Need to rethink assumptions about Arab work ethic
Jessica Ashooh, deputy director of the Atlantic Council’s Middle East Strategy Task Force, took aim at several of the comments about Arab youth made by President Obama in his now famous interview in The Atlantic. While decrying the overall dismal state of the political life in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), the president remarked that Arabs, frankly, weren’t up to par with their counterparts in Southeast Asia, which, he said, “is filled with striving, ambitious, energetic people who are every single day scratching and clawing to build businesses and get education and find jobs and build infrastructure.”
The president is, of course, entitled to his opinions. But given his stature, these somehow get translated into truth, which, in this case, supports stereotypes that disparage a generation of Arab youth, who are similarly engaged in a significant struggle to build value, create jobs, and improve their quality of life. This feeds into the common misperception that somehow “Arabs” do not share American interests in the MENA region.
Yet time and time again, from the high level of joint military cooperation such as the annual African Lion exercises to the multitude of education, training, capacity-building, and entrepreneurship projects the US supports though economic assistance funding, we indeed find significant alignment with our friends, such as Morocco, in the region. Despite the fact that being a “friend of America” entitles you to be on the ISIS/ISIL/Daesh hit list, we find youth throughout the Arab world actively engaged in challenging the status quo and building quality life options.
Contrast what the president had to say with a recent World Bank blog posting. “As you walk through the ancient market in Fes or that of any other medina in Morocco, pass a vibrant hair salon in downtown Casablanca with the feel of a beauty mega-factory, or see young people on a street corner in Rabat waiting to be picked up for a day job in construction, you cannot but be impressed with the entrepreneurial spirit on display. The young people hard at work across the country are part of a huge army of Moroccan youth, many of whom have less than secondary school degrees, stuck in the informal sector with limited opportunities for a good, steady income.”
Throughout Morocco, which is emblematic of the vast majority of Arab youth, young people are striving to find the means to acquire skills, financing, teams, and markets that will change their futures for the better. As Ashooh writes, “Beyond the noise of the ISIS horror show, young Arabs are seeking education and starting companies at record levels, using technology to improve not only their personal prospects but also their societies.”
Morocco provides a multitude of examples of start-ups that are nurtured in facilities and labs with resources that support entrepreneurial teams of men and women working in collaboration to redefine how technology can benefit sectors from small-hold farms to mature information systems. Combined with the country’s dedication to renewable energy and improved health services, opportunities for enhancing quality of life are increasing daily.
The government senses that it has a key role to play but, rather than regulate how entrepreneurism should evolve, instead is listening to the youth and their allies in the private sector to encourage and abet an entrepreneurial eco-system. With increased access to early and second stage financing, business fairs to demonstrate new applications and technologies, and increased attention from private investors, youth are reaching for opportunities that simply did not exist even five years ago.
And while developing and using technology require a defined skill set, there are many other technologies that can be applied by those with a less formal education in areas such as agriculture, hospitality services, small-scale energy, home and health care, and artisanal crafts. These latent skills are accessible to previously illiterate village women, poorly educated rural youth, and those enmeshed in the informal economy. It is about options; it is about change. Remarkably, women make up some 35% of the start-ups in Morocco, 10 times the ratio of women-led tech startups in the US.
So if President Obama wants to see what the majority of MENA youth are focusing on, he should visit one of the dozens of tech fairs held each year in Morocco; or visit incubators that are borne of university-private sector partnerships. He should listen to the aspirations of those who every day are striving to make a difference in their lives and their communities.