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The Best Intentions Do Not Always Make Great Policy

To Fix Its Middle East Policy, US Must Support Assets while Confronting Challenges

If you think the label “silly season” only describes tsunamis whirling around the national elections, you’re missing an important contest among US think tanks to frame policy options for the next administration. What’s interesting about the exercise is that it doesn’t matter who wins, since the same realities, domestic and foreign, face whoever is elected.

Options and solutions proposed by think tanks, in any case, reflect their particular points of view, priorities, and insights into what the previous administration has done right or wrong, or didn’t pay enough attention to, or ignored at America’s peril. And this is especially clear with countries where our interests diverge, such as China, and more intriguing with those countries where the US has shared interests, such as the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). What is also clear from past administrations is that the MENA region is where good intentions regarding countries from Morocco to Iraq often fail to deliver consistently sound and actionable policies.

The Center for a New American Security (CNAS) recently launched its foray into this tangle of good intentions with the analysis, “Reset, Negotiate, Institutionalize – A Phased Middle East Strategy for the Next President.” It is well-reasoned and documented, enumerates feasible steps, and clearly focuses on protecting what remains of America’s alliances in the region without jeopardizing our ability to adapt to changing circumstances.

That said, whether it’s CNAS, SAIS, CSIS, AEI, CEIP, or any other of the more than 100 foreign policy think tanks in Washington, DC, almost any position on an issue can be found. For example, the recent GCC Heads of State meeting generated pro and anti Saudi Arabia and pro and anti Iran articles, providing support for obviously opposing views, all reflecting someone’s definitions of America’s national interests in the region.

And then there is the question of priorities – when will Morocco, for example, receive the same attention as the UAE or Qatar? All are allies and have important regional roles to play in promoting stability and security, yet it seems that unless  a country or a region is in triage, it has to speak up loudly and visibly to be heard.

Secretary Kerry Greets King Mohammed VI

Secretary Kerry Greets King Mohammed VI

Morocco is an excellent case in point. The only mention of Morocco in the CNAS report is as the host for the talks to constitute a government in Libya. Absent from the only map in the report is everything west of the Levant. No mention is made of the growing threats to North Africa, and Morocco in particular, from Daesh and other extremists, nor is there any commentary on the flow of fighters from the region to the Syria-Iraq war zones and back.

Yet Morocco has steadfastly support America’s interests throughout the region, and for this, Daesh has issued numerous threats against the country. Morocco plays a key role in Jerusalem through King Mohammed VI’s role as head of the Jerusalem Committee. It also has the most robust security service cooperating with the EU and the US in combating terrorists who have already caused great damage to Europe’s sense of equanimity and attitudes towards immigrants fleeing combat zones.

Morocco recently became co-chair of the Global Counterterrorism Forum, and the country’s special counterterrorism bureau recently intercepted jihadists intent on bringing chemical weapons into Europe through Morocco. What more can be asked of our ally? If the report is an example, without being more proactive, the US is in danger of a growing breach with our friends.

It is in this context that King Mohammed spoke out at the recent GCC-Morocco Summit about the impact of not respecting old and tested friendships. “There have been new alliances which may lead to disunity and a reshuffling of roles and functions in the region. In fact, these are attempts to foment strife and create chaos, and no country would be spared. It could have serious consequences for the region, even the world at large.”

The king then went on to detail how Morocco was diversifying its “partnerships at political, strategic and economic levels,” to include Russia, China, and India. He believes that the GCC and Morocco and Jordan “Are facing conspiracies which seek to undermine our collective security. They want to destabilize the few countries which have managed to safeguard their security, stability and political systems.”

So when think tanks look at the MENA region, it may be more impactful to think beyond conflicts in the Levant and Gulf to also address threats to America’s interests at the other end of the Mediterranean. For example, the CNAS report recommends that as a first step, the next president make a trip “focused on America’s closest regional partners,” starting with the Levant and the Gulf, “and possibly Egypt,” clearly aimed at damping down instability in Iraq and Syria.

Yet the conflict and chaos that drive these priorities are inexorably moving across the region and will metastasize if not confronted with a robust US and EU led strategy in partnership with friends like Morocco.

Education and Employment: Bridging the Divide (Part 2/2)

East and North Africa, rates of unemployed young women are eight times that of men. This is the last of a two part series. Read part one here.

As Jamie McAuliffe, president and CEO of Education for Employment (EfE), remarked at the WEF conference in Jordan: “We are trying to get governments and businesses to identify job-creating sectors and encourage investors to engage in them.” He also spoke of the need to encourage entrepreneurship and facilitate ways for young people to start small businesses through micro-financing programs. He went on to emphasize with regards to women that: “The rates of unemployment are as high as eight times that among young men,” and that “getting young women into the work force and supporting opportunities for them to become entrepreneurs is one of the critical challenges and opportunities.”

