29 September 2012
At the lobby of one of Libya’s historic hotels sits Ahlam Ben Taboon, a young Libyan activist, with a group of young journalists and friends – once revolutionaries. Eloquent and energetic, Ahlam works with Foundation for the Future, a human rights NGO, and is also the Vice President of the country’s main civil society association. In both roles, she is involved in capacity building programs on issues ranging from media to elections training. I met up with her to discuss the feasibility of starting a different kind of partnership in Libya – one aimed at driving economic growth and job creation. Partners for a New Beginning (PNB) is a public-private partnership which aims to bring innovation, entrepreneurship, education and capacity building programs to countries in the Middle East and North Africa. “It’s a dream come true,” Ahlam says, “but we have to put our selfish interests aside to make it happen.”
Ahlam’s early days in college were far from typical. At an international law course she took as a Political Science and Economics major in what was then known as Nasser University – which then-President Muammar Qaddafi named after former Egyptian President Gamal Abdul Nasser – the curricula were state-dictated. This was at the peak of pan-Arabism in the region, and Qaddafi sought to remodel Libya after the socialist, pan-Arab ideology. At Nasser University, Ahlam and her colleagues studied Muammar Qaddafi’s Green Book. Curious as to how Qaddafi’s rules were held in international jurisdiction, Ahlam once ventured to ask her professor. Within a few hours, she was dismissed from college and made to sign a paper stating that she, “in her full mental capacity,” chose to willingly quit school. A few years later came the revolution.
Though Ahlam’s story is uniquely her own, she is part of a larger trend. Nearly half of Libya’s 6 million inhabitants are under 25 years of age. Not surprisingly, nearly a quarter of Libya’s population is in school. With limited access to quality education and no teaching of foreign languages, Libya’s youth lament the time wasted under the previous regime. Yet they are hopeful that the new Libya offers opportunities to get an education, find a job, and start a meaningful life.
Indeed, those objectives are at the heart of PNB, an initiative housed at the Aspen Institute and chaired by Madeleine Albright, Chair of the Albright Stonebridge Group, and co-chaired by Muhtar Kent of The Coca-Cola Company and Walter Issacson of the Aspen Institute. In each country where this public-private initiative operates, PNB forms local boards of business and civil society leaders and invites them to put together a strategic plan with priorities and projects to enhance economic opportunity and education. PNB then matches them with partners in the U.S. who can help them implement the projects.
Among the upcoming projects in Libya is an education reform effort, led by the Aspen Institute, in collaboration with the U.S. government and American colleges and universities. The delegates will visit Tripoli and Benghazi in order to explore ways they can support the country’s education sector. From English-language teaching to developing business and nursing schools, the delegation aims to create sustainable partnerships between educational institutions in Libya and the U.S. These programs will be among the first local efforts to integrate Libya in the global knowledge economy.
While the Education Ministry has already taken initial steps to purge the curriculum of Qaddafi’s ideology, replacing it will be a monumental task. It takes consolidating the efforts and resources of both the public and the private sector to truly revolutionize Libya’s educational sector – key to self-empowerment and to buildings skills and diversifying the economy away from oil dependence. PNB is also looking to support entrepreneurship programs in order to help the youth start new companies, thus addressing the problem of unemployment and helping build the country’s nascent private sector.
In a similar effort across North Africa, PNB’s North Africa Partnership for Economic Opportunity (PNB – NAPEO) took a higher education delegation to Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria. As a result, Wayne State University has begun conversations to partner with Tunis Business School in order to support its smart center to provide business resources and mentorship for young entrepreneurs.
In Tripoli, there are barely any traces of Qaddafi left. His compounds have been leveled to the ground; buildings and streets now sport names affiliated with the February 17th revolution, or the country’s independence. Nasser University is now Tripoli University; its Administration is working to reform the curriculum and shuffle its faculty. Graffiti on the city’s walls bear witness to the four decades of agony that the people here endured. The Libyans today are longing to come out, meet the world, learn new languages, start their own businesses and connect to a globalized world. And they know they need partners to do it. Thus the need and opportunity for a real beginning in Libya, and another between Libya and the world.
Maysam Ali is Associate Director of Middle East Programs at the Aspen Institute. She manages the Jordan and Libya portfolios under Partners for a New Beginning, a public-private partnership aimed at enhancing economic opportunity in eleven countries across the Middle East, North Africa, South Asia and Southeast Asia.