Soft Power at Work – Moroccan Entrepreneur looks back at her US Year

Impressed with Volunteerism, Commitment to Family, Joy of Celebrations

Safa Hajjaj is on her way home to Morocco, having come to the US in September 2014 as an Atlas Corps fellow at the Meridian International Center in Washington, DC. Dedicated to addressing critical social issues, Atlas Corps, according to its website, “develops leaders, strengthens organizations and promotes innovation through an overseas fellowship of skilled professionals.” Since its inception in 2006, it has brought more than 250 young professionals to the US to work in partner organizations, largely in the NGO community, to acquire and share “best practices” that benefit both the fellow and the host.

Safa is a great example of how the program works. At Meridian, she served as Curriculum Developer in the GlobalConnect Division, working on exchange programs related to entrepreneurship and social action. She came well equipped for her placement. After completing her studies at the Ecole Nationale de Commerce et Gestion in Settat, a leading Moroccan business school, she went to work for Nielsen Company managing regional projects in the Maghreb. Always interested in international travel and social entrepreneurism, she then moved to Istanbul, Turkey, as a coordinator for Citizenship and Public Affairs for Microsoft. In that capacity, she worked with local and regional teams promoting entrepreneurship and community empowerment.

When she returned to Morocco, Safa started her own company supporting local artisans and encouraging access to international markets for local cooperatives. She received a number of fellowships while building her social entrepreneurship portfolio and is part of the growing alumna network of women entrepreneurs in the country. Before coming to the US, Safa was president of the Junior Chamber International (JCI) chapter in Marrakech, and became involved in broader community affairs, including human development issues.

What works about America?

We spoke with her as she was preparing to return to Morocco. Safa goes home strongly believing in the benefits of international exchanges. Since she dealt with delegations coming to the US from abroad, she had the opportunity to hear from participants about their experiences. She said that she, like many of those with whom she worked, had their “assumptions” about America challenged and changed while they were here. Among the leading positive impressions are the attachment to family, extensive volunteerism, and celebration of holidays and events, from Thanksgiving and Christmas to the Super Bowl and March Madness.

Experiencing the “you can do it” spirit that permeates American culture was an enriching experience personally and professionally, she said, that helps build self-confidence,. Safa is impressed by how much energy in the US is directed towards empowering individuals, especially youth. While in Washington, she had the opportunity to attend many conferences hosted by NGOs, think tanks, and multilateral organizations, gaining exposure to many perspectives and programs.

Safa was particularly struck by the scope of the volunteer culture in the US. She noted that at the JCI in Marrakech, there were small numbers of people involved. In the US, “Lots of people participated, naturally, professionally, in a sustainable and efficient manner.” This is one of the strongest impressions she will take home with her.

The other is the importance of exchanges. They are “so powerful in breaking down stereotypes and assumptions when you see the host culture through your own eyes.” If she had not spent so much time observing how Americans interact and going to homes, she would have missed a lot, she said.

Professionally, she focused on benchmarking how the US works and what might be useful in Morocco. One example that particularly impressed her is ADA compliance — how the US provides access to transportation and other services for the handicapped, whereas in Morocco, the notion of helping the handicapped as a matter of policy doesn’t exist. “Someone from outside then asks why in the US…the answers change perspectives and lead us to see how the general public will is so key to making changes, like in volunteering.”

Safa will miss the multicultural environment in Washington, where she met many people who actually knew about her country and had been there. She reflected on a group of Moroccan men and women community leaders who had come for a program at Meridian and who loved their time here and were greatly affected by how open and gracious they found the American people. Still, at times, Safa felt like a geography teacher or a tour leader explaining “her part of the world”; and she herself learned a lot about US assumptions about Morocco from the questions that were asked.

Headed home, she has lots of thoughts about what to do, how to develop her strategic vision, and the projects she hopes to launch. For this coming year, she will take her time, build partnerships, recruit proactive people, and launch herself into a world where she will work hard to define herself as a committed woman entrepreneur. To enjoy the full experience that is Safa Hajjaj and her time in the US, take a look at her blogs at

In national address, King of Morocco calls for stronger links between education, skills, and markets

On Tuesday, August 20, in an address on the 60th anniversary of the Revolution of the King and the People, King Mohammed VI outlined his pride, hopes, and vision for his country’s educational sector. Remarkably, he spent less than two sentences on what had been accomplished with far more attention paid to where Morocco must go to secure its future. The king spoke about “another revolution, which I am spearheading with a view to developing human resources, achieving economic and social progress, and promoting a dignified life for our citizens.”

