By Jean AbiNader, Moroccan American Center (Marrakech, Jan. 18, 2012) — It’s hard to form a simple conclusion about the second day of the second regional NAPEO conference in Marrakech. Based on quality of presentations/discussions and strong and effective presenters and participants, the overall program merits a strong A. Those who attended last year’s launch in Algeria were struck at how much had been achieved in one year. And to hear the list of project launches announced during the day, next year’s conference in Tunisia should be even more stimulating and productive.
What’s driving the participants is a hard to distill confidence that the economies of the Maghreb cannot go back to the largely opaque systems that benefited few and disappointed many. It was quite interesting to have a few minutes with Ambassador Stu Eizenstat, whose name graces the first program to promote regional economic integration – the Eizenstat Initiative of 1998. He finds some satisfaction in how quickly the vision of regional economic growth has mushroomed, driven hard by the realities of the Arab Spring. Now, thanks to the tenacious vision of former Fulbrighter Julie Egan and her cohorts at the State Department, along with the Aspen Institute and Partners for a New Beginning, ably staffed by Toni Verstandig and her PNB-NAPEO team, using the model of building local partnerships to take ownership of developing and delivering projects that create opportunities and jobs, you walk into a room full of North African entrepreneurs, advocates, business people, and aspirants who want to make a difference as soon as possible.
I moderated a discussion on cross-border opportunities and challenges in the hospitality and tourism sectors. It was quite telling that Algerians filled half of the room. While Tunisia and Morocco strongly endorse and support tourism as a national priority, Algeria still has rigid entry requirements and lacks sufficient infrastructure for broad-based tourism. This didn’t stifle any of the enthusiasm in the room for trading ideas, floating concepts, and engaging in thoughtful exchanges about how to promote regional as well as national tourism programs. Having worked on tourism promotion a generation ago in the Arab world, I too shared some of Ambassador Eizenstat’s satisfaction that the North Africans in the room really get it…and they’re going to make it work.
It was also quite interesting that the strongest applause during Ambassador Ed Gabriel’s group discussion on Cross Regional Business Opportunities was when presenters said that it was time for North Africa to be treated on its own merits, not as adjunct to the Middle East. Several people raised the difficulties of doing business in the region because of arcane transportation regulations and lack of transparency in business and legal codes. Yet, as Nawal Elaidaoui, the P&G Manager for NW Africa concluded, that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth the effort to keep banging on the door and building local partners to advocate for change. Regimes are calculating how to survive, and win-win economic growth may be the smart money option.
Jean AbiNader is a Senior Advisor at the Moroccan American Center