Getting Recruitment and Logistics Right the First Time

In an increasingly globalized world of business transactions, regardless of the current uncertainty fostered by illiberal politicians, the capacity to be effective and successful depends upon one’s cultural intelligence, which goes beyond cultural awareness and the dos and don’ts of behaviors. It requires a capability to adjust to changing circumstances that are not part of the usual playbook of international business. One’s personal traits for dealing with ambiguity, tolerance of differences, patience, willingness to learn and judge objectively, and listening skills, both verbal and non-verbal are assets to be developed and cultivated.

The knowledge content we expect employees to master has also shifted into a higher gear. In the past, many overseas industry assignments focused on recruiting Americans with specific technical knowledge, while previous experience in the culture was a plus.  These days, US pre-eminence in most sectors is being challenged around the world, and as the increasingly strained issues of sanctions continues to muddle the commercial landscape, overseas staff must be able to reconcile business practices with local sensibilities often influenced by the general political environment. And US workers overseas are not alone; the same applies to foreign nationals in this country, whatever their visa status.

So rather than leave recruitment  to trial and error, a company’s bottom line requires greater attention to recruiting beyond language competence, travel experience, and screening algorithms used by online recruiters. For years, cross-cultural specialists have stressed the importance of pre-assignment training and in-country support. Unfortunately, in an increasingly competitive marketplace, this is becoming a luxury as competitors seem to put people in place who have no problems adjusting and performing abroad. So while there is no silver bullet for recruiting the right people for the job assignments overseas and ensuring their success, there are some talismans that can act to insulate human capital hiring staff from making costly mistakes.

Global Business Media

I recently participated in an event sponsored by Ed Cohen, publisher of globalbusinessnews.net and host of Global Business Radio. He various media platforms bring together experts and practitioners to exchange experiences and insights emerging from their daily activities. Our group consisted of experts in transportation and logistics, recruitment, and talent mobility, to discuss the impact of changes resulting from changes in the global workforce environment.

The Chair of the Committee on International Trade for the Commonwealth of Virginia, Hampton Dowling, led off with an overview of how political trends are affecting global business. With his extensive background in international business, he surveyed the impact of changes in US trade policy and regulations, noting that to succeed today requires a broad view of what’s going on in the world and how this affects your business model. This current period of disruption brought about by technology has shifted momentum away from traditional practices and the resulting transformation requires a change in thinking about talent and mobility. He believes that a new vision of business environments is needed to encompass the impact of technology, artificial intelligence, changes in markets dynamics, and evolving consumer demographics.

Samir Baja, who has extensive overseas experience with Coca-Cola and high-tech companies, took a look at challenges posed by recruiting millennials. They stay in a job an average of 1.8 years, prefer developmental assignments where they can acquire skills and experience, and don’t have the same emphasis on savings as previous generations. At an average age of 32, 67% of them are homeowners and there will be increasing competition to enlist them into sectors that meet their lifestyle and professional expectations. He also made the point that being an international company does not mean a global company. An international company is based in one country with operations in others wedded to a specific operational and business model. A global company adapts to its environment and the local management shapes the company’s culture based on the overall vision of the leadership.

So, what did we learn? There are good boutique recruiting firms combining the latest programs for identifying candidates with hands-on face-to-face interviews and survey instruments to give clients a high degree of certainty that they are making the right hire. Some are featured on the global business.net website or in its publications. It was helpful that among the most coherent presenters were people who themselves had broad overseas experience, many with government agencies, and have a lot of data to guide their processes.

There was general consensus that companies include two issues on the recruiting agenda: support throughout the assignment including employee return, and the related issue of retention. With many governments around the world emphasizing the importance of hiring locally, companies are challenged to satisfy the partner while hiring effective employees. The hiring pool, at all levels, is increasingly selective, mobile, and talented, which may cause heartburn initially, but the success of American companies worldwide should give comfort that there are solutions to the most vexing problems, hopefully!

The bottom line is clear. International competition for qualified human resources requires both expatriate and local labor. With an eye towards having a competitive edge in recruiting and retention, companies need to rethink their strategies for garnering human capital that both meets their operational needs and contributes to the company’s brand as a preferred employer.

 

Leading in an Agile World – Can We Usefully Redefine Leadership?

A colleague of mine recently circulated an email asking several of us to respond to his juxtaposition of leadership and catalyzing, reflecting the notion that the former is passé and the future is ‘catalyzing’ as the key concept. The response was quick and definitive…although “Concepts of leadership are evolving to keep pace with the disruption, transformation, and agility demands of today’s organizations,” as I noted in my last blog, most respondents believe that leaders still need skills grounded in experience while integrating catalyzing skills  for existing and future challenges.

This I believe is the core of agility: recognizing, mobilizing, enabling, empowering, and sharing leadership throughout the organization so that the culture reflects a blend of human and digital capacity geared toward innovation and collaboration. Now the challenge comes in several forms: the first is that not all companies are equal, in size, complexity, structure, and business model. Some are client or customer centric and have high brand recognition. Others offer specialty products that require strong R&D components to be competitive; while others are service-providers to emerging niche markets. Mixtures of bricks and mortar and virtual POS and distribution are not uncommon.

