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What Hadith and Cheese Making tell us about Work and Labor

Once the Prophet (PBUH) was sitting with his companions and they happened to see a young man busy working in the early hours of the morning. The companions watched him and commented on how beneficial it would be if he put his effort in worshipping Allah (S.W.T.) instead. When he heard this, the Holy Prophet said to them: “Do not say that! Because if he is working to be independent and self-sufficient, it is in the way of Allah. Even if he were striving to earn a living in order to support his family, it would still be a noble act. It is only when a person takes pride in his efforts and money that he is working in way of Shaitan. 

This simple, yet provocative story, recounts Mohammad’s support for just and noble work. Yet many youth today avoid jobs that require physical labor and would rather wait for less tiring opportunities. Labor market realities are not working in favor of those who wait. With economic stagnation dominating MENA economies, and a growth rate of 5% off in the distance, it is hard to imagine a robust economy anywhere in the region. Even the UAE, which is doing better than most, has very high unemployment among its young people, especially university graduates. And foreign worker participation remains very high.

Given MENA’s growing population and the reluctance of young people to consider employment that seems to lead nowhere, governments are scrambling for strategies to bring more entrants into the formal economy. From programs to certify skilled workers now in the informal economy and efforts to replace foreign workers with local substitutes, to a variety of wage and work subsidies to make national employees more attractive to companies, the work space is literally littered with opportunities, but the dent in overall employment is barely noticeable. Even large-scale efforts to promote entrepreneurism only produce hundreds rather than the tens of thousands of jobs needed, if locals will take them.

Labor and Work

I recently went to a cheese maker’s shop in Jordan who started out as an environmental activist. Then she decided that Jordanians needed to source more of their basic needs locally and in a more sustainable way. So she started making cheese. If you’ve ever tried, you know it’s not so simple to make cheese, despite the fact that when our parents made laban or labneh or halloum, it looked pretty straight-forward.

You have to pay attention to not overheat the milk, add the starter at the right time, let the culture do its work, and then more patience is needed through the final steps to the end product. No wonder no one makes cheese at home anymore! Who can spend the time it takes when there’s no guarantee that something won’t go wrong.

Organic food markets making a mark  Photo: Jordan Business Magazine

Organic food markets making a mark
Photo: Jordan Business Magazine

Making cheese reminds us that making choices in life are not always in our control, there are many mediating factors: age, gender, education, physical condition, training, temperament, opportunity, even wasta have a way of shaping choices we can make. But like the Jordanian cheese maker, we need to start somewhere with a belief that we can do something with our lives, even when it seems that there are tough challenges ahead.

Start with thinking about the differences between labor and work. Although they are used to mean the same thing, by definition, labor involves hard physical work. Work, on the other hand, is defined as “activity involving mental or physical effort done in order to achieve a purpose or result.” It is this emphasis on achieving a result that should guide us as we look for opportunities to grow, earn money, and have satisfaction in our lives.

Some want to work with as little labor as possible, because they are interested only in compensation, not achievement. People who see the challenges and are still determined to make a difference in their lives are willing to take a risk and treat work as a means to achievement – of a better job, better salary, having a family, and raising children – all started because of their parents’ labor and work. This is not always evident at the start, especially in technical and vocational job sectors. Yet this is the work that makes a modern society function – building and maintaining infrastructure,  making clothing, furniture, ice cream, and food, and providing all kinds of support services.

Later that day, I met a man who is proud to say that he is a farmer. He has a degree in agronomy and is one of the pioneers in developing, producing, and marketing organic products for local sale and export. He says that the short-sighted view of young people is supported by the reluctance of families to accept marriage prospects who are not “good enough” because of their jobs. This attitude will only be mitigated when society remembers that it was only a few generations ago that many family members were illiterate and only did manual labor…that was then and now…it’s time to rethink what matters about work, and labor.

Top photo: tastejo.blogspot.com

Problems and Promises of Youth Employment in the MENA

A very interesting series of studies is being produced by the CSIS Youth, Prosperity, and Security Initiative and the International Youth Foundation (IYF), a partnership that focuses clearly on global issues affecting youth, “Exploring the near- and long-term economic, social, and geopolitical implications of youth development trends around the world,” according to its website.

