Will Stebbins's blog
A little more than a year ago, when Marie-Hélène Bricknell arrived in Iraq to establish a permanent presence for the World Bank, sirens in the "Green Zone" warning of incoming missiles wailed through the night. Even before the permanent presence, and despite the difficult security situation, work had been ongoing. A number of important accomplishments had been achieved.
Employment is a critical issue in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), and our live web chat on the issue drew participants from all over the region. The dialogue was engaging, with questions and comments coming from as far afield as Egypt, Lebanon and Kaserine, in Tunisia’s interior.
Regardless of their original circumstances, successful economic and political transitions have a single, unifying characteristic. They may be motivated by crisis, but their successful implementation requires a broad consensus on the need for change, a shared vision of its goals and a common agreement on how to reach them. The need for this critical consensus emerged over the course of a seminar on the role of governance reform in the current transitions in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. Hosted by the World Bank in the Moroccan capital, Rabat, the Transitions and Governance Reforms in MENA seminar brought together a diverse range of government, civil society and media representatives to discuss the region’s challenges with former world leaders and members of the international development community who had undergone similar transitions.
The last few years have been sobering for the Maghreb. The sudden drop off in demand from the European Union, as a result of the financial crisis, was a stark lesson in the perils of over reliance on a single trading partner, no matter how large. It also revealed how the lack of integration left the region fully exposed to external shocks. The rise of youth unemployment, and the manifestation of popular discontent in the ‘Arab Spring,’ has also made economic growth a priority, as the only way to satisfy the demand for more and better opportunities.
There was a brief moment of confusion at the opening of the ministerial workshop on regional trade in the Maghreb. Habib Ben Yahia, the secretary general of the Arab Maghreb Union, wondered out loud about which language he should use. Before him was a diverse audience that he could address in Arabic, French, English? What to choose? Sitting next to him, the Moroccan minister of transport and equipment, Aziz Rabbah nailed it: ‘Speak the language of trade! ’
Universities are like gardens, where knowledge blooms like flowers. So says Dr. Hatem Elaydi, whose many years of teaching have not dulled his fascination with the growth and transformation he witnesses and participates in daily. The rewards are never ending. “You see your students winning prizes, finishing their graduate studies, or landing a good job, “ he says, “and wherever you go, you are always stopped by either current or former students, their parents or relatives, thanking you for your help.”
Successful democracies need more than elections, according to Professor Roger Myerson of the University of Chicago. They need a steady supply of politicians with good reputations for responsible leadership. While this may seem an obvious conclusion, the question of how politicians develop track records is a critical one. It is especially critical for societies in transition, with no tradition of competitive elections. In his opening remarks to the MENA Chief Economist Forum on Economic and Political Transitions, Professor Myerson looked beyond processes such as elections to the very structure of democratic systems and how they determine outcomes.
Long before anyone was paying attention, Lillie Paquette was listening. Her debut film, screened before a diverse audience of World Bank staff and guests, recounts the prologue to the Egyptian revolution. We Are Egypt: The Story Behind the Revolution follows opposition politicians and civil society groups over the course of the two years leading up to the mass uprising. With the benefit of hindsight, the ultimate conclusion in Tahrir Square appears inevitable, but for the men and women struggling for change it was a long process, with many setbacks. Though the film ends before February 11, 2011 when former President Mubarak stepped down, and focuses on the painstaking work of organizing and building institutions, it is an engaging and valuable historical document.
When it comes to answering the tricky question of why increased enrollment in higher education, one of the region's notable successes, has not translated into increased employment gains, one common theme is a mismatch of skills. The skills being taught just aren't relevant to the new global economy. Yet the 'Arab Spring' revealed a generation that had a very sophisticated grasp of new technologies, and that had come up with ingenious ways of using them to organize and mobilize. A generation that was also clearly capable of critical thought and effective communication. This was evident in the ability to identify and articulate a collective sense of economic and political exclusion. In Tahrir Square, they displayed a high degree of creativity and enterprise.