So while the structures and operational priorities may be dissimilar, the missions and goals can be reduced to “make money, keep customers happy,  stay happy.” This core of profitability and satisfaction are at the center of how leadership, whatever styles are effective, is exercised. Why “styles?” We learned ages ago that leadership defined by functions can range from directing and evangelizing to coaching and coercing, and at least a dozen more characteristics.

Leadership is a shortcut to conflate those traits that enable leaders in whatever context to lean forward, lead from behind, and construct and organizational culture that emphasizes continual innovation, adaptation, and a competitive edge, mirroring Jack Welch, former CEO of GE’s mantra of change leadership.

Michael Hamman and Michale K. Spayd put it this way in their White Paper, “The Agile Leader.” “An organization’s agility is not a function of “‘scaling’ current team-based delivery practices…Simply put, agile leadership entails a move from driving to results to creating environments that generate results.

Agile leadership is no accident. There is a clear methodology for enacting agile leadership.” They use the phrase ‘enterprise agility’ to express their assumption that “At the heart of sustainable enterprise agility is an adaptive, agile leadership.”

To value leadership in both its complexity and its simplicity, it is vital to remember that at the heart of leadership principles are, at least for now, human beings who make assumptions every day about how to succeed in a fluid and competitive environment. Back to Hamman and Spayd, “Fundamentally, it is as much about the interior—of individuals, of organizations—as it is about the exterior. It is as much about developing people as it is about building systems. It is as much about creating an agile culture as it is about adapting structures and processes.”

Catalyzing in this context is about aligning talent, resources, systems, objectives, and expectations to support agility, so that a catalyzing leader is an agile leader dedicated to mobilizing a coherent, consistent spirit of innovation shared by company teams that have transparent, respectful, reliable, and valued communications with their counterparts in- and outside the organization.

One could argue that because of the impact of technology and the yet to be understood tsunami called ‘AI’ that leadership is more difficult in today’s environment. On the other hand, it is also reasonable to point out that leadership in the past did not have the data, modelling options, robust algorithms, and highly developed technologies as learning aides. The uncertainty, complexity, and fluidity of today’s competitive environments, at all levels, demand a differently tuned skill set, which is why sometimes the strong survive, and sometimes they don’t. Change management has to begin within the individual, which is why companies have to seriously invest in driving agility throughout their organization and its processes and relationships.

The difference I believe is enabling the agility of leaders, teams, policies, communications, and the workforce to recognize, embrace, and capture change capabilities in order to survive and thrive. For success, mindsets need to be rewired to accept the inevitability of change and the acquisition of skills required to master its impact. These skill sets must extend beyond their particular silos and empower staff to collaborate across boundaries – and be rewarded for it. As employees recognize and accept agility as a means to mobilize and execute, they then become team members whose communications with others both assume and reflect the cultural values of the organization.

So for me, this is the role of leadership at all levels: to build consensus and collaboration around company strategies and communications that build agility internally and in its external relations.

 

Is There Ever a Typical Organization?

This is the first in a series of posts linked to articles on my website that look at contemporary issues in organizational development (OD). Although the term organizational development has been around since the 1960s, the last century, its focus on expanding the capabilities of people within organizations to effectively manage change and performance is always relevant. According to a UPenn citation, “OD is a process of continuous diagnosis, action planning, implementation and evaluation, with the goal of transferring knowledge and skills to organizations to improve their capacity for solving problems and managing future change.”

Among the various types of OD interventions are: Survey Feedback, Team Building, Sensitivity Training, Managerial Grid, Management by Objectives (MBO), Brain-storming, Process Consultation, Quality Circles, and Transactional Analysis. While this is not a complete list, it does highlight the need for at least three phases: diagnosis, solution development, action implementation. Today, concepts such as Organizational Agility capture the need for speed and effectiveness given that technology drives change with rapid and sometimes unpredictable results.

Of particular interest to me is working in the space of Organizational Culture. This concept focuses on the deeply seated norms (accepted guidelines for interactions), values, and behaviors shared by people in the company or organization. At AbiNader Advisory Services (AAS), we work with clients to consciously develop a direct link between commonly accepted communications behaviors that characterize how employees interact to the company’s vision/mission, strategy, values, and culture, as in this diagram. The key process outcome is to enable participants to speak to basic factors that cannot be observed – mission/vision, values, strategy, and culture – except through observable and measurable behaviors – in this case, their communications. Importantly, in today’s context, it also provides a platform for discussing key agenda related to diversity and implicit bias. There are a variety of training modalities that can be used in the process, from scenario building and survey instruments to analyzing tactics to breakdown silos and accelerate information distribution.

It is essential for management to recognize that the deeply seated norms, values, and behaviors their employees share derive from more than their current employment or assignments. Their individual cultures are the sum of their many personal and professional experiences. And from this recognition, leadership can work with designated teams to identify, cultivate, and promote an organizational culture aligned on five elements:

  1. A consistent, shared, and sustained commitment to the company’s vision and mission
  2. Transparent and effective communications throughout the organization regarding current and future goals and objectives that cut across teams – the company’s strategy
  3. Shared values expressed in both organizational (e.g. efficient, results oriented) and interpersonal terms (e.g. inclusion, acknowledgement) – these describe the company’s culture
  4. Agreed behavioral norms that define desired behaviors both vertically and horizontally – your culture working for your objectives
  5. Agreed behaviors and expectations of behaviors among employees, teams, departments, others

Concepts of work forces have changed as a result of advances in technology, shifts in the makeup of economies, and greater interest in direct customer contact. Labels such as “Gen X, Millennials, disruption, transformation, etc.” do not really add clarity to the continuous re-definitions that are occurring. What is clear is that a nimble/agile organization must be aware not only of how employees are evolving along with their roles/assignments, but how the shifting nature of their aspirations requires rethinking and redefining relationships from the board room to the operations floor.