The partners work covers a variety of topics ranging from The Global Youth Wellbeing Index to CSIS-generated country and region specific studies. This recent panel, convened by Ritu Sharma, Senior Visiting Fellow for the Initiative was on “Scaling Youth Employment in the Middle East.” The panel featured Mohammad AlMbaid, IYF Country Director for Palestine; Jon B. Alterman, CSIS Senior Vice President, Zbigniew Brzezinski Chair in Global Security and Geostrategy, and Director of its Middle East Program; and Zeenat Rahman, former Special Advisor to  Secretaries Clinton and Kerry on Global Youth Issues.

From the panel’s perspectives, four common themes emerged:

  • All countries in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region have growing demographic pressures to create jobs and face of declining economic growth, weak educational systems, and mismatched education to employment outcomes.
  • There are cultural challenges to promoting youth employment ranging from gender discrimination to attitudes towards manual skills jobs.
  • University graduates are disproportionally affected with unemployment rates often 3 x that of the national average.
  • There are no one-size fits all solutions. Although the overall challenge of generating jobs quickly without relying on the public sector is common, other national factors influence policy options, implementation strategies, and definitions of desired outcomes.

Morocco is a useful case study on all four themes. It has a growing population, indeed 50+% of the population is under 30. Despite its success in attracting significant investments in the manufacturing sector, creating some 300,000 jobs in the automotive sector alone in five years, it still faces a gap in the educational system’s capacity to effectively train qualified labor. Its greatest success has come through public-private partnerships, yet it is still not enough.

Moroccan youth, accustomed to seeing previous generations taken care of by the government, are reluctant to enter into the uncertainty and discipline of the private sector. Although this is slowly changing, cultural factors often restrict a woman’s ability to find meaningful work and condition males to resist certain types of skilled jobs. This is particularly critical for university graduates where the 30% unemployment rate reflects not only a lack of white collar jobs but resistance to vocational/technical alternatives.

While Morocco does not have the resources of the Gulf countries to build and equip educational and training facilities, it has successfully recruiting tens of thousands of young people for manufacturing, services, industries, and technology jobs by promoting the benefits of skilled labor, how jobs can evolve into careers, and providing support for entrepreneurs. Yet the sheer numbers of youth, as evidenced in the focus of the panel on “scaling youth employment,” remain significant.

The Experts Search for Solutions

Building on this point of demographic pressures, Jon Alterman pointed out that public sector employment is often a stability issue – a means of insuring citizens’ loyalty. When government jobs are no longer available, threats to stability rise and issues of tradeoffs in the short term between security (managing conflict and unrest among youth) and stability (distorting the national economy through excessive non-productive government employment) become paramount. Equally “challenging,” Alterman mentioned, is developing effective strategies for changing attitudes toward job preferences, from no-risk subsidized government jobs to greater reliance on private sector employment tied to local, national, and regional markets.

iyfMohammad AlMbaid related how, after extensive surveys, IYF decided that university graduates would be the focus of their initial programs in Palestine. They work with a majority of the universities in Palestine to provide “life-skills training” for graduates to enable them to acquire those soft skills necessary to survive and advance in today’s workforce. Early results show that graduates of their courses are employed at 2x the rate of others who did not have the course. IYF is expanding its programs to vocational schools and works with the Saudi government to implement similar programs in the Kingdom.

Zeenat Rahman noted that the US government, beginning with Secretary Clinton, became involved in global youth affairs reflecting from President Obama’s concern that young people in many countries had literally no relationship to the US due to political conditions. Both Secretaries Clinton and Kerry focused a great deal of effort on youth programs, sensing that this was an opportunity to engage youth beyond counter-radicalization efforts to enabling them to take control of their futures. A key selling point, she said, was learning to address these issues from the self-interests of the partner countries rather than US prescriptions.

The discussion that followed was quite robust as most of those present have experience in youth employment efforts and lent their well-honed perspectives on workable strategies. There was broad agreement on the importance of shifting attitudes among youth toward skills-centered jobs; emphasizing “in-trapreneurship” based on life-skills that enable youth to make the most of their employment choices; the need for both top-down policies and grassroots programs for long-term effectiveness; and the need for more holistic approaches in education to produce better qualified and focused youth.

No one left with a sense that the job was done. As Rahman pointed out, there have been numerous and thorough studies globally of the youth employment phenomenon. What is much more challenging is implementing solutions that are sustainable, scalable, and timely, supported by public-private partnerships. It is, after all, in their core interests to enable youth to believe in their futures.

