Returning from Amman, where we just wrapped up a conference on the future of the Arab countries in transition, I am truly energized by the optimistic spirit that I encountered. Following on the heels of my visit to Morocco, it was an extraordinary couple of days of better understanding the people and the challenges they confront in this fascinating region.
I did not start my visit to Jordan in a conference room, but at the Za’atari refugee camp. It is now home—hopefully a temporary one—to over 100,000 Syrians who fled the bloody conflict in their country. I saw firsthand how these refugees cope under extraordinarily difficult circumstances—and how Jordan, the region, and the international
community are coming together. It is heartening to see how Jordanian hospitality and determined support from UN agencies and many other aid organizations are preventing a bad situation from becoming even worse. But more help is direly needed. We at the IMF are doing our own part, by flexibly supporting Jordan with a $2.1 billion loan.
Syria is not the only issue on the minds of policymakers and societies around the Middle East and North Africa. More than three years after the beginning of political transitions, there is a debate about the region’s economic vision for the future. Here, too, we at the IMF are offering our support—not only with money and advice, but also by facilitating a discussion about these important issues across and within countries. This was the idea behind the conference which we organized together with the government of Jordan and the Arab Fund for Economic and Social Development.
A strong and shared vision
It was a unique gathering. Participants came from all countries in the region, as well as international organizations and donor countries. Within countries, attendance ran the gamut from senior policymakers to entrepreneurs, civil society organizations, academics, and youth. Indeed, the nongovernment sector made up half of the 300 some participants. Listening to their debates, I felt that I was witnessing real progress on an agenda for the future of this region.
The workshops on the first day of the conference generated a lot of great suggestions. In the spirit of giving everyone a voice, we had created a voting mechanism where all participants—from minister to youth leader could pick their top three priorities. Here are the results. Let me highlight just a few ideas that resonated with me:
- In the macroeconomic area, a clear message was that each country needs a strong and—importantly—shared vision, for that is what encourages buy-in to create jobs and raise living standards. On a more technical level, it is important to change the composition of government spending to achieve more fairness, more efficiency—and ultimately more inclusive growth. This means more schools and less subsidies that primarily help those who do not need it.
- Creating jobs, especially for the young, is key. Speakers rightly highlighted education systems that result in productive employment, labor market regulations that protect workers without unduly constraining employers, and a better business climate.
- Transparency and governance was another big theme. As a former lawyer, I liked the call to strengthen judicial systems and improve the enforcement of rules. The state needs to be accountable to its citizens—for example, by putting budget information online.
- Finally, jobs, growth, and fairness require a thriving private sector. This means improving the business climate. There is much to do to move from a system of privileged access and patronage to a system of competition. Let’s start with streamlining red tape for setting up firms, improving access to credit, and setting up less punitive insolvency frameworks.
Implementing the reform agenda
A particular highlight for me was to welcome at the conference the winners of our Arab Youth campaign—four impressive young men and women from Jordan, Yemen, Egypt, and Lebanon. It was refreshing to hear their views on how the economies in the region could embrace their generation.
So where do we go from here? Ideas are good, and the conference generated plenty of them. Now starts the hard part: implementation. We agreed that this agenda should now be taken forward for each country, taking into account the specificities of that country.
I think that there is a new recognition that governments have to scale up what they are already doing, and do so in a big way and with urgency. We at the IMF stand ready to help, with advice, technical assistance, and financing.