engage in broader conversations on security and economic development.

Perhaps the prospects for positive results from hydrocarbon exploration in the area will encourage the parties to seriously engage in dialogue regarding how to best insure the future of the southern region, which depends on support from Rabat for its economic, social, and infrastructure growth. A significant step by the US government, which mandates US foreign assistance funding in the Sahara, may prove to be a catalyst to promoting the long-sought acknowledgement by Sahrawis enclosed in the Polisario camps in Algeria that their futures are better secured in a thriving, committed Morocco.

Working on a Secure, Stable Future for the Region

Secretary John Kerry meets with Morocco's King Mohammed VI

Secretary John Kerry meets with Morocco’s King Mohammed VI

King Mohammed VI has repeatedly called for a multidimensional approach to combating violent extremism at home, including job training, family counseling, and emphasizing religious moderation. This same approach defines Morocco’s approach to regional security and stability – training imams in moderate religious discourse; broadening economic growth to be more inclusive and sustainable; and working with governments and private sectors to support greater attention to enfranchising marginalized and excluded minorities.

Morocco’s role in the coalitions against ISIS and al-Qaeda demonstrates the strong position that the country has taken to challenge extremism and militants bent on destruction and mayhem. Hosting coalition meetings, sending forces to the UAE for military technical assistance, and participating in airstrikes against ISIS are a few of the more visible steps taken by Morocco this past year.

As importantly, the government of Morocco, under the King’s leadership, has entered into more than 80 agreements with its African neighbors to expand economic opportunities and diminish the attraction of militant recruitment.

Growing the Region, Changing Lives for the Better

Domestically, Parliament and the government have a full slate of bills that will implement significant changes in how the country operates. Chief among these is the restructuring of the judicial system to make it independent of outside forces. Other efforts of note include finalizing the new law on associations, which will define guidelines for registering civil society organizations and other associations; and passing the law that eliminates the use of military tribunals for political offenses.

Mourchidate working in community center

Key 2015 Event: Local Elections

Another event to watch is how the government and political parties conduct themselves in the upcoming local elections. Heralded as a concrete step towards regionalization, the elections are already contentious since Parliament has not yet passed the empowering electoral law for the elections to proceed, the myriad possibilities of alliances among parties, the role of  international organizations encouraging a more competitive and open process, and the implications of the various results scenarios.

Hosting the Global Entrepreneurship Summit (GES) was only the latest showcase in Morocco’s commitment to domestic and regional economic growth. The country is moving to maximize its parallel strategy of growing investments in diverse sectors while promoting workforce education and training that results in market-ready labor. Where Morocco is getting it right is emphasizing programs beyond IT to agriculture, hospitality and financial services, skills trade, and special efforts for youth and women.

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2015 can be another breakout year for Morocco. Falling energy prices are reducing the drag of energy imports on the economy. Subsidies are being phased out or re-targeted for maximum savings and impact; and the business environment continues to improve for both domestic and international companies. The year may be long and difficult, full of domestic, regional, and international challenges. Yet there seems to be a growing commitment to see the future as an opportunity, which is the key ingredient for success.

When Is the Right Time for Maghreb Integration?

Report from private sector offers recommendations

One of my initial reactions to the US-African Leaders Summit was noticing the seeming lack of integration between North and sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) when it came to the initiatives announced by President Obama. At a time when foreign assistance resources are declining globally and the lack of African cross-border trade and investment remains limited, there seems to be space for more emphasis on enabling the private sector to “grow Africa.” This was a primary message from Miriem Bensalah Chaqroun, President of the Moroccan Federation of Businesses (CGEM), who noted that multilateral and regional

Association of Moroccan Businesses

Association of Moroccan Businesses

organizations agree that this can only be achieved if governments heed the advice of the private sector regarding what needs to be done to free up the growth-promotion environment in Africa. Greatly reducing tariff and non-tariff barriers, promoting transnational infrastructure projects linking markets across borders, and business-labor-capital friendly regulations are some of the more obvious elements in a comprehensive growth strategy. These are among the issues targeted by King Mohammed VI as part of his “economic diplomacy” in Africa, echoing his calls for strengthening North-South ties on the continent.