 

 

Morocco Strengthens Its Case as Gateway to Africa

As US-Africa Leaders Summit Concludes, Focus on Security and Governance Gathers Momentum

The US-African Leaders Summit closed yesterday with President Obama promoting his vision of partnership between the US and Africa. At the morning press conference on Wednesday, August 6, he said that “Africa’s rise means opportunity for all of us—including the opportunity to transform the relationship between the United States and Africa…a partnership of equals that focuses on African capacity to solve problems, and on Africa’s capacity to grow.”

Obama Speaks on Need for New Partnerships

Obama Speaks on Need for New Partnerships

This resurgent message on African solutions to African challenges echoes remarks by King Mohammed VI at a business forum in Ivory Coast this year. They have become a core message for how Africa, made up of 54 countries that do only 12 percent of their trade among themselves, should advance locally, regionally, and internationally.

The President noted the clear purpose of the Summit. “We are here to take action—concrete steps to build on Africa’s progress and forge the partnerships of equals that we seek; tangible steps to deliver more prosperity, more security, and more justice to our citizens.” The Summit sessions on peace and security, youth empowerment, trade and investment enhancement, and good governance produced recommendations and proposals that will serve as the US agenda with Africa through the end of this administration. How this will play out in the coming months was the topic of meetings, think tank programs, and media events occurring throughout the week.

Security, governance, and trade and investment challenges dominated the agendas of most of the public events. From the Corporate Council on Africa and the Africa Center at the Atlantic Council to the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) and the Africa Growth Initiative at Brookings, among others, events emphasized stronger business ties, changing perceptions, and enhanced security cooperation. The Initiative for Global Development premiered a multi-part video series on Investing in Africa dealing with issues of misperception and understanding the business environment. And the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center hosted two events: the first focusing on the release of a paper on Morocco’s role as a gateway to Africa and the second, a panel exploring how to develop sustainable African solutions to security challenges in West Africa.

What is the Bottom line?

In his closing press conference, President Obama reflected on the discussions held during the day. “We agreed that Africa’s growth depends, first and foremost, on continued reforms in Africa by Africans.” This theme was repeated several times, as corruption, lack of opportunity, marginalization of women and youth, and lack of reforms were mentioned as barriers to a healthy and prosperous Africa. The President made reference to commitments by leaders to “pursue reforms that attract investment, reduce barriers that stifle trade…and to promote regional integration.” There will also be an “action plan to promote the transparency that is essential to economic growth.”

Dr. Ahmed Abaddi speaks on the need for integrated efforts to combat extremism

Dr. Ahmed Abaddi speaks on the need for integrated efforts to combat extremism

The US announced several cooperative initiatives to support young entrepreneurs and empower women across Africa a well as a New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition that “aims at lifting 50 million Africans from poverty.”

On the security front, the US is launching a “new Security Governance Initiative” to train self-sufficient security forces beginning with six countries, and a “new effort [in West Africa] to bolster the region’s early warning and response network and increase their ability to share information about emerging crises.”

Interestingly, Obama said that there was agreement that the Summit would be a recurring event, while some pundits question if this effort will survive his administration. In the post-Summit press conference, it should be no surprise that there was only one question related to the outcomes of the Summit, as political events elsewhere dominated queries from the media.

How Does Morocco Measure Up?

Prime Minister Abdel-ilah Benkiran lead the Moroccan delegation

Prime Minister Abdel-ilah Benkiran lead the Moroccan delegation

The Moroccan delegation worked hard during this visit to raise the visibility of Morocco’s Africa agenda among US and African policy makers and businesses. Throughout the three days of meetings, programs, and events, Morocco demonstrated that it is in fact part of the solution to moving Africa ahead. On the issue of reforms, Morocco continues to work to make its emerging parliamentary democracy an effective vehicle for implementing the reform agenda in the 2011 Constitution. As regionalization brings more decision-making power to local citizens and their public officials, as civil society is strengthened through more consolidation and access to resources, and as greater respect and protection of human rights is promoted through the realization of reform programs, Morocco’s “best practices” provide examples for others to consider.

With respect to trade and investment promotion, encouraging entrepreneurism, and supporting job creating functions in the informal economy, Morocco is making good headway. The Casablanca Finance City, continuing capital reforms, energized Casablanca Stock Exchange, networks of banking, telecoms, transportation, and IT services throughout west, central, and Atlantic Africa countries, and expanding efforts to build sustainable solutions for youth and women employment, are signs that it is headed in the right directions.