Entrepreneurship, however, due to the hesitation of financial institutions and inadequate legal structures, is more attractive than attainable at this time in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). Even in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, enabling business start-ups largely remains tied to one’s status and social connections rather than the business prospects of the product or service.

So in addition to the four factors listed above, one could add a fifth: the role of the informal economy, which for many is the only accessible outlet for entrepreneurship since official channels are full of obstacles for those with little experience or education to manage the multiple steps for launching a business.

Another concern expressed in The WEF program was engaging youth to perceive employment as more than work and more as a career, that is, acquiring skills that over time enable one to reach higher levels of achievement and compensation – critical in societies that place such a high premium on marrying well and being able to provide for a family. With the concern that public payrolls can no longer support inefficient labor practices, and the lack of diversity in most MENA economies, the IMF has issued a report on the need for greater private sector absorption of new job entrants. This will require a long-term, multifaceted program working with governments in hands-on technical and vocational training projects, as well as higher quality and better targeted secondary and tertiary education.

A sotto voce topic that relates to youth attitudes towards work is their perspectives on the kind of work and on-the-job behaviors that they value. Dealing with the expectations of job applicants is a nagging complaint across the MENA, especially about those with university educations and few practical skills. With few role models to emulate that are not tied to “the old ways,” young people range from those who are poorly or partly educated and unskilled and semi-skilled through experience, to those who are educated and unskilled with expectations that are not aligned with prospects in their economy.

It is no wonder that when youth across the region are polled about their job choices, more than 30 percent believe emigration is their best alternative. Joe Saadi, chairman of Booz and Company and managing director of its Middle East practice, painted the stark consequences of lagging youth recruitment: “Every year you don’t have the capacity to absorb newcomers into the labour force, you’re compounding the unemployment issue and, given the social and economic pressure in the region, there is this sense of urgency setting in.”

An interesting and in some ways compelling recommendation from someone whose company recruits young people, is to institute a form of compulsory service for six months in order to change the mindset of young people unwilling to consider certain jobs. This would instill values consistent with the workplace, according to Mohammed Al Mady, CEO of Saudi Basic Industries Corporation (SABIC), which has more than 20,000 employees. He believes that this approach will: “Teach them resilience, teach them modesty, teach them how to work and take the ladder step by step until they reach what they want.” Al Mady pointed out that even the recent Saudi labor policy to force the private sector to employ more nationals – nitaqat – did not necessarily address the problem of improving the quality of youth for employment purposes.

Case: Youth Employment Challenges in Morocco

Morocco has yet to experience significant economic dislocations as a result of the Arab Uprisings, and its subsequent actions may serve as a potential case study of a North African country that has undergone the least amount of turmoil while advancing economic reforms that in no small part are focused on the labor force.

The Arab World Competitiveness Report 2013 identifies education and the inefficiency of the labor market as the most obvious drags on the kingdom’s competitiveness and social cohesion. Not only is the public education system not aligned sufficiently with the needs of business, “the labour market structure needs to allow for an efficient use of talent and sufficient flexibility.”

As in other Arab countries, youth between the ages of 15 and 29 account for about 30 percent of the population and 44 percent of those of working age. “Official statistics indicate that about 90 percent of young women and about 40 percent of young men, who were not studying in the past couple of years, are either unemployed or part of the economically inactive groups.”

In a thoughtful analysis, Lahcen Achy, an economist specializing in the MENA, adds a less visible, yet critical piece of analysis: “Young people spend on average 80 percent of their time hanging out or doing personal and recreational activities that are highly unproductive.”

He challenges the stereotype that the situation is most critical for unemployed university graduates. “Most of the unemployed youth in Morocco have either low education levels or haven’t studied at all… those who are least educated are left without any help… and only 8 percent of unemployed youth have benefited from [the National Agency for the Promotion of Employment and Skills] services.”

His argument is that the marginalized youth, whose numbers far exceed university graduates, must be targeted for both employment and social integration. Involving the private sector has had some success, but the pace of generating jobs with wages that meet living needs (including prospects for marriage and family) is woefully short. Morocco is aiming at a more systematic and integrated employment strategy in partnership with a number of international agencies. For example, the European Training Foundation (ETF) has brought together business and civil society groups to exchange views on options “to improve human capital in the country’s small business sector.”