He noted the dedication of Moroccan parents to a good education for their children, and tied the development of the country’s human resources to good citizenship, largely abetted by family cohesion and a strong and relevant educational sector.

“Nevertheless, we still have a long, arduous journey ahead of us if we are to enable this sector [education and training] to actually play its role as an engine for the achievement of economic and social advancement,” he announced.

To make this happen, King Mohammed made several critical recommendations. First of all, noting that Moroccans had to master at least two languages to acquire university degrees, he encourages Moroccans to become proficient in foreign languages to “thus expand their knowledge base, refine their skills, and gain competence needed to be able to work in Morocco’s new professions and areas of employment, in which there is a significant shortage of skilled workers.” He then went on to emphasize technical and vocational training grounded in skills needs of the marketplace, from high tech manufacturing and IT to artisanal crafts that serve the tourism industry.

Building on lessons learned

Referring to the kingdom’s Education Action Plan 2013-2016, King Mohammed made a point that education policy should not be subject to re-invention with every new administration and should build on the experience of previous programs. “It hardly makes sense for each government to come with a new plan every five years and disregard previous programs…The education sector should, therefore, not be included in the sphere of purely political matters, not should its management be subjected to outbidding tactics or party politics.”

Referring to the disparities in quality between the private and public educational systems, the king called for speedy adoption of educational reforms he previously addressed and called for “implementation of the constitutional provisions regarding the Higher Council for Education, Training, and Scientific Research,” which is charged with implementing national reforms at all levels and promoting more rigorous and market-linked programs. To this end, King Mohammed directed the Higher Council for Education to carry out an evaluation of the achievements of the National Charter for Education and Training over the past ten years to provide baseline data for educational reform.

This step of looking back to move forward is how the king has launched all of the country’s major reforms. In closing his speech, he called for “a broad-based, constructive debate on all the major issues of concern to the nation, in order to achieve the tangible results Moroccans are looking forward to,” reaffirming his model of consensus and consultation as the basis of reform.

So the speech squarely places education and human development at a top priority on the king’s domestic agenda, and it doesn’t appear that he’ll wait another year for effective results.

Defining a nation-state in the 21st century – part 1

With the growing onslaught of ethnic and minority conflicts in much of the emerging world, it often appears that we are on the edge of shaking out the structure of the Westphalian state system without a clear notion of what is to come. More than a dozen countries in the Middle East and North Africa, South Asia, and Latin America are going through significant crises in terms of governance and the emergence of new players in the political space. While the likelihood of more Sudan/South Sudan or Yugoslavia splits is not clear, the options for a greater number of federations and autonomous units cannot be ignored.

A recent publication helps frame a strategic discussion about avoiding the next Egypt or Mali by recognizing what promotes national stability and integrity. “Pathways to Freedom: Political and Economic Lessons from Democratic Transitions” is a volume of essays published by the Council on Foreign Relations, edited by Isobel Coleman and Terra Lawson-Remer. It is useful both for what is says and what it cannot. Based on the case studies in the collection, the generalizations offered in the first chapter “Statistical Evidence” put several assumptions about trends in national development under the microscope. Its conclusion: “Quantitative evidence has been relatively successful in explaining long-run democratic trajectories, but it cannot predict revolutions or coups in the short term, and it is impossible to know when or how particular reforms might happen. Three priorities emerge from quantitative analysis…increasing the capacity for nonviolent protests against autocratic regimes…support for multiparty elections…maximizing access to mass media…to safeguard democratic progress already achieved…in the short run, promoting democracy and prosperity may be incompatible.” The final point is unfortunately underscored by the continuing unrest in Arab countries where greater employment opportunities have yet to be achieved.


Apropos this observation is the first recommendation in the final chapter: “New democratic governments should move quickly to adopt policies aimed at materially improving the lives of the poor and dealing with unemployment,” with the caveat “without creating dependency on unsustainable and distortionary economic policies in the longer term.” In Egypt, Libya, or elsewhere, the mantra of jobs, jobs, jobs has yet to dominate the debate within governments, although it is certainly the priority on the Arab street. Employment and more equitable distribution of subsidies will not disappear from the agenda despite the difficulties of implementation.

The second recommendation focuses on judicial reform. “Rule of law reforms that establish a fair and level playing field and that prevents elites from bending the rules to serve their interests are critical.” Again a telling caveat: don’t use outside models; rather work “with local partners to bolster domestic pressures for reforms…take a bottom-up, capacity-building approach that supports the ability of average citizens to exercise their rights and the legal system’s ability to implement laws consistently and fairly.” Without an integrative model that is respectful of local jurisprudence and without ensuring that citizens can employ the law as it is intended, judicial reform may become a hollow exercise.