Next time, I’ll look at leadership being redefined since it all begins at the top, for better and sometimes for worse…

 

 

 

Can Promoting Arab Women as Entrepreneurs Make a Difference?

Or will age-old stereotypes relegate them to secondary roles?

The economic and business roles of Arab women have been discussed for more than two decades and initiatives have been launched on the consensus that their participation is worth promoting. With electoral quotas in several Arab countries to promote their political participation and with more women appointed to significant positions in the private sector, there are indicators that the roles of women are being taken more seriously. In Saudi Arabia, for instance, while there is a great deal of focus on women driving and flying, much less has been published about those women who make up the majority of Saudis enrolled in medical and pharmacy schools, teaching and research programs, and a number of scientific concentrations.

But I believe that the emphasis across the region on building up women on entrepreneurs will only bear fruit if the term applies broadly to women who create and run small and medium-size enterprises as businesses as well as their counterparts engaged in IT, programming, hi tech, and similar sectors where entrepreneurs tend to concentrate.

Recent enterprise program initiatives recognize that empowering rural communities, co-ops, neighborhood associations, and similar groups will enable them to act as proto-incubators for bringing greater business literacy to those who have been largely marginalized economic players. The cost of not including women as serious economic actors is severe and largely unnoticed. A Brookings Institution article noted that “The World Bank recently said that globally we are losing $160 trillion in wealth because of the gender gap in earnings, including $3.1 trillion in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.”

Yet changes in legal codes, allocating more funding to female-centric programs, and building friendly ecosystems to support women in business still has to overcome the most significant barrier to women in the workforce – social and cultural stereotypes driven by a patriarchal society. As the Brookings article puts in, “In order to address the cultural barriers and the deep-rooted gender stereotyping concerning the division of labor, we must work closely with communities and with men specifically to raise the desirability and legitimacy of women working.”

Perhaps the reason that there is so much emphasis on promoting women entrepreneurs in hi tech is that these sectors are outside those traditional jobs tied to crafts and food processing or more male-dominated areas. An IFC article says it clearly. “It may surprise some to learn that one in three start-ups in the Arab World is founded or led by women — a higher percentage than in Silicon Valley. Indeed, women are a force to be reckoned with in the start-up scene across the Middle East. Because the tech industry is still relatively new in the Arab world, there is no legacy of it being a male dominated field. Many entrepreneurs from the region believe that technology is one of the few spaces where everything is viewed as possible, including breaking gender norms, and is therefore a very attractive industry for women.”

Digital platforms that are the backbone of many high-tech projects are one option for enabling women to spend time both at home and on the job. For example, “these digital platforms allow women to be unimpeded by cultural constraints or safety issues and lowers the implicit and explicit transaction costs of transportation, child care, discrimination, and social censure,” according to the IFC article.

So the future for highly educated women in the Arab world is not as regressive as for those with less education and access. In fact, “According to UNESCO, 34–57% of STEM grads in Arab countries are women, which is much higher share than universities in the US or Europe.”

Yet other statistics are not as supportive of a bright future for women. According to the IFC article, “In fact, 13 of the 15 countries with the lowest rate of female participation in the workforce are in the Arab World according to the World Bank. Restrictive laws in many countries across the region put women who wish to join or start their own businesses at a disadvantage, including prohibitions against women opening up a bank account or owning property, limited freedom of movement without a male guardian, or constraints on interactions with men who are not in their family, in addition to cultural and attitudinal stigmas.”

So it makes sense that the emphasis should be three-fold: opportunities for women at the community level through initiatives in traditional areas of crafts, niche foods, and specialty items (think argan oil and Zaatar); building ecosystems at the high end for university graduates who are well-versed in the digital economy and may apply those skills to upgrading those women at the community level (e.g. https://www.asilashop.com/, or http://deden.co.uk/heritage-natural-soap-by-tradition/), and those in-between who are eager to be active in their local economies and will excel if given training, resources, mentoring, and encouragement.

 

Fair Trade Lebanon Has a Banner Year Developing Local Communities through Jobs and Business Development

In the past few years, it has been instructive to see the achievements of Fair Trade Lebanon (FTL), an organization dedicated to empowering rural communities and women’s organizations through economic development. At a time when a great deal of attention is focused on megaprojects to advance Lebanon’s economy, FTL works at the local level to change how people build their futures. Given the well-known attraction of Lebanese food products both at home and abroad, FTL came up with the idea of encouraging local cooperatives and farmers to produce food items for local consumption and export with a fair trade certification. Initially directed at the overseas Lebanese, FTL now exports to over a dozen markets.

