By Mustapha Tlili, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Mustapha Tlili is the founder and director of the Center for Dialogues: Islamic World – U.S. – The West at New York University, and a member of the advisory committee for Human Rights Watch’s Middle East and North Africa division. The views expressed are the writer’s own.
There is universal agreement that unemployment (in particular youth unemployment) and poverty played a significant, if not the most important, role in the Arab Spring. High levels of youth unemployment and economic problems prompted civil unrest and dissatisfaction with the government, and gave many young people the time to network and organize. Yet now, economic woes – initially a democratizing force – have turned into an obstacle for many young democracies. Solving youth unemployment will therefore be instrumental in determining the long-term success of the Arab Spring.
Tunisia, where it all started, is a good case study. No wonder that the revolution in Tunisia began in the central region of the country rather than coastal areas, where about 80 percent of the population live in much better economic conditions. These central lands are economically depressed, neglected for decades by various Tunisian governments.
Tunisians are arguably the best-educated people in North Africa, but Tunisia’s economy, especially in the inland regions, has failed to create opportunities for those with a college degree. Student exchange programs could help spark economic development in the center of Tunisia. By giving Tunisia's youth opportunities in business, rather than simply in academia, we might be able to address the economic difficulties facing that region, and it might be possible to bring business opportunities to investors outside Tunisia as well. The question then is how to design student exchange programs that would contribute to uplifting these depressed areas.
For a start, student exchange programs between Tunisia and the U.S. could be established at business schools or other university business programs in both countries. If successful, they could be adapted to other countries changed by the Arab Spring, such as Egypt and Morocco. This type of program should work both ways, with Tunisian students studying in the United States and U.S. students in Tunisia.
The selection of the exchange students from both sides would be centered on their potential for designing and carrying out an effective business project. In the U.S., the Tunisian students would learn how to run – or assist in running – a local small business back home.
The Tunisian students would work in a U.S. small business over a three month period, supplemented by classroom instruction. They would later apply the techniques learned to small businesses they would start in the Tunisian neglected regions. Preference would be given to students whose roots are in the depressed areas, as they would be more sensitive and understanding about the problems of these areas.
The U.S. exchange students selected from a business school or university business program would for their part bring their expertise to a small indigenous business in the depressed areas for a period of at least three months to ensure a genuine impact. Such an effort would demonstrate that business ambition and idealism can go hand-in-hand.
Business schools both in Tunisia and the U.S. would offer as part of the curriculum a three-month internship with corresponding credit related to this model. The U.S. business community and, in some cases, U.S. government international cooperation institutions, such as the newly established "Tunisian-American Enterprise Fund," would provide starting capital to the small business projects in the depressed areas and also fund the expenses of the exchange students, whether from Tunisia or the U.S., in cooperation with business schools.
What would be the incentives for business groups to provide support? Potentially, this would open the door to them for other, larger business deals in the country, and supporting these small projects would give them an opportunity to test the waters before entering into larger commitments. Businesses could invest in internships and small businesses to develop strategies and to discern what sort of larger investments would be worthwhile.
The benefits of such a program would be threefold. First, students would be able to develop and practice business techniques that would prove valuable in their careers, and small businesses would be given interns with the drive to improve their business. Second, the development of such activities would improve the economy of the depressed areas, and would improve the prospects for American trade relationships in the region. American interns would make valuable Tunisian connections for their future companies.
But there is also a cultural benefit to such exchange programs. By participating in the work force of a foreign country, both Tunisians and Americans would be helping to stimulate a cultural dialogue that can address a range of political, economic, and social issues facing the two nations. This dialogue would hopefully continue long after students have returned home, thus improving the prospects for peace and cooperation. Therefore, business exchange programs could be relied on as an obvious strategy to accomplish economic goals for the individual and the nation, but also as a less apparent tool for improving international cultural dialogue.
The success of this model could be measured through several factors. The evaluation of the exchange program would look at the number of long-term jobs created. It would also identify whether the model can be replicated outside of Tunisia on a pilot project basis. Also, it would look at the long-term sustainability of the business created on the basis of this model, as well as determining whether there is a decrease in the so-called brain drain – the emigration of young people from depressed areas or even Tunisia altogether. If the exchange program is well-designed.
Tunisia may be the most promising young democracy in the region, but there is universal agreement that if economic development does not take place in the coming years, the country may slide toward chaos, with dire consequences not only for Tunisia, but also for Europe and beyond.