Obama pledges to make the Summit a regular feature of US-Africa relations

Obama pledges to make the Summit a regular feature of US-Africa relations

Morocco’s push for enhanced regional cooperation is strengthened by more than 50 preferential trade agreements with key markets in Africa, Europe, and the Middle East. It provides scholarships for African students in Morocco; supports training for men and women engaged in religious activities to promote moderate and harmonious Islamic practices; has extensive ties for security training and cooperation; and works at the UN and other forums to encourage stability, cooperation, and justice.

On Thursday, the US and Morocco signed a bilateral “Framework for Cooperation on Training for Civilian Security Services,” which will enable the two parties to “develop mutual expertise in the areas of crisis management, border security, and terrorism investigations.” The agreement will enable Morocco to develop its training expertise for civilian security and counterterrorism training throughout the region.

According to Morocco’s delegation, their time this week in Washington, DC was well spent, as it was for the other African participants, confronting US perceptions that continued to divide Africa up according to stereotypes based on out-dated notions of race and geography. Morocco and emerging Africa want to be recognized for their aspirations and their achievements. The Summit programs made it clear that this can be a concrete opportunity for the US to rebuild its foreign policy successes around shared values and notions of respect, opportunity, and dignity.

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.

Education and Employment: Bridging the Divide (Part 1/2)

In the Middle East and North Africa, rates of unemployed young women are eight times that of men. This is the first of a two part series.

After more than two years, economic issues raised during the Arab Uprisings are still lingering on government agendas. Along with governance and transparency concerns, the most obdurate legacy for most countries is the demand for meaningful employment — a nettlesome priority that bedevils governments in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), including the wealthy Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members.

A Complex and Interconnected Challenge

Current governments are burdened with trying to fix education and training regimes that did not prepare local management and workforces for competitive global markets. The lack of a qualified labor force is part of a web of symptoms that result in weak economic growth policies. In addition, opaque regulations are an obstacle to open and competitive markets, as well as restrictive financial regimes that continue to block attempts to broadly facilitate entrepreneurship and greater domestic and foreign investment. While there are some glimmers of improvement, after decades of neglect, the prospects for short-term solutions are limited.

Improving education and training requires an organic strategy that incorporates stakeholders across the employment spectrum, from labor and management to the labor pool, government ministries, the private sector, and all intermediary groups and institutions, including NGOs and civil society focused on concerns ranging from gender to healthy environments.

A core economic issue is the plight of youth, usually defined as those under 30, with little schooling through university education, who are marginally employed usually in the informal economy, unemployed, or seeking employment. The priority of youth employment was in the spotlight of the 2013 WEF in Amman, Jordan where experts in employment and education and advocates such as Queen Rania of Jordan were quite explicit about the challenges confronting the region. According to the 2013 World Bank development report on jobs, some 40 percent of men and 62 percent of women in the MENA are engaged in non-wage employment (farming and self-employment).

The International Labor Organization (ILO) put youth unemployment at 28.3 percent in 2012 and says it will not reverse course for the next five years, despite a global economic recovery the ILO projects at 30 percent by 2018. In his remarks at the WEF, Majid Jaafar, CEO of Crescent Petroleum, noted that on average, over 25 percent of the region’s youth are currently unemployed and the figure is rising — expected to exceed 30 percent within five years, and already exceeding 50 percent in some countries.

Challenges to Accelerating Youth Employment

While there is universal agreement on the centrality of improving job opportunities for youth in the MENA, realistic programs and goal-setting are constrained by four fundamental factors:

1.   Availability of jobs: Throughout the region, from Mauritania and Morocco to Qatar and Saudi Arabia, there is a jobs deficit due either to a lack of opportunities, a mismatch between the job skills and those of the labor pool, gender restrictions, or perceptions of young people concerning available jobs.

2.   Lack of investment in projects that create jobs for nationals: Either there is not enough local and foreign investment to drive job creation, or projects are capital (energy) or skills intensive (construction, infrastructure), limiting opportunities for inexperienced local hires.

3.   Inefficient ecosystem supporting new business development: Onerous local labor regulations, lack of reasonable access to financing for start-ups and business expansion that inhibits entrepreneurship, perceived threats to existing unions and industries, and insufficient resources for targeted training and education combine to stifle growth.

4.   Need to coordinate and target international and national economic and technical assistance programs: Too often, well-meaning efforts are in silos within government ministries or agencies, and do not benefit from a broader perspective on closing the gap between education and employment and applying value chain analysis and similar tools to better utilize human investment dollars.

Agencies look to addressing their specific objectives rather than seeing how their efforts impact other agencies. For example, entrepreneurship, technical, and vocational training will benefit from closer coordination and sharing of resources to align programs to provide skills for trainees that enable them to make choices, rather than limit their options to certain trades.