This line of thinking brought me back to a report issued this past spring “Making the Case for Maghreb Business in Times of Change,” which is a background report and action plan for “A private sector strategy for a Maghreb Initiative of Commerce and Investment (IMCI).” The report highlights that the countries of the Arab Maghreb Union (AMU) – made up of Algeria, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco, and Tunisia– have very little intra-regional trade, similar to other regions on the continent. In addition, although the AMU countries may have squabbles among the members, as there are in East and Central Africa, the private sectors continue to advance projects for aligning commercial interests across the region.

If it is the common wisdom, documented in multiple studies, that the private sector – formal and informal businesses, labor, and civil society – produces more jobs annually than governments, then there is a compelling logic that the private sector is a central stakeholder in facilitating economic growth.

Enter the Union of Maghreb Employers (UME)

Regardless of political obstacles, employers associations in the AMU have historically been pioneers in promoting inter-Maghreb dialogue for growth. After continued roadblocks due to political conditions, in 2007, CAP (Algeria), LBC (Libya), UNPM (Mauritania), CGEM (Morocco), and UTICA (Tunisia) decided to establish the Maghreb Union of Employers (UME). Its goal is “Creating a predictable and growth-friendly regional business climate that would result in a double benefit: expanding trade and investment inside the Maghreb and promoting stronger economic ties with its neighborhood and global markets.”

Arab Maghreb Union

Arab Maghreb Union

The report, released at its annual meeting in Marrakech, takes into account the impact of the Arab Spring and presents recommendations for strategic steps in meetings the region’s needs for growth, opportunity, and jobs. The report highlights several troubling phenomena: the youth bulge requiring large number of new jobs for entrants into the economy; rapidly growing urbanization that is often unregulated and poorly accommodated; and desertification literally eroding the agricultural sector. These conditions have resulted in a growing informal sector, stagnation in labor productivity, and a mismatch between education and employment opportunities.

Structural Challenges in the Economy

Among the structural issues across the Maghreb, the report notes the “lack of trade complementarity,” in that there is a very low level of intra-regional trade, since most economies of the Maghreb are small markets with limited export diversification. The report also notes that there is “little integration into global production chains limiting the expansion of high value added manufacturing activities.” An associated problem is that trade patterns are largely driven by “proximity.” More that 60 percent of the region’s trade and investment is tied to the EU, and this dependence is a source of economic vulnerability, as was obvious during Europe’s economic downturn. As important when addressing global markets is the “lack of product diversification.” Aside from some progress in Morocco and Tunisia, the Maghreb has not expanded much beyond core commodity exports and some manufacturing of new products to export.

Another area for remediation is the negative impact of tariff and non-tariff barriers, such as excessive delays, paperwork, closures, and customs procedures that raise the cost of business and “limit the competitiveness and quality of products.” These obstacles to the free movement of goods, the lack of free movement of labor and capital, and the lack of cross-border infrastructure to speed shipments and transportation combine to hold back the region’s economic integration, “fragment regional value chains and impedes the diversification of the product base.”

Substantial Recommendations

Tourism driving investment across the region

Tourism driving investment across the region

After presenting a summary of the benefits and rationale for deeper integration, the report breaks out recommendations in three broad areas: connect markets through cross-border private-public partnerships on crucial infrastructure development; dismantle obstacles by identifying a limited number of “pilot sectors” where all five countries can agree on a deeper cooperation agenda; and encourage investment, particularly by ensuring that skilled workers are available to attract foreign and domestic investment. Each area is broken down by timelines and expected results that clearly indicate the intense interest of the private sector in playing a role in furthering economic development in the Maghreb. This report is definitely another tool for the region’s governments by which to develop their national strategies with a “Maghreb dimension.”