I caught up with Philippe Adaime, FTL’s CEO on a recent trip to Washington, DC and asked him to give ATFL a report on their progress in 2017. Here is his report.

2017 has been an extraordinary year for Fair Trade Lebanon. Proud of its 12 years of community engagement, the Lebanese non-profit organization is on the path to move forward from “good to great.”

In a country with regionally displaced populations of refugees, facing socio-economic pressures, and increases in unemployment and political instability, Fair Trade Lebanon (FTL) has been able to implement and manage 7 important projects in 2017 and impacted 2,500 jobs. These projects benefit first the host communities and farmers who are the backbone of the rural areas, and includes efforts to help refugees deal with their uncertain future by generating employment opportunities and the seeds for business development.

In 2017, FTL supported 35 women cooperatives and group of farmers to improve their production in order to access local and international markets. In fact, 19 cooperatives received 40 pieces of new equipment and supplies that benefitted more than 540 people. In addition, 1,000 men and women benefited from a MEPI-funded project (A US foreign assistance program) – a number that doubled in 18 months of activities – through the organization of 187 training sessions to support cooperatives and Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs) in improving their production. As a result, cooperatives and SMEs within the FTL network saw their sales increase by up to 40%, which affected 500 new jobs among 20 business units.

Furthermore, this improvement in production and increase of sales led to an addition of 15 new points of sales in Lebanon and 2 new importers. Currently, 35% of FTL’s producers’ production is meant for export; 13 units are certified organic, and 4 obtained the FLOCERT certification, which indicates that they have met international standards for fair trade.

Regarding refugees in Lebanon, FTL supported 900 vulnerable women from host and refugee communities through specific food processing training (preserves, catering, saj), and insured that 55% were Lebanese and 45% Syrian. FTL organized 390 training sessions related to food processing, hygiene, marketing, pricing, and event management. Importantly, 12% of these beneficiaries were youth.

FTL linked 300 Lebanese and Syrian to the private sector by enrolling them in a 2-months internship program where 12% where able to find a decent job. In 2017, FTL intensified its work in Akkar with a group of 30 dedicated Lebanese and Syrian women who established a cooperative in Khreibet el Jundi, and their products can now be found in the well-known Topline supermarket in Halba.

FTL’s target in 2017 expanding its domestic network by organizing 33 awareness sessions in mainly schools and universities reaching 1,300 students. In order to revive and promote authentic Lebanese cooking practices, FTL developed the concept of “make your own saj” and adopted the “shop in shop” channel to get closer to consumers. This created 12 new jobs and revenue of 8,000 USD per month of selling saj.

Concurrently, FTL launched a media campaign all over Lebanon through offline and online platforms, which reached 3,000,000 people all over the country and 18,000 followers on Facebook. FTL took part in 22 events in Lebanon and abroad to promote fair trade practices and market the cooperatives’ products. FTL also attended the World Fair Trade Organization conference in India, where it strengthened strengthed its partnerships with fair trade actors from other countries.

Finally, 2017 was marked by two big events. First, FTL organized the World Fair Trade Day in Lebanon with 2,000 attendees, 45 products exhibited, and 15 live stations to cater friends and supporters. Secondly, in partnership with the Lebanese Embassy in Washington DC, FTL organized an event at the Embassy’s residence under the theme “Authentic Lebanese Culinary Products” where FTL presented its mission and the wide range of products from “Terroirs du Liban.” Over 400 guests attended this event, including 10 importers and 5 media representatives who were greatly impressed with the quality of “home-made” Lebanese products now available in the US.

With a fair and ambitious motto “from good to great,” FTL looks back at 2017 with a feeling of satisfaction and yet a feeling of thirst to grow and inspire everyone they come across. Follow this link to see where FTL works all over Lebanon and this link to see the many products available.

 

 

Of Note: MEI Panel weighs in on Protests in Morocco and Tunisia

The Middle East Institute (MEI) recently presented a panel discussion on “Protests in North Africa: parallels and prospects.” Speakers addressed “the social and economic drivers behind the recent demonstrations [in Morocco and Tunisia], as well as prospects for resolving these inequities.”

The Washington, DC panel included Intissar Fakir (Carnegie Endowment for International Peace), Dokhi Fassihian (Freedom House), William Lawrence (George Washington University), and moderator Paul Salem, MEI’s senior vice-president for policy research and programs.

Although the immediate causes of the most recent demonstrations are very different – in Tunisia protesters want a change to the country’s new austerity laws, while in Morocco the flashpoint is the death of two young coal miners, Houcine and Jedouane Dioui in Jerada – the root causes are the same: economic inequality, perceived lack of investment and development resulting in high unemployment, and ineffective government responses to local needs due to corruption and lack of accountability.

In Tunisia, protests have been continuing for many months due to the lack of economic growth in the country, corruption and lack of government accountability, and strong feelings of marginalization among youth. Laws exonerating wealthy businessmen and politicians from persecution for actions during the Ben Ali regime overthrown in 2011 have soured public confidence in the government. Despite large amounts of international assistance, some significant international investment, and large doses on congratulations for Tunisia’s democratic progress, many citizens are unhappy with the government’s inability to develop sustainable and equitable strategies for moving forward. Its nascent democracy is challenged by these protests as the government is resorting to tougher security measures, arresting hundreds of demonstrators.

