By Jean AbiNader (Marrakech, Jan. 17, 2012) — The presenters at this year’s PNB-NAPEO conference in Marrakech are impressive. Most speakers have demonstrated expertise in a variety of enterprises or are enablers of ingredients for building businesses and jobs: venture capital, training, angel investors, and entrepreneurs. Most of the achievers are from Morocco, Tunisia, and Algeria, while the enablers are from the US–a heady mix of visionaries and realists intent on changing the landscape of economic growth in North Africa.
The theme was set on Tuesday in a “discussion” featuring former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright; Walter Isaacson, CEO of the Aspen Institute; Mostafa Terrab, CEO of OCP Group; moderated by Hisham Melhem, Washington Bureau Chief of Al-Arabiya, on the topic of “A New Paradigm: Public-Private Partnerships.”
Ms. Albright paid homage to the youth of the Arab Spring, recognizing that the events that transpired and the transitions following, despite the media hype, are very complicated and important shifts in region. She emphasized that empowering youth will take a while. Secretary Albright noted that political and economic development go together and that the new governments must deliver what people; and private-public partnerships are a means of facing common needs. For the youth, it is overwhelming a question of justice and dignity. She was quite passionate about empowering women to have opportunities to make their contributions.
Mostafa Terrab spoke of the need to shift the perception of the role of corporations from “corporate social responsiblity” to “shared values”–the first carrying the burden of being perceived a ’cost’ to companies for doing business, while shared values takes a longer view and places the emphasis on the benefits of long term investing in local communities. This emphasis on local action was echoed by Isaacson who reminded the audience that business leaders, particularly at the local level, have a better ability to solve problems related to job creation than governments.
Terrab said that the paradox of Arab Spring–record corporate profits in 2011 while disparities between rich and poor widened–has not been resolved. He believes that companies have the capacity to make productive social investments but regulatory regimes do not recognize this as a value.
Throughout the day, there were announcements of specific initiatives to assist companies and entrepreneurs, from a $20 million franchising fund in Tunisia to new venture capital funds for the region. The Aspen Institute model, according to Mr. Isaacson, stresses local results from specific projects. There was a general consensus that corporations, students, and governments have to work closely together to generate the educational and training opportunities that make young people job ready in the shortest possible time. Mostafa Terrab added that entrepreneurship has to be valued within cultures and that a key objective is integrating soft skills into the education and training approaches.
It was a powerful introduction to follow on sessions that probed specific topics related to empowering, developing, financing, and creating enabling environments for new jobs and companies.
Speaking of supporting local businesses, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention three discoveries in Marrkech new to my itinerary that I recommend highly. For a most relaxing and reasonable hammam/massage experience, try firstname.lastname@example.org. Of course this must be followed by some of the freshest fruit drinks this side of California at www.cafe-extrablatt.com; topped off by excellent thin crust pizza and fried calamari at Catanzaro, which can be found in numerous guides to Marrakech or at email@example.com. And for this I missed the hip-hop night at the hotel!!
Jean AbiNader is a Senior Advisor at the Moroccan American Center