I particularly find the third recommendation instructive and reasonable for start-up governments. “Transitional countries should decentralize in ways that help deepen and sustain democratization efforts.” It is important that governments are present in a positive way in people’s lives. Investing in a higher degree of social services has two immediate benefits: it creates jobs for the new service providers, who should be recruited from and trained in local communities; and it shrinks the space for opportunities for services provided by forces that may not support the inclusive goals of the new regime.
The fourth recommendation takes a glass-half-full perspective on elections. “Conducting even flawed elections under authoritarian governments is worthwhile” primarily because they give the outside world an opportunity to critique the process and give local groups experience in organizing. One can see this clearly in the ability of the Islamic parties, particularly those like Morocco’s PJD, which spent time as an opposition party, quickly seizing center stage as broad political reforms are implemented.

The report also addresses positive actions by the international community, including “support[ing] civil society and independent media under authoritarian regimes through civic exchanges, capacity building, and bottom-up technology transfers.” There is a strong economic support role for technology transfer, technical assistance, sharing best practices, and supporting civil society empowerment. The report notes that “foreign governments and international and regional organizations must strive to compensate for bad [neighbors] by mobilizing to give domestic democratic reformers support in economic restructuring and investing for inclusive growth … access to preferential trade, investment, and security agreements should be conditioned on the implementation of homegrown governance reforms that improve accountability in the long term.” A particularly important caveat addresses the need to support the growth of a middle class “rather than promote economic ties that increase the overall growth and wealth but concentrate these gains in the hands of elites.”

The details in the report are more robust than what is summarized here, and the whole thing is worth reading for its analytics and as a measure of policy options being pursued by the US in the Middle East and elsewhere. The report closes with the following: “Even with the best circumstances and wisest decisions by policymakers and publics, the road to democratic consolidation is long and difficult. But there are no failed aspirations for human freedom: dreams of liberty and opportunity are sometimes long deferred, but they cannot be forever denied.”

Amen to that. Next week, I take a look at the 2013 Failed States Index for more lessons on state-building.

Can Corporate Social Responsibility Aid Reform in the Maghreb?

The Rise of Corporate Social Responsibility – A Tool for Sustainable Development in the Middle East argues that companies can contribute to sustainable economic development in the MENA region through corporate social responsibility (CSR). The report was issued by Booz & Company’s Ideation Center, its “think tank in the Middle East [providing] thought leadership through insightful research, analysis, and dialogue that is true to the Middle East’s dynamics.”

The report raises several questions; some are existential, while others focus on distinguishing between short-term – “give him a fish” – approaches and long-term “teach him to fish” options. I have never been a great fan of CSR, simply because it is not, in my analysis, a substitute for investments in sustainable economic development that directly create jobs. This report takes a different tack, saying that “Companies, as good corporate citizens, must become involved in sustainable development and contribute to the broader improvement of their societies … [by aligning] themselves with these national goals [job creation, poverty alleviation, and the environment] that are built around sustainable development, using the powerful tool of CSR initiatives to help achieve them.” CSR, in their assessment, is both a social force for reducing economic inequality and a means of improving environmental conditions. Their case studies in the region are helpful yet do not address the core issue: can CSR have a long-term impact beyond philanthropy that supports greater opportunities for more equitable economic growth?

What is CSR?

Perhaps the first issue is definitional, as the United Nations Development Project (UNDP) defines sustainable development as “distributing the benefits of economic growth equitably, regenerating the environment rather than destroying it, and empowering people rather than marginalizing them.” Is this consistent with what the region is thinking? According to the Booz report, “Companies and government officials interviewed in our study most frequently cited the need for robust job creation to nurture economic growth and spread benefits among the population as the most salient issue.” This is the dilemma, as few of the examples provided in the report are about job creation. More are about philanthropy, which, while laudable, does not necessarily lead to enhancing job growth over the medium to long term.

I am not saying that CSR is not important. In fact it is a key component of a mature approach to economic growth; but it lacks a defined connection to job creation. As the report highlights, “half of the region’s population is under the age of 25…among those 14-24 years of age, approximately 25 percent lack a job…” So building homes for the poor, insisting on higher environmental standards for manufacturing facilities, and encouraging literacy are laudable, yet my assessment is that these programs must be part of a larger coherent CSR strategy that is wedded to generating meaningful employment if it is to go beyond alleviating short-term social and environmental issues.

And the challenges for recruiting partners into CSR programs can be quite daunting, as there are few if any incentives for employees to participate. Less than 14 percent of firms surveyed have formal CSR-related key performance indicators, “and just 11 percent include CSR performance in their bonus schemes.” So to make CSR effective over time, the report points to a process to close the gap between a company’s individual CSR programs and a country’s national development priorities.

