Obama’s Entrepreneurship Summit: Propaganda or Progress?
Well, maybe no. Not yet- but the two-day Presidential Summit on Entrepreneurship which ended yesterday at the White House is evidence of a promise fulfilled. Back last June in his much-ballyhooed speech in Cairo, Obama vowed to host a conference of prominent business people and leaders from predominantly-Muslim countries to network, discuss the region’s pressing economic problems and identify ways the US can help.
In terms of participation, the summit seemed a sure success, with attendees including Muslim rockstars of commerce like Grameen Bank-founder and microfinance-Evangelist Mohammad Yunus, Arif Naqvi, head of Arab private equity giant Abraaj Capital and Sudanese billionaire Mohammed Ibrahim, founder of mobile group, CelTel International. And as a diplomatic maneuver, it’s a smart strategy: after all, what topic could be more unifying and less-controversial than economic empowerment (aka turning a buck)? Especially when- as it is at this summit- the emphasis is on social as well as financial returns. Steering the Muslim-American dialogue to something other than terrorism, profiling, war and oil is not only a welcome change from the same old discourse, it’s an important chance to focus on the dual crisis of surging population growth and high unemployment endemic to the Middle East.
But is a feel-good confab with roundtables on vague subjects like “Promoting Entrepreneurship and Enabling Business” and “Culture of Entrepreneurship” really going to get us anything beyond a modicum of goodwill from a few economically-progressive Muslim leaders? Is it a legitimate sign of progress? Not by the history-books standard:
“In some ways Cairo is not going to be fulfilled until you get grander solutions to some of the big geopolitical problems,” said Juan Zarate, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “The president is going to be judged by his ability to move those big issues much more so than whether or not he hosts a conference at the White House,” he said.
And is the White House really the best host of an event espousing the merit of entrepreneurialism? Particularly at a time when the administration has been so publicly battling the “unchecked greed” of capitalism. As Tim Kane, a researcher at the Kauffman Foundation for Entrepreneurship noted:
To be fair and balanced, I’m not sure all of the White House folks get entrepreneurship and you get a sense some want to talk about social entrepreneurship instead. Believe me, the delegates from the Middle East noticed, and one would-be entrepereneur commented to me that, “We need help creating wealth before we start talking about giving it back.”
And how realistic is it, that these entrepreneurs will be able to launch or grow their businesses in a region that’s overwhelmingly under autocratic (real or virtual) rule? Andrew Albertson, director of the Project on Middle East Democracy, is not optimistic:
Washington does the region no favors by offering an entrepreneurship summit, one of its new initiatives, while avoiding the root problems hindering business such as political decay and corruption.
Yet despite the fluff, spin and potential futility surrounding the whole gathering, Obama should still be lauded for holding it, for these 3 reasons:
1. New businesses- and the jobs they create- are critical to the Middle East’s near-term future.
According to a recent report by the Brookings Institution, the region’s youth unemployment rate is nearly twice that of the world at large. This, despite the fact that its youth population also happens to be one of the world’s best-educated demographics. Millions of educated but jobless youths in a region where the education and health care system, infrastructure and natural resources are already strapped is a recipe for discontent. If these quasi- or outright- autocratic rulers care to keep their populace pleased, they’d be best to empower entrepreneurs.
2. Speaking of discontent…
While there is no hard-and-fast evidence that poverty breeds terrorists (or that there is any petri dish for terrorists, anywhere), there is loads of anecdotal evidence that there is a link between a country’s youth unemployment and its homegrown terrorists. Frustrated, disenfranchised young people with schooling but little opportunity to use it to better their lives is a common profile of terrorist offenders and exactly the population nonprofits like the Education for Employment Foundation try to reach. EFE’s mission is to provide supplemental vocational and technical education to young people in predominantly-Muslim countries- future entrepreneurs or their potential employees.
3. The Summit focuses on what unites us
Again with the money thing. But seriously, encouraging and enabling people all over the world to make a living, support their families and innovate is, in my opinion, a more concrete and sensible approach to pushing democracy than any “Winning hearts/mind” campaign strategy of the Bush administration. A world of billionaires would probably still not be entirely peaceful but a world where people have the agency to improve their lives might be one in which folks have one less thing to fight over.