Morocco Extends Humanitarian Aid and Support to Syrian Refugees

More than 900 Syrians have registered in Morocco as asylum seekers

The continuing tragedy of refugees fleeing the conflict in Syria extends across North Africa where hundreds have fled, often via human traffickers, to uncertain futures. According to a story in Al Jazeera last week, the number of 900 registered refugees “does not represent all the Syrian refugees in Morocco.”

In line with its new law regarding the treatment of illegal immigrants, Morocco has stepped up its efforts to provide them temporary group protection by working with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to register the refugees and shield them from detention, “even if they have entered or are staying on Moroccan soil illegally,” according to Marc Fawe, a spokesperson for UNHCR-Morocco.

Most of the refugees either come by boat or over land to Algeria, where they are left to their own devices to survive. One of the refugees explained that she had to leave Algeria due to the difficulty of establishing residency. “We could not stay on Algerian soil more than three months, and to stay longer, we had to leave the country and [come] back again.”

Syrian refugees access services in Morocco

Syrian refugees access services in Morocco

Their situation in Morocco is quite different as the country has recently adopted two ground-breaking laws regarding residency procedures for immigrants and means by which they can be integrated into Moroccan society. As reported in Magharebia, “The new initiative goes beyond residence permits; it provides newcomers with the means to assimilate into Moroccan society.” According to Migration Affairs Minister Anis Birou, “The policy comprises several strands, including the enrollment of immigrants’ children in schools, job training for adults, access to healthcare and learning darija. The aim is to equip migrants with all the tools they need to live peacefully as part of Moroccan society. Morocco must be an example in this respect.”

Aside from the global concern for the close to 4 million Syrian refugees worldwide from the current conflict, Moroccan citizens have also welcomed the practical and local impact of the policy. As a teacher in Rabat noted, the policy is part of efforts to respect human rights. She said to Magharebia, “Although their status is illegal, immigrants must have access to basic rights such as healthcare. I think no one can disagree with this strategy, which will enable thousands of people to live a dignified life in society, without fear or humiliation.”

Morocco’s position on the refugees reflects yet another progressive step in its comprehensive efforts to advance human rights throughout the country and North Africa.

A Tale of Two Cities…well, Actually Three Countries

Finding the Middle Path in Politics is Fraught with Challenges yet Better than No Discourse at All­­­­

When Driss El Yazami, the chairman of Morocco’s National Human Rights Council (CNDH) spoke recently in Washington, DC, he was asked about the so-called Arab Spring and its impact on human rights protections. He was quite candid in his response. “The core issue is about identity; it is about dignity. It is the loss of the connection between one’s identity and one’s dignity that is at the heart of today’s unrest.” He believes that human rights protections derive from the value that governments place on their relationship with their people. Human rights protections are a conscious effort by governments to have a social contract that applies to all people in the country.

This is the rationale behind the CNDH’s campaigns for migrant rights, the end of military trials for civilians, enhanced rights for the mentally ill, and eliminating child labor, to list several of their most recent efforts. And Morocco has earned praise for its continuing human rights reforms, largely as a result of the government adopting CNDH’s recommendations and turning them into legislation. Mr. El Yazami contends that this is the characteristic of democracy that goes beyond elections. It is a space where all opinions can be heard and debated without fear and with respect for differing perspectives and the outcomes of the debate.

Keeping Faith with Tunisia

In the past few months, Tunisia has garnered extensive praise from the international community for its “National Dialogue,” which weathered a very difficult drafting of a constitution and installation of a transitional technocrat government leading to presidential and parliamentary elections in late 2014. The contentious constitutional process avoided the poor outcomes that have plagued Egypt and Libya where significant disagreements have produced unsatisfactory conclusions. It should not be taken for granted, however, that the transitional success of the National Dialogue means that there is unity in Tunisia’s political landscape.