Across the board, recommendations include a more integrated framework for promoting entrepreneurship from primary through university education; women’s entrepreneurship as a national priority; and better access to finance, training, and coaching services as well as data collection on the impact of these programs that would allow for policy formulation – a necessary component if the informal sector is to evolve into a dynamic part of the nation’s economy.

Recent programs in the US and a joint certification program developed with French technical assistance provide opportunities for workers who have gained skills outside the formal system to receive certification of their accomplishments, which will enable them to move up the value chain, perhaps even become an entrepreneurial offshoot from existing industries.

It is in this environment of accelerating demands for youth employment and bringing greater efficiencies to workforce development that underlines the importance of coming to grips with the challenges before they become widespread regime liabilities. The government’s inability to date to move its agenda of economic reforms through parliament has resulted in a stalemate that threatens progress in facilitating economic growth.

King Mohammed VI’s insistence that the educational sector be insulated from political volleyball may help renew a national debate and progress on strategies to move forward more aggressively on measures to improve Morocco’s competitiveness — a key factor in attracting the domestic and foreign investment critical to generating the jobs so badly needed in the country.

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.

Breaking the cycle of “educating for unemployment” in MENA

The Audit Court (Cours des Comptes) in Morocco recently issued a critical report on the country’s vocational training system. At the same time, the World Economic Forum was focusing on youth under/unemployment at its annual conference in Davos. This is no coincidence, as the demographic realities in emerging markets create a demand for very high levels of job growth in the next decade to absorb high school and university graduates.

In fact, key demands emanating from the Arab uprisings are for jobs, greater transparency in employment practices, and sufficient resources for market-oriented training and education.

Jamie McAuliffe, president of Education for Employment summarized the challenge quite accurately: “But it is much easier to describe the problem than to advance concrete solutions. Both within the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) and beyond, there are still few examples of large companies and national governments putting the necessary muscle and resources behind solving the problem.”

Effective program management, qualified human resources, and sufficient budgets will provide a baseline for developing and delivering solutions to reverse the complacency and ineffectiveness that characterize training programs in the region. Looking at the Audit Court’s report helps provides a starting point to discuss the challenges to technical/vocational training in the MENA region.

The Moroccan Office of Vocational Training and Employment Promotion (OFPPT) is charged with orientation, education, and placement of students, as well as providing opportunities for continuing education for adults who wish to change career paths. Ideally, OFPPT maintains relationships with potential employers since it has the critical responsibility to be familiar with the needs of the workforce and adapt curricula and training to meet those needs.

OFPPT has its equivalents throughout the MENA region, some of which focus specifically on vocational and technical skills training for recent middle school and high school graduates, while others are similar to community colleges that provide “white-collar” education and training programs for the services industries. Whatever the agency’s mission, the goal is the same—to graduate employable young people for the workforce.

After decades of acquiring academic degrees that held out little prospect of jobs and careers, young people recognized that their educational systems did not make them employable, and governments are scrambling to respond.

It is too soon to tell how the new programs will turn out, but observations of actions over the past two years raise several critical issues. Let me say, from the outset, that this is a lifelong issue for me. I have been working on training programs in the Middle East since the late 70s, starting in Iran, moving then to the Arab Gulf countries, and continue today providing services to both US employees assigned to the MENA as well as to Arab trainees at all skills levels across a broad range of sectors. So while youth employment has become a regional priority due to the Arab uprisings, there are experienced professionals and best practices available that can help guide the determination of flexible yet accountable solution options.

One of the key concerns that I have is the quick fix notion of turning Arabs into entrepreneurs. Yes, Western mercantilism and international trade definitely had its roots in the Mediterranean, as Phoenicians (from Lebanon, of course) were the pioneers in sea-borne trade throughout the region. But that does not mean that one’s DNA equates with modern day commercial success; in fact there are many obstacles to ensuring an enabling environment for entrepreneurs.

A country’s legal, financial, regulatory, and cultural norms, among others, must be coordinated in order for enterprises to succeed. As this “eco-system” advances, concurrent efforts are needed to enable companies at all levels to expand their capacities to compete in the contemporary marketplace. And of course, the point of this enterprise is to develop the human resources to lead, manage, and staff the companies of today and tomorrow.

In my assessment, there are six “demand” factors that should shape the “supply” of labor generated by vocational/technical training programs.