Although Ms. Fassihian, senior program manager for MENA at Freedom House, characterized Tunisia as “more free” than Morocco due to its strong and more open human rights record, she notes that the continuing demonstrations have led to extensive arrests and to trials in military courts, further undermining the civilian government’s credibility. Arrests are both planned, i.e. targeted at certain leaders, and random of people at the demonstrations. This has resulted, according to Ms. Fakir, who is the Editor-in-chief of Sada, CEIP’s Middle East blog journal, in a growing lack of trust in the government and impatience with its inability to resolve the economic crisis. The lack of transparency in decision-making has also undermined the public’s faith in the government.

In Morocco, one can link the Jerada protests to the 2016 marches in the Rif protesting the death of fishmonger Mouhcine Fikri in El Hoceima. Both incidents highlighted the regional and local governments’ lack of accountability and corruption, leaving them unable to move effectively to solve local programs of unemployment, lack of investment in infrastructure and social services, and providing the services, education, and job opportunities that citizens expect.

The protests, which spread beyond the Rif region, drew a strong response from King Mohammed VI who showed his displeasure with those officials charged with not having carried out the more than $100 million of development projects allocated to the region over the past six years. He fired and blacklisted past and current ministers, director generals, and other officials responsible for the economic development and governance of the region. The King sent his personal envoy, Aziz Akhannouch, Minister of Agriculture, to meet with leaders of the Rif protests.

Now, the King faces a similar crisis some 120 miles away where young men, working to mine coal in abandoned quarries, died in attempts to scrap out some income for their families. Again, there are charges of local government inaction, extensive unemployment, corruption and lack of accountability, and insufficient investments to retool the local economy, create jobs, and build needed infrastructure.

While Ms. Fassihian pointed out that Morocco is at least attempting to observe freedom of assembly by allowing protests, security forces eventually cracked down on the protestors. The judicial system is still dominated by the security forces, controlled by the Palace. So without an independent judiciary, there is an observable regression in observing civil and human rights, more protests, and a decline in public confidence. Hence, demonstrators continued to come out in order to reach out to the King as the ultimate arbiter in the country.

One of the recurring themes mentioned by the panel is the need for credible decentralization or regionalization that devolves effective decision-making from the central government to local elected authorities. Both countries have committed to decentralization as a means of promoting political and economic development. Ms. Fassihian noted that although Morocco is a leader in the region in decentralization, the process is very slow and many obstacles are due to lack of clarity from the central government on issues such as power-sharing between elected and appointed leaders, budgetary guidelines and allocations, and standards of accountability and transparency in government transactions and services.

Despite these challenges, there was agreement among the panelists that US policy can play an effective role in both countries. Dr. Lawrence pointed out that he US government has many links to Morocco and Tunisia through various agreements, assistance programs, training programs, as well as educational and cultural ties. A more strategic and targeted approach, especially focused on economic issues and youth can have a significant impact as these are the root causes, along with corruption and accountability, that drive the protestors.

It is a conundrum in Morocco and Tunisia, as well as other emerging economies in Africa, to meet the rising expectations of the majority of their citizens without a more efficient use of their limited resources. There are no single or simple solutions. Each country, given its historical and recent experiences, must confront dilemmas that arise from inequities in their societies that reinforce social, economic, and political disparities. Morocco is fortunate in that it has a King, widely respected, but a government which lacks widespread credibility with the people is not trusted to carry out needed policies.

Tunisia’s struggles are well-known, some historical, others part of the generational shift from an authoritarian regime to a democracy that seeks to balance its forward progress without weakening the country’s economic, cultural, and social infrastructure.

A major step in the right direction could be a firm and consistent commitment to forms of decentralization/devolution/regionalization implemented within a context of clear government authority, responsibility, and accountability. The people of Tunisia and Morocco are demanding to be at the core of their countries’ futures. The US can continue to upgrade its commitment to its partnerships by working to target both the short and long-term efforts to enable and ennoble the government-citizen relations.

 

What Hadith and Cheese Making tell us about Work and Labor

Once the Prophet (PBUH) was sitting with his companions and they happened to see a young man busy working in the early hours of the morning. The companions watched him and commented on how beneficial it would be if he put his effort in worshipping Allah (S.W.T.) instead. When he heard this, the Holy Prophet said to them: “Do not say that! Because if he is working to be independent and self-sufficient, it is in the way of Allah. Even if he were striving to earn a living in order to support his family, it would still be a noble act. It is only when a person takes pride in his efforts and money that he is working in way of Shaitan. 

This simple, yet provocative story, recounts Mohammad’s support for just and noble work. Yet many youth today avoid jobs that require physical labor and would rather wait for less tiring opportunities. Labor market realities are not working in favor of those who wait. With economic stagnation dominating MENA economies, and a growth rate of 5% off in the distance, it is hard to imagine a robust economy anywhere in the region. Even the UAE, which is doing better than most, has very high unemployment among its young people, especially university graduates. And foreign worker participation remains very high.

