MR. TONER: Good afternoon. It’s a great pleasure to have Assistant Secretary of State for