The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region faces the great challenges of social integration and economic diversification. According to an OECD report on youth in the MENA region, “young men and women in the MENA region face the highest youth unemployment levels in the world. With the share of youth (aged 15–29) exceeding 30% of the working-age population in most countries.”
The MENA region also hosts to an unprecedented number of refugees and internally displaced persons. Many lower and upper-middle income countries harbor these marginalized communities, such as Lebanon, Turkey, and Jordan. The dual challenges of economic diversification and marginalized populations create competing demands. Countries must grapple with decisions about access to labor markets and social programs for refugees, while also meeting the demands of its own citizens who may also be struggling.
Currently, there are numerous entrepreneurship and livelihood programs throughout the region, run by governments, international non-governmental organizations (INGOs), corporations, and local organizations. Incubation hubs are also flourishing. International and local organizations have invested large sums of funds into such programs. Yet, the efficacy and long-term impacts of these programs remain largely unknown.
There is growing recognition that sustainable economic solutions are needed for both marginalized communities and refugees. Consequentially, integration of these populations is also integral to have a flourishing, sustainable entrepreneurial ecosystem beneficial to communities and nations.
To look at these issues and address the challenges of developing an entrepreneurial ecosystem in the MENA region, the Hollings Center hosted a dialogue program to look at current efforts and determine the efficacy of ongoing initiatives. The dialogue was held in Amman in November 2018.
Current entrepreneurship capacity-building programs merit some criticism. Too often, the programs focus on short-term inputs and not medium- and long-term sustainability. Expectations of these programs require realistic scoping. Stakeholders and entrepreneurs should prepare for high rates of failure. But when breakthroughs do occur, advocates should highlight them prominently.
A communications gap exists between and within stakeholding sectors. The use of different standards and definitions has contributed to the patchwork approach to entrepreneurship in the region. The question of what does and does not constitute an “entrepreneurship program” and should be considered. Stakeholders should clearly define goals and expectations.
Understanding the local market is key in developing entrepreneurial ecosystems in the region. It is also the avenue with least barrier to entry and more likely to have positive impact on marginalized communities. Programs need to take this into consideration.
Barriers to economic entry in many countries of the region should be eased. Easier business registration and access to startup capital would help entrepreneurs enter the market. Participants regularly cited outdated regulations and arcane processes as the primary hindrance to entrepreneurial and job development. Foreign actors, such as international governments and INGOs, can have a major impact in improving this.
Regarding refugees and other marginalized communities, many countries face an inflection point, particularly with the Syrian crisis. Will the refugee groups be allowed to stay or not? Right now, many governments in the region dither on this question. As a result, many of these marginalized communities are excluded from the economy or forced into the informal one. Participants noted this is unsustainable.