Given MENA’s growing population and the reluctance of young people to consider employment that seems to lead nowhere, governments are scrambling for strategies to bring more entrants into the formal economy. From programs to certify skilled workers now in the informal economy and efforts to replace foreign workers with local substitutes, to a variety of wage and work subsidies to make national employees more attractive to companies, the work space is literally littered with opportunities, but the dent in overall employment is barely noticeable. Even large-scale efforts to promote entrepreneurism only produce hundreds rather than the tens of thousands of jobs needed, if locals will take them.

Labor and Work

I recently went to a cheese maker’s shop in Jordan who started out as an environmental activist. Then she decided that Jordanians needed to source more of their basic needs locally and in a more sustainable way. So she started making cheese. If you’ve ever tried, you know it’s not so simple to make cheese, despite the fact that when our parents made laban or labneh or halloum, it looked pretty straight-forward.

You have to pay attention to not overheat the milk, add the starter at the right time, let the culture do its work, and then more patience is needed through the final steps to the end product. No wonder no one makes cheese at home anymore! Who can spend the time it takes when there’s no guarantee that something won’t go wrong.

Organic food markets making a mark  Photo: Jordan Business Magazine

Organic food markets making a mark
Photo: Jordan Business Magazine

Making cheese reminds us that making choices in life are not always in our control, there are many mediating factors: age, gender, education, physical condition, training, temperament, opportunity, even wasta have a way of shaping choices we can make. But like the Jordanian cheese maker, we need to start somewhere with a belief that we can do something with our lives, even when it seems that there are tough challenges ahead.

Start with thinking about the differences between labor and work. Although they are used to mean the same thing, by definition, labor involves hard physical work. Work, on the other hand, is defined as “activity involving mental or physical effort done in order to achieve a purpose or result.” It is this emphasis on achieving a result that should guide us as we look for opportunities to grow, earn money, and have satisfaction in our lives.

Some want to work with as little labor as possible, because they are interested only in compensation, not achievement. People who see the challenges and are still determined to make a difference in their lives are willing to take a risk and treat work as a means to achievement – of a better job, better salary, having a family, and raising children – all started because of their parents’ labor and work. This is not always evident at the start, especially in technical and vocational job sectors. Yet this is the work that makes a modern society function – building and maintaining infrastructure,  making clothing, furniture, ice cream, and food, and providing all kinds of support services.

Later that day, I met a man who is proud to say that he is a farmer. He has a degree in agronomy and is one of the pioneers in developing, producing, and marketing organic products for local sale and export. He says that the short-sighted view of young people is supported by the reluctance of families to accept marriage prospects who are not “good enough” because of their jobs. This attitude will only be mitigated when society remembers that it was only a few generations ago that many family members were illiterate and only did manual labor…that was then and now…it’s time to rethink what matters about work, and labor.

Top photo: tastejo.blogspot.com

Feeding the Beast – Time to Separate Politics from Economic Reforms?

Image property of SyrianFreePress@wordpress.com

Jordanians have been waiting months for a new national employment plan that is supposed to revamp the education and training systems to bridge the gap between education and employment; and provide guidance for the integration of Syrian refugees into the country’s workforce. It may appear after the Eid.

There is an interim government in place, tasked with preparations for elections in September, running the country, and implementing an agreed IMF reform agenda. According to the IMF, “These reforms will be focused on the business environment, the energy and water sectors, the financial sector, and the labor market. The reforms will also focus on protecting the most vulnerable segments of the population and in supporting Jordan’s efforts in hosting the Syrian refugees.”

he reforms include strengthening the tax base, controlling public spending, dealing with tax incentives and income tax in general, and ensuring the national safety net for the most vulnerable constituencies. The goal is to improve employment opportunities; encourage transitions from the informal to formal economy and support SME growth; promote cost recovery in the energy and water sectors; and improve the country’s financial system though greater transparency.

King Abdullah then announced an Economic Policies Council “to discuss economic policies, programs and development plans, supporting the government’s efforts aimed at overcoming economic difficulties, investing in opportunities, achieving higher growth rates and enhancing the competitiveness of the national economy.” Few women were in evidence on the Council’s roster.

The announcement of higher prices for water and energy were greeted with some small protest demonstrations and, according to the media, young people involved were demanding jobs. They initially turned down offers of private sector employment, preferring government jobs. Whatever the actual outcome, it was reported that they eventually agreed to work in the private sector…no further details.

Popular resentment towards tougher economic policies is not surprising…the US itself is unable to fund badly needed infrastructure repairs due to political sensitivities. Here in Jordan, the announcement of more economic reforms elicited three responses from local friends I consulted: the government hasn’t been doing its job properly; more meetings are a way to delay implementation of needed changes; and the government must do more to incentivize the private sector.

Women are underutilized in Jordan's development

Women are underutilized in Jordan’s development

Speaking about unemployment, one said that if Jordanians really wanted to work, there are plenty of opportunities to replace the half-million foreign workers in the country. He believes that until the government undertakes effective economic strategies that investors will not take Jordan seriously. He also spoke about the need to more proactively engage the informal sector through certification programs that enable those working outside the system to be licensed and trained to run their own businesses.

Another friend spoke about replacing the many job subsidies offered by the government with a higher minimum wage, better working conditions, and better use of government resources to eliminate waste and inefficient procurement processes. This would enable the government to pay more attention to fighting corruption and promoting effective governance, not to mention put in place more attractive job conditions.