Another challenge is that countries diverge in their CSR priorities, making it critical to define local needs rather than using an imported template. In the MENA, the focus is on issues ranging from alleviating poverty and supporting charities and community projects to education and employability. There is not a broad consciousness of the need to address environmental issues, which is a priority elsewhere. “Executives [in the MENA] are struggling to relate environmental issues to profitability and long-term business objectives.” In many cases, environmental concerns are still seen as external to the company rather than incorporated into its internal operations.

Building effective partners

The report also talks about the importance of proactive government and civil society participation and encouragement of CSR. On this theme, a very interesting CSR project is run by SEDCO Holding, a Saudi Sharia-compliant wealth management company. After a national survey indicated that young Saudis have few skills in managing their personal finances, SEDCO initiated a financial literacy program for university students. It is a private-public partnership that involves an international NGO, resulting in a great example of how CSR can make an economic impact beyond charity. Smarter consumers make smarter decisions and can transfer this knowledge into their own business practices. This is a forward-thinking project that benefits all of the stakeholders and provides best practices that can be emulated elsewhere.

A positive recent development noted in the report is the notion of corporate governance – responsible and accountable company leadership. “It was only within the last 10 years that an Arabic word for corporate governance, hawkamah, was coined.” In the transition from family-owned private firms to corporate-managed public entities, a company’s identity shifts beyond the personality of the founders to values expressed in their corporate mission. It is this redefinition of company identities that holds the most promise for the inclusion of CSR in a firm’s objectives.

Just as long as you don’t forget that the bottom line is profitability and job growth!

Morocco in a rising Africa: Expand opportunities, extend friendships

Last week, the annual meetings of the African Development Bank (AfDB) were held in Marrakech, Morocco under the theme “The Structural Transformation of Africa.” It has been 29 years since Morocco last hosted the meeting and the event and its location demonstrate how few divides now exist between north and sub-Saharan Africa.

In the past, policy analysts and companies treated North Africa as part of the Middle East; to many, Africa began at South Africa, and extended upwards to Nigeria and Kenya, encompassing the largely English-speaking areas of the continent.

While that is still the dominant perspective, leaders in the Maghreb have increasingly forged closer and more robust economic, commercial, and political ties with their counterparts in central and West Africa.

Some of these efforts were clearly political, as with Gaddafi’s investments throughout the continent. Other ties have grown out of the need to have common efforts against smugglers, militants, terrorists, and extremists who populate the poorly guarded territories along common borders. The bottom line is that building long-term south-south relations is now a permanent feature of intra-African affairs.

In his message to the annual meetings, King Mohammed VI of Morocco emphasized that Africa’s human capacity and natural resources are great assets in the economic and social development that is occurring. He also noted that “we must root out the causes of national and regional conflicts so that peace may prevail throughout Africa.”

The King called for “major projects at the level of sub-regional groupings, and to insure the sustainability and optimal management of our resources, for the mutual benefit of our populations.” In outlining his vision, the King calls for Africans to take the leadership in the development of their countries without becoming dependent on foreign entities.

King Mohammed VI also spoke to the need “to ensure food security for all our African peoples and to reduce our dependence…through the creation of a common African agricultural market. Finally, we should promote support and assistance programs to reduce social and spatial inequalities and ensure inclusive, shared growth.”

These challenges echo themes of conferences held earlier this year in Morocco on south-south dynamics, most recently the 8th Morocco International Exhibition of Agriculture in Meknes, where attendees discussed topics related to regional markets, food security, and innovations in agriculture.

Yet the AfDB’s mission is built around the capabilities of its 79 members (54 African, 25 non-African) to not only grow their GDPs but put into practice the means of further reducing poverty, inequality, and discrimination. Despite a doubling of GDP since 2000, great disparities remain and there is an over-reliance on FDI to drive growth that is often uneven among and within countries.

As reported in the final communiqué of the meetings, there is a need to use the current UN discussions on revising the Millennium Development Goals (MDG) to set realistic goals regarding the inclusion of youth, women, and other vulnerable groups.

The final AfDB statement included a strong emphasis on committing higher levels of investment in human and infrastructure development, promoting strategies that accelerate economic growth including support to small and medium-size enterprises (SMEs), improving human capacity and skills development especially for youth, and renewed efforts to build efficient regional markets through joint public-private investments.

In his remarks at the closing session, Nizar Baraka, who was named “Minister of Finance of the Year” in Africa, pointed out that a key outcome of the meetings was to review, evaluate, and discuss AfDB’s activities to better develop strategies to mobilize financial resources for the structural transformation of Africa so as to better serve the African people and “meet their expectations for a dignified life, social mobility, and job opportunities.”