  1. The skill/labor needs of the market today and projected for a decade.
  2. The interests/aspirations of youth and how this matches #1, and how to close the gaps that exist.
  3. Flexible and targeted curricula that provide core technical, language, and soft skills, as well as specific skill sets linked to jobs, with a strong emphasis on practical training based on partnerships with potential employers. Courses should reflect local demand and opportunities.
  4. The careful allocation of funding so that training programs are sustainable rather than becoming unsustainable subsidies.
  5. Government policies that take a holistic approach to job growth, involving a broad range of stakeholders and supporting outcomes based on results.
  6. Ensuring that entrepreneurship programs are balanced with efforts to enlarge the competitive capabilities of medium and large-sized firms.

With these “demands” in mind, a concerted, coordinated, strategic campaign involving various groups of stakeholders will go a long way in meeting the challenges not met by previous vocational/technical training regimes.

Breaking the cycle of “education for unemployment” in the MENA

The Audit Court (Cours des Comptes) in Morocco recently issued a critical report on the country’s vocational training system. At the same time, the World Economic Forum was focusing on youth under/unemployment at its annual conference in Davos. This is no coincidence, as the demographic realities in emerging markets create a demand for very high levels of job growth in the next decade to absorb high school and university graduates.

In fact, key demands emanating from the Arab uprisings are for jobs, greater transparency in employment practices, and sufficient resources for market-oriented training and education.

Jamie McAuliffe, president of Education for Employment summarized the challenge quite accurately: “But it is much easier to describe the problem than to advance concrete solutions. Both within the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) and beyond, there are still few examples of large companies and national governments putting the necessary muscle and resources behind solving the problem.”

Effective program management, qualified human resources, and sufficient budgets will provide a baseline for developing and delivering solutions to reverse the complacency and ineffectiveness that characterize training programs in the region. Looking at the Audit Court’s report helps provides a starting point to discuss the challenges to technical/vocational training in the MENA region.

The Moroccan Office of Vocational Training and Employment Promotion (OFPPT) is charged with orientation, education, and placement of students, as well as providing opportunities for continuing education for adults who wish to change career paths. Ideally, OFPPT maintains relationships with potential employers since it has the critical responsibility to be familiar with the needs of the workforce and adapt curricula and training to meet those needs.

OFPPT has its equivalents throughout the MENA region, some of which focus specifically on vocational and technical skills training for recent middle school and high school graduates, while others are similar to community colleges that provide “white-collar” education and training programs for the services industries. Whatever the agency’s mission, the goal is the same—to graduate employable young people for the workforce.

After decades of acquiring academic degrees that held out little prospect of jobs and careers, young people recognized that their educational systems did not make them employable, and governments are scrambling to respond.

It is too soon to tell how the new programs will turn out, but observations of actions over the past two years raise several critical issues. Let me say, from the outset, that this is a lifelong issue for me. I have been working on training programs in the Middle East since the late 70s, starting in Iran, moving then to the Arab Gulf countries, and continue today providing services to both US employees assigned to the MENA as well as to Arab trainees at all skills levels across a broad range of sectors. So while youth employment has become a regional priority due to the Arab uprisings, there are experienced professionals and best practices available that can help guide the determination of flexible yet accountable solution options.

One of the key concerns that I have is the quick fix notion of turning Arabs into entrepreneurs. Yes, Western mercantilism and international trade definitely had its roots in the Mediterranean, as Phoenicians (from Lebanon, of course) were the pioneers in sea-borne trade throughout the region. But that does not mean that one’s DNA equates with modern day commercial success; in fact there are many obstacles to ensuring an enabling environment for entrepreneurs.

A country’s legal, financial, regulatory, and cultural norms, among others, must be coordinated in order for enterprises to succeed. As this “eco-system” advances, concurrent efforts are needed to enable companies at all levels to expand their capacities to compete in the contemporary marketplace. And of course, the point of this enterprise is to develop the human resources to lead, manage, and staff the companies of today and tomorrow.

In my assessment, there are six “demand” factors that should shape the “supply” of labor generated by vocational/technical training programs.

  1. The skill/labor needs of the market today and projected for a decade.
  2. The interests/aspirations of youth and how this matches #1, and how to close the gaps that exist.
  3. Flexible and targeted curricula that provide core technical, language, and soft skills, as well as specific skill sets linked to jobs, with a strong emphasis on practical training based on partnerships with potential employers. Courses should reflect local demand and opportunities.
  4. The careful allocation of funding so that training programs are sustainable rather than becoming unsustainable subsidies.
  5. Government policies that take a holistic approach to job growth, involving a broad range of stakeholders and supporting outcomes based on results.
  6. Ensuring that entrepreneurship programs are balanced with efforts to enlarge the competitive capabilities of medium and large-sized firms.

With these “demands” in mind, a concerted, coordinated, strategic campaign involving various groups of stakeholders will go a long way in meeting the challenges not met by previous vocational/technical training regimes.