Something new and important is happening in the Arab world, and it has so far gone largely unnoticed. Since the beginning of the 2011 revolutions, statistical agencies in the North Africa and the Middle East have started to open up access to their raw data and sharing it not only with selected individuals and institutions but also with the public at large. This amounts to a cultural revolution the implications of which are exciting and wide ranging.
“I never thought that a poor family could benefit so much by me giving just a small amount of money,” the old man said with an intrigued yet hopeful expression on his face. We were sitting in a small classroom in Aqaba, Jordan, chosen as part of a behavioral experiment on Social Safety Nets. Although I have worked on social issues for many years, this statement was eye-opening to me.
It was my first week in Algeria, and I found myself racing through the capital in a motorcade. This was far from my usual form of transportation, but rather the result of a fortunate coincidence. My preparations for taking up office as Resident Representative of the World Bank for Algeria happen to overlap with an official visit by our Vice President for Middle East and North Africa, Inger Andersen.
Today in Sana’a, the international community and the Government of Yemen once again came together to track progress on Yemen’s transition and the agreements between the country and its donors. The 2012 peace initiative determined the transition to include a national dialogue bringing together a broad geographic and political cross section of the country (this is already underway), the drafting of a new constitution, and new elections. All of this is meant to be completed by February, 2014.
For its level of per-capita income (around $1,500), the Palestinian territories have among the best social indicators in the world. These achievements are all the more remarkable given the difficult economic circumstances facing the Palestinian territories. In contrast to other countries such as India, Indonesia or Peru, teachers in the Palestinian territories do teach and clinics are staffed with health workers.
Is the World Bank working with Non-Governmental Organizations to address high rates of unemployment in Tunisia? I remember this question clearly. It was asked by an NGO advocate during a recent workshop on public works in the Tunisian capital, Tunis. The World Bank team I was with had just finished highlighting the importance of developing public private partnerships for the delivery of employment services when the question was posed.
Launching a sustainable business goes well beyond learning how to draft a business plan or fill out a financing application. It involves a range of skills, both “hard” and “soft”, such as managing a start-up enterprise, motivating employees, assembling a cohesive team, tailoring a product to a well-defined market, adapting rapidly to fast-changing circumstances and consumer sentiment, and understanding how to convert an interesting technology into a viable business.
In my very first meeting with a government official, I was asked about World Bank support for geothermal power generation in Djibouti and the exploration needed to identify viable sources. I must admit, at the time, I was not very familiar with the technology. Nevertheless, I learned fast about geothermal energy and about the project that was under preparation.
In a country like Egypt which faces a host of political and economic challenges, innovative solutions are very much in demand. The good news is that there is a wave of innovation and entrepreneurship spreading across the Arab world. The bad news is that micro and small enterprises -- mostly working in low-tech industries -- in Egypt are not getting the support they need to be part of this wave.
“This is the first time when I left a conference that I really felt like we were a family. Already people have sent emails to continue the discussions we had. Some of the participants have really valuable experience with social safety nets and there is a lot we can learn from each other.”