Morocco garnered additional awards including Best Bank of North Africa to Attijariwafa Bank and Best Development Financing Institution to Credit Agricole, which was cited for “working hard…to build a model of sustainable and efficient financing for development in rural areas, with good management practices.”

These institutions and their counterparts throughout Africa are key players in the fact that 13 of the 20 fastest growing countries in the world in 2012 are in Africa. In its third annual financial review, the AfDB noted that regional economic integration is the “key factor” for African producers to develop regional value chains, to achieve economies of scale, and become competitive internationally.

And for AfDB, the private sector is the main engine of growth and poverty alleviation, providing 90% of the jobs, two-thirds of the investments, and 70% of the earnings growth on the continent.

Morocco and the rest of the Maghreb will gain mutual benefits from a heightened involvement in Africa, one that shares a common vision for dynamic human and economic growth.

Linking Communications & Development – One Professional’s Story

Just spoke with Dr. Salmane El Allami, a professor at Mohammed V University who had attended a UN sponsored conference on how IT-facilitated development can help alleviate poverty. He was representing the Rhamna Foundation for Sustainable Development, which works to advance the lives of people living in the Rhamna region north of Marrakech. We started out talking about his background, and what emerged is a lesson in how even the smallest interactions can have great consequences.

He first came to the US in 1987 on a United States Information Service exchange program marking the 200th anniversary of the US-Morocco Friendship Treaty, our longest continuous treaty that is still in force. He was a university student who fell in love with English in high school and, unable to major in journalism or media at his university, took his degree in English literature. He stayed for six weeks, and it changed his life. Later, when pursuing his doctorate at the Sorbonne, he was struck by the lack of an area study of US-Arab relations. He received permission to do self-directed research on the topic of Arab Americans in the US, starting his field work in 1991. While in the DC metro area, he interviewed dozens of Arab Americans to better understand their integration into US society, and the role of religion in that transition. As importantly, he acquired knowledge in media and social-research techniques that became key to his career.

Much of our conversation focused on his study of the perceptions of Morocco’s National Human Development Initiative (INDH) and a follow up evaluation of INDH projects. INDH is a grassroots campaign launched by King Mohammed VI to build sustainable alternatives to the grinding poverty and lack of resources that afflict the hundreds of communities targeted by the program. It brings together stakeholders, government officials, the private sector, and NGOs to ascertain the challenges and the resources available, and then to bring together partners to develop solutions. This is what he has been doing both through his organization called Anfasse and also as a board member of the Rhamna Foundation.

And he has not left his love of media behind. When he moved to Mohammed V University, he started the Higher Institute of Information and Communication in Rabat to train young Moroccans in media. This year, he will launch a private effort called the All Media Development Training Center – a three-year program for media professionals to advance their craft and acquire skills in political communications, strategic communications, and similar specializations. He has also made a number of documentary films on subjects such as the crisis in Arab Higher Education, research in the Arab World, and the challenges of teaching and preserving Arabic. In addition, next month, he is taking his work on the road, bringing movies to rural areas where children have not been exposed to films, teaching them the essential skills of movie-making.

He sees all of this as inter-related – focusing on capacity-building for Moroccans to take charge of their lives and resources. He believes that this is the genius of INDH, “the most important development project in Morocco.” In the past, development programs lacked coherence, he says, with very little coordination, sporadic efforts, and no central strategy. Today’s INDH is based on firm principles of inclusion, sustainability, and a philosophy of development that puts people at the center of the projects. “We want them to learn how to do things on their own…it’s a paradigm shift that builds their capacity to positively affect their lives.” So there is a balance between government interventions and building up small businesses and other forms of income generation. For example, more than one million women have been affected by INDH since 2005.

Rhamna Foundation is a local partner for INDH and is focused on partners and stakeholders working together. Fortunately, Office Chérifien des Phosphates (OCP), the world’s largest exporter of phosphates, has a major facility in the region. It is partnering with Rhamna to build the first green city in Morocco as well as participating in projects such as improving local schools and launching the Mohammed VI Polytechnic Institute to enhance marketable skills of local graduates.

Dr. El Allami is quite enthusiastic about the future. He believes that this innovative strategy of involving stakeholders in a detailed analysis and conceptualization of the region’s needs, encompassing all sectors of economic and human development, is the key to success. “By matching projects to the specific needs of the area and bringing in other parties from the government and private sector, we are giving people the tools they need to manage their futures.” And it started in part with a six-week visit to the US by someone who fell in love with English in high school.