Human rights advocates are concerned that political expediency will mar steps needed to genuinely move Tunisia forward. As Yasmine Ryan writes, “…ignoring deep structural inequalities will only lead to further instability. Add to this the desperate need for major reforms to the judiciary, security forces, the education system, and decentralization, among others—and Tunisia’s challenges can sometimes seem insurmountable.” And the questions of national identity and defining with some precision the relationship between the state and religion continue to be unresolved, promising more contentious maneuvering as the elections approach.

Amna Guellali, director of Human Rights Watch for Tunisia and Algeria, remarked in an article in World Policy Journal  that contradictions and vague definitions in the constitution “could have grave consequences for the country.” It is in this gap between the constitution and how the enabling legislation is drafted, finalized, and implemented that human rights protections face their greatest challenges. One compelling example is the potential contradictions in the role of the government as “the guardian of religion” and “protector of the sacred,” while also ensuring “liberty of conscience.” Given that the first article of the new constitution states that Tunisia’s religion is Islam, there are understandable concerns about how this will play out. Without a national independent body akin to CNDH that can shed light on inclusive steps towards real democracy, the task of defenders of human rights is more difficult as the economic and social development needs of Tunisia will dominate the agenda of any incoming leadership.

And In Algeria, the Same may not Hold

It is difficult to have a forward-looking discussion about human rights reforms in a country    with such an opaque political process. John Entelis, writing in Muftah, notes “Riots and protests have been a regular feature of Algerian political life” and mentions that critics have pointed out that there is no timeline for implementing reforms announced since 2011. Some see reforms as a mouse caught “between the president’s office and the military-industrial complex, between executive authority and the country’s powerful intelligence services.”

The run-up to the presidential election this week has seen the withdrawal of candidates, boycott calls from Islamic and leftist parties, and the virtual campaign for Bouteflika’s re-election run by surrogates who are assuring Algerians that reform is his priority – once he is returned to office. “One pro-government politician went so far as to declare, ‘I will vote for him [Bouteflika] dead or alive because he has done so much for the country.’”

How much-needed human and social development challenges will be addressed after the elections has yet to be discussed. “It is a testament to the extreme disconnect between the country’s formal political structure and its civil society that the overwhelming majority of ordinary Algerians have been completely unaffected by the virtual absence of presidential authority…” With the debate yet to begin on a new constitutional amendment providing for the office of Vice-President and the installation of that person, human rights has little visibility within the debate over the new power balance that will emerge with Bouteflika’s departure. As James D. Le Sueur wrote in a monograph for the German Marshall Fund, “Politically, Algeria has managed to weather the storm brought on by the Arab Spring through swift and deliberate police presence meant to suppress real calls for reform.” It is hard to imagine a meaningful national dialogue in Algeria on identity and dignity emerging any time soon.

Unclear Prognosis for Human Rights in the Maghreb

Laudatory as the results of the Tunisian National Dialogue are, its new constitution exemplifies the challenge of closing the space between values and politics. As Tunisians prepare for end-of-year elections, the priority given to human rights may become clearer as candidates address voters concerns about social and economic inequalities. Morocco has its plate full with recommendations from the CNDH as well as judicial reforms, a new civil society framework, and reducing economic disparities to address through the end of this year. In Algeria as well as Libya, where basic rule of law has yet to be established, internal dissensions, power moves among various players, and uncertainty among the populace as to their countries’ future stability will have a major impact on the importance given to human rights under new governments. It will be a long year ahead.

Middle East economic reform requires robust and constructive citizen participation

A great deal of hand wringing goes on as bad news continues to drown out progress in the transitions going on in the Middle East and North Africa. From Egypt and Syria to Libya and Yemen, nay-sayers and pundits readily point out that there are few short-term solutions that don’t require some pain in the process of moving forward. As national identities crumble under the assault of religious and partisan appeals, it is problematic to come up with short-term remedies that don’t have long-term consequences for the political and economic health of the countries.