A third source noted challenges to the economy from the impact of regional conflicts which is stifling commerce and scaring investors. He believes that business friendly reforms are the key to attracting more investments and so supports the start-up on the Economic Policies Council and the progress of the Jordan Investment Fund.

What these various perspectives underscore is that Jordan, at least for these sources, has a long way to go to rebuild the ties between decision-makers and the people. There seems to be a shrug when hearing about sacrifices needed when GID officers steal arms meant for anti-Assad fighters and sell them on the black market – their only punishment being kicked out of the service keeping their pensions and ill-gotten gains.

King Abdullah seems to sense that time is against the country. At the first meeting of the Economic Policies Council, he tasked them to “put solutions in place without any [hidden] agendas except serving people and combating poverty and unemployment. These are the interests of the people who are concerned with issues that matter to the country.”

For its part, members of the Council “underlined the indispensability of a participatory approach in the economic decision making and integrity between financial, monetary, investment and labour policies.” Time will tell is this is a call for effective action or another opportunity to avoid proactive and sometimes painful policies.

 

Problems and Promises of Youth Employment in the MENA

A very interesting series of studies is being produced by the CSIS Youth, Prosperity, and Security Initiative and the International Youth Foundation (IYF), a partnership that focuses clearly on global issues affecting youth, “Exploring the near- and long-term economic, social, and geopolitical implications of youth development trends around the world,” according to its website.

The partners work covers a variety of topics ranging from The Global Youth Wellbeing Index to CSIS-generated country and region specific studies. This recent panel, convened by Ritu Sharma, Senior Visiting Fellow for the Initiative was on “Scaling Youth Employment in the Middle East.” The panel featured Mohammad AlMbaid, IYF Country Director for Palestine; Jon B. Alterman, CSIS Senior Vice President, Zbigniew Brzezinski Chair in Global Security and Geostrategy, and Director of its Middle East Program; and Zeenat Rahman, former Special Advisor to  Secretaries Clinton and Kerry on Global Youth Issues.

From the panel’s perspectives, four common themes emerged:

  • All countries in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region have growing demographic pressures to create jobs and face of declining economic growth, weak educational systems, and mismatched education to employment outcomes.
  • There are cultural challenges to promoting youth employment ranging from gender discrimination to attitudes towards manual skills jobs.
  • University graduates are disproportionally affected with unemployment rates often 3 x that of the national average.
  • There are no one-size fits all solutions. Although the overall challenge of generating jobs quickly without relying on the public sector is common, other national factors influence policy options, implementation strategies, and definitions of desired outcomes.

Morocco is a useful case study on all four themes. It has a growing population, indeed 50+% of the population is under 30. Despite its success in attracting significant investments in the manufacturing sector, creating some 300,000 jobs in the automotive sector alone in five years, it still faces a gap in the educational system’s capacity to effectively train qualified labor. Its greatest success has come through public-private partnerships, yet it is still not enough.

Moroccan youth, accustomed to seeing previous generations taken care of by the government, are reluctant to enter into the uncertainty and discipline of the private sector. Although this is slowly changing, cultural factors often restrict a woman’s ability to find meaningful work and condition males to resist certain types of skilled jobs. This is particularly critical for university graduates where the 30% unemployment rate reflects not only a lack of white collar jobs but resistance to vocational/technical alternatives.

While Morocco does not have the resources of the Gulf countries to build and equip educational and training facilities, it has successfully recruiting tens of thousands of young people for manufacturing, services, industries, and technology jobs by promoting the benefits of skilled labor, how jobs can evolve into careers, and providing support for entrepreneurs. Yet the sheer numbers of youth, as evidenced in the focus of the panel on “scaling youth employment,” remain significant.

The Experts Search for Solutions

Building on this point of demographic pressures, Jon Alterman pointed out that public sector employment is often a stability issue – a means of insuring citizens’ loyalty. When government jobs are no longer available, threats to stability rise and issues of tradeoffs in the short term between security (managing conflict and unrest among youth) and stability (distorting the national economy through excessive non-productive government employment) become paramount. Equally “challenging,” Alterman mentioned, is developing effective strategies for changing attitudes toward job preferences, from no-risk subsidized government jobs to greater reliance on private sector employment tied to local, national, and regional markets.

iyfMohammad AlMbaid related how, after extensive surveys, IYF decided that university graduates would be the focus of their initial programs in Palestine. They work with a majority of the universities in Palestine to provide “life-skills training” for graduates to enable them to acquire those soft skills necessary to survive and advance in today’s workforce. Early results show that graduates of their courses are employed at 2x the rate of others who did not have the course. IYF is expanding its programs to vocational schools and works with the Saudi government to implement similar programs in the Kingdom.

Zeenat Rahman noted that the US government, beginning with Secretary Clinton, became involved in global youth affairs reflecting from President Obama’s concern that young people in many countries had literally no relationship to the US due to political conditions. Both Secretaries Clinton and Kerry focused a great deal of effort on youth programs, sensing that this was an opportunity to engage youth beyond counter-radicalization efforts to enabling them to take control of their futures. A key selling point, she said, was learning to address these issues from the self-interests of the partner countries rather than US prescriptions.