Given the wealth and demographic differences among the MENA countries, there are few cookie-cutter approaches or “lessons learned” that can be applied across the region. Rather, a series of principles need to be defined in each case, informed by similar efforts in other parts of the world. As the Arab Competitiveness Report 2013 points out:

“North African economies face significant challenges related to labour-market efficiency and institutions. More labour-market flexibility and more efficient allocation of talent, as well as a fundamental overhaul of the institutional framework, will be crucial for creating growth and employment in these countries [Libya, Morocco, Egypt, and Algeria].”

While the required reforms may be conceptually and technically straightforward, the political, social, and economic stakeholders in each country will inevitably shape the policy outcomes.

Take the issue of facilitating skills acquisition by youth. With the majority of the populations in MENA between the ages of 15-35, there are few prognosticators who are willing to divine how that demographic surge is to be absorbed, particularly if greater female employment is an objective.

Taking a fresh look at Morocco’s economic development

In the first two weeks of September, I’ll be writing my blogs from Morocco, which will give me a front row seat to see how economic growth is advancing given challenges internally and within the larger international business environment.

Several stories this past month provided greater details of the progress that is being made. There are three that are particularly interesting in that they point to the decisions Morocco is making about how to make its economy more globally competitive.

Growing Saudi-Moroccan business ties

This week, Saudi Arabia and Morocco launched a new round of projects to ratchet up the volume of business between the two countries. It should come as no surprise that the current trade balance favors Saudi Arabia because energy importer Morocco needs Saudi energy supplies to meet domestic demand.

The head of the Saudi-Morocco Business Council, Mohammad al-Hamady, noted that the total volume of trade between the two countries amounted to approximately $4.4 billion in 2011, with Saudi Arabia exporting far more to Morocco than it imports. He added that economic and trade relations between the two countries have been growing steadily, with Morocco becoming Saudi Arabia’s sixth-largest trading partner.

As part of its commitment to Morocco’s overall development, last year Saudi Arabia committed $1.2 billion over the next five years for investments, primarily in tourism development projects, making it the third largest investor in Morocco. Hamady believes that a major obstacle to greater trade is the lack of direct maritime transport lines between the two countries, and this was at the top of the agenda of the Saudi-Moroccan Business Council meetings in Jeddah this week.

Exploring for energy sources

CNBC and Reuters carried stories on expanding oil exploration projects in West and North Africa, with a special nod towards Morocco.

Ken Judge, the commercial director of Gulfsands, which had been active in Syria, said that “As you might imagine, after Syria what we’re looking for is some stability, and Morocco’s got terrific political stability, but it also has the best fiscal terms of any country in the Middle East and North Africa region.”

These efforts complement the expanding Moroccan focus on renewable energies, with RFPs for two more solar projects coming out shortly.

These opportunities and others, both trade and investment, are to be highlighted in the upcoming US-Morocco Business Development Conference to be held November 4-5, 2013 in Rabat.  Later that month, Rabat will host The Morocco Summit with a wide-ranging exploration of Morocco as a hub for inter-regional business across Europe, Africa, and the Middle East.

Young business leaders

BBC carried a very interesting video report that reviewed projects to advance the economic status of women in rural areas, where there is great need to overcome poverty and illiteracy in advancing women’s empowerment. The report details projects that are run by young educated women working to enable women with little education to become family breadwinners through commercializing artisanal crafts and other products for domestic and international markets.

Another story about youthful entrepreneurs recounts how several Moroccans worked for months before receiving their first rate-free loan for entrepreneurs to start up a food delivery service in Morocco.

Their key decision was to build a talented staff from scratch who then acquired their skills by constructing the company from the ground up. Youssef El Kachchani of www.doofry.com, the food delivery company, found great success in recruiting widely via the web and putting potential employees through a two-week intensive reading session before starting.

This was similar to the strategy used by Youssef El Hammal, who launched www.stagiaires.ma in 2012 to connect students with recruiters. He found that hiring recent graduates was better than employing ones with more experience because “they’re highly motivated and excited to learn. Because they haven’t been working for corporations, they’re still open-minded, creative risk-takers.”

So it should be an interesting time to catch up with what’s going on in Morocco. With a new government coalition being formed and an extensive economic reform agenda in the wings, it is a period of great anticipation that the economy will expand and create the jobs so badly needed in Morocco.

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.