It seems to me that, aside from Tunisia at the best of times, which is not often enough, there is a failure by governments in transition to sustain effective messaging that people can understand on how the government is going to concretely tackle unemployment and corruption. Blaming the IMF for subsidy reforms is not a credible strategy for laying the groundwork for other steps that must be taken to reduce public debt incurred as a result of inflated bureaucracies, inefficient labor regulations, and insufficient investment capital available for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). Even Morocco’s parliament is encountering problems passing needed reforms to reduce expenditures and stimulate sustainable economic growth.

The challenges in the Maghreb are enormous, and yet citizens are rarely being mobilized to take part in economic development. Rather, they are pulled in different directions by political forces more concerned with scoring points and securing power than contributing to a way forward that is balanced, equitable, and contributes to necessary long-term changes.

Considering the options

Outside organizations are working in the MENA to provide mechanisms to bridge the messaging gap between governments and citizens. The George C. Marshall Foundation in cooperation with the Stimson Center and L’Insitut Arabe des Chefs d’Enterprises recently held a conference in Tunis that “brought together business people, academicians, policy planners and other thought leaders for a day and a half discussion on regional economic integration in the Maghreb…” The purpose of the conference was to determine how the action principles behind the success of the Marshall Plan in rebuilding Europe “might best be applied to contemporary situations where economic reconstruction or mass relief is needed.” One of its principal tenets seemed quite relevant to my thinking about the challenge of promoting both top-down and grassroots support for economic reform, “Political leadership and elements of self-sacrifice and determination are essential to the success of aid programs.”

In the US, Bill Clinton’s first presidential campaign, built around the message “the economy, stupid,” illustrated how critical it is to capture the public’s imagination and involvement in a dialogue about progress that has consequences beyond slogans. Similarly, the pressures of trying to reverse decades of economic and political mismanagement have resulted in a credibility barrier, especially for the transitional governments in Libya, Tunisia, and Egypt. As is evident from the competing demonstrations in those countries, evolving a consensus on key solutions without some parties feeling marginalized is an overwhelming challenge at times.

 Reaching the people

A key lesson in “participatory democracy” that seems to have emerged from the trials of the transitional governments is that the process of engaging citizens effectively in participatory and respectful politics is daunting under the best of circumstances. Their previous experiences with the former governments in Libya, Tunisia, and Egypt in particular have not given people a sense of national citizenship that transcends more particular allegiances. To help address this “communications gap,” the U.S.-Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI) has launched a series of civic engagement programs in the Maghreb to enable youth, civil society, and advocacy organizations to more effectively engage in the political process.

The World Bank Institute (WBI) along with the World Bank Middle East and North Africa (MENA) recently “brought together government officials and civil society practitioners from Morocco, Jordan and Tunisia to discuss how citizen engagement can contribute to more informed policies; how to develop codes of practice for public consultations; and how to use online tools to facilitate consultations.” The program aims to enable governments to “make informed decisions while creating public trust” by ensuring that the voices of those most impacted by the policy have been heard and addressed. Moreover, the program supports an inclusive process to ensure that the right players are involved, recognizing that public consultations can be critical “since the government may not have all the solutions at hand.”

This program complements others in the region such as the National Dialogue on Civil Society in Morocco focusing on how more inclusive and transparent communications between governments and citizens can reduce conflict and promote consensus around key development and governance issues. An essential element is training trainers in both government agencies and NGOs on the principles of public consultations as a tool for civic engagement.

While these efforts may be small steps in terms of bringing governments and citizens together, they are critical for directing “street” energy into advocacy tools using social media and other outreach technology and e-government programs to provide better access for people and greater knowledge and awareness for public officials. For the international donor community, there is a lesson here from the Marshall Foundation’s tenets: “Any successful aid program must be driven by the country and not imposed by outside countries or institutions.” When people speak as part of a respectful dialogue and government listens and acts to credibly engage its citizens, the street will return to being a thoroughfare rather than an avenue of protest and disorder.

"Business as usual" means lost opportunity in Maghreb

“Business as usual” means lost opportunity in Maghreb

We know there’s a deficit in private sector investment the Maghreb. Will the newly launched AMU investment fund make a difference?

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.