The discussion that followed was quite robust as most of those present have experience in youth employment efforts and lent their well-honed perspectives on workable strategies. There was broad agreement on the importance of shifting attitudes among youth toward skills-centered jobs; emphasizing “in-trapreneurship” based on life-skills that enable youth to make the most of their employment choices; the need for both top-down policies and grassroots programs for long-term effectiveness; and the need for more holistic approaches in education to produce better qualified and focused youth.

No one left with a sense that the job was done. As Rahman pointed out, there have been numerous and thorough studies globally of the youth employment phenomenon. What is much more challenging is implementing solutions that are sustainable, scalable, and timely, supported by public-private partnerships. It is, after all, in their core interests to enable youth to believe in their futures.

 

 

American University of Leadership Morocco Has Ambitious Educational Strategy

Highlights Role for Expat Moroccans in Developing Skilled Workforce

Dr. Anass Lahlou does not have small dreams…they are super-sized, multicultural, and multidimensional when it comes to higher education, especially educating Moroccans for the global economy. From his experiences with AMS, a well-respected training and education firm in the Washington, DC area, he became convinced that traditional approaches for preparing youth to meet diverse market labor needs were not effective in content, cost, or time. So he began working with his networks to develop innovative models for equipping young people with professional, business, and soft skills that would serve them throughout their lives.

He began with training small cadres of Moroccans in IT-related fields. His biggest challenge at that point, he told me, was finding enough Moroccan staff with US backgrounds who shared his approach to learning and leadership. The idea was to enable qualified students to obtain US degrees in Morocco, as he found that students were ready to move away from the limitations of the academic French model and towards the American system with its emphasis on critical thinking, problem solving, and student-centered learning.

In 2005, he set up a private institute for training and technology in Florida, where his original campus is located, receiving permission to operate in Morocco the following year. His American University of Leadership (AUL) was initially a bilingual French-English online platform, which he quickly expanded through partnerships and formal campus settings into a number of countries. He is very proud of the fact that of the resident students at the three campuses in Morocco, more than 20% receive scholarship support.

“My motivation, all along,” he explained, “is to make a difference in how students see education, not only as a degree but as a means of changing lives.” In 2010, he set his focus on Africa as well as Morocco, and to date has cooperative programs with universities in Burkina Faso, Gabon, Ivory Coast, Algeria, Senegal, and Russia, and agreements to move forward with Saudi Arabia and Dubai.

AUL-USA, the parent institution, is licensed by the Florida Commission for Independent Education (CIE)/FLDOE) and Accredited in Morocco by “ACBSP” Accreditation Council of Business Schools and Programs (under the auspices of the Council of Higher Education and Accreditation, CHEA). This year, he is the chair of the events committee of CHEA and will be hosting their annual conference at the Rabat campus.

What drives the instructional program is a commitment to upgrading the scientific, technical, business, and innovation climate in Morocco, focusing on Bachelor and Master of Science degrees in Business, and Small Business and Entrepreneurship, and a Doctorate of Business Administration. His ultimate goal, through a newly formed AUL Morocco Foundation, is to create a Knowledge City in Bouznika, between Rabat and Casablanca, as an epicenter for 20-30 international universities to share a common campus and offer highly specialized courses in English that are unavailable anywhere else in the country, focusing on research, business, innovation, and entrepreneurship.

An American Marocophile, Elisabeth Myers, who serves as a strategic advisor to AULM, became committed to Dr. Lahlou and his mission after attending a retreat with his faculty in Rabat this year. She saw their remarkable commitment; and she became convinced that what Dr. Lahlou is doing is “just what Morocco needs at this critical time of rapid growth.” She told me that his “vision is extraordinary. He is offering the substantive courses in business with the more important underlay of leadership. AUL Morocco is changing the mentality of students, one at a time, to embrace the efficient, the effective, the proactive, the reliable—plus all the other qualities of leadership necessary to move the country forward to excel in the global marketplace of the 21st century.”

Elisabeth believes that the Foundation and the Knowledge City will “magnify exponentially what is possible for students at AUL, provide the resources to promote technological innovation and entrepreneurship, and significantly contribute to Morocco’s economy.”

When asked what was most important to him in the next five years, Dr. Lahlou spoke about the need to aggressively involve expatriate Moroccans in AULM’s programs. Because of their language capabilities, training in Western practices, and commitment to practical scholarship, he believes that they can make a significant contribution to the country. To that end, he is holding an international conference June 3-4 at the Rabat campus to help private universities in Morocco refine their offerings to reflect best practices to improve education in the country.

Dr. Lahlou’s list of best practices includes instructional technologies, program designs, interactive engagement models, and public-private partnerships for designing courses, in order to make private schools better contributors to economic development. Dr. Lahlou feels strongly that expatriate Moroccan education professionals can play a key role in encouraging educational institutions in Morocco to gain insights into options for upgrading their offerings. To do so will require a significant investment in improving teaching and faculties at all levels, especially in English-language instruction.

It is timely that AULM’s view of major changes to enable Morocco’s education system to produce qualified human resources is gaining momentum as the country is rapidly expanding its technology and new business sectors. Dr. Lahlou’s vision, however, can only be realized, he believes, if all are given the chance to learn. He hopes that securing support for the AULM Foundation and its commitment to broad scholarship support for its students will mark a turning point for Moroccan education into the 21st century.