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Between October 3-4, more than 90 public officials and representatives in international trade, cooperation, and governance convened in Tunis for the MENA-OECD Forum and Ministerial Conference. Two days of back-to-back panel discussions culminated in the signing of the Tunis Declaration, a plan of action for the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) Initiative on Governance and Competitiveness for Development. After the last Ministerial Conference held in Marrakech in 2009, participating countries affirm their commitment to reforming policies for inclusive growth and economic integration for the program’s 2016-2020 mandate.

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OECD : integrating the MENA region into a global economy

According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), foreign direct investment (FDI) in the MENA region is falling, having dropped by 50% since 2008. Prescribing a “holistic approach” for competitiveness and governance, the Declaration assigns a task force of “well established structure of regional working groups and networks as well as country-specific projects” to carry out “adjustments” and “innovations” to achieve the initiative’s primary objectives: boosting trade, investment, and employment opportunities for youth.

"MENA countries need structural reforms to spur trade, investment, jobs and trust." OECD.

From “MENA countries need structural reforms to spur trade, investment, jobs and trust,” OECD.

For the Competitiveness Programme of the Initiative, a new MENA-OECD Advisory Board will guide the activities of different Working Groups, or “reform coalitions” designated to support private sector actors. A Working Group on Investment and Trade is assigned to expand “relevant OECD tools,” such as the Policy Framework for Investment and the Benchmark Definition of Foreign Direct Investment, throughout Middle East and North African countries. Another Working Group on SMEs and Entrepreneurship is to focus on the role of Small and Medium Enterprises in “inclusion, diversification and job creation for woman and youth.” A third Working Group on Corporate Governance is to focus on ways to “boost competitiveness, attract capital, develop the private sector and promote investment” while addressing issues of “corruption and cronyism.” In addition, the MENA-OECD Business Integrity Network is to advocate for “stronger, cleaner, fairer business climate” against bribery and corruption.

Under a second pillar, participating countries note the past success of the Initiative’s Governance Programme in promoting “open, inclusive, and transparent government” as well as “efficient and accountable machinery of government” and “the rule of law.” For the next phase of the program, they pledge to “strengthen leadership of the Centres of Government” and to modernize the how digitalization, water, infrastructure, regulations and controls are managed. More specifically, the Declaration commits to building “public sector integrity with a whole-of-government and whole-of-society approach” and affirms that independent institutions and parliaments will acknowledge their responsibilities in the context of Open Government agendas.

Tunisia: Open Government and opening the economy

Much like the OECD’s review of Open Government in Tunisia published last February, the Tunis Declaration holds the bar high for member countries, perhaps a reflection of the perspective that governance reforms are “not a question of will, but of means.” While Tunisia’s economic situation is dire, such an observation about the country’s leadership is at odds with the stubborn habits of a political elite which remains hard pressed to engage in dialogue and continues to crack down on peaceful social movements. Furthermore, it is the growth-centered economic diagnostic that has been used to advance negotiations for Free Trade Agreements with the European Union in spite of public opposition, and to justify increased support—most significantly in the form of hefty loans—from the international community.

In light of political and security challenges over the past five years, the OECD considers that:

This challenging situation calls for a concerted and urgent response by the MENA countries, in collaboration with the international community, to regain stability and lay the foundations for a more open economy and inclusive development model.

Inclusive growth, integration into global markets, and an emphasis on creating employment opportunities for youth have become the stock phrases of bilateral development projects and foreign aid packages which Tunisia has dutifully accepted even as its external foreign debt soars. Over the next four to five years, the country is set to receive a $2.8 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), a $5 billion package from the World Bank (WB), and $299 million loan from the African Development Bank (ADB).

Just two days after the Ministerial Conference where he presented a new EU-OECD Programme on Promoting Foreign Investment in the Mediterranean, Minister of Development Fadhel Abdelkefi left Tunis for Washington, D.C. just in time for the Annual Meeting of the Boards of Governors of the WB and the IMF. The Minister’s US visit marks the beginning of the Tunisian government’s “international roadshow” during which it will present its reform strategy, the National Development Plan, as a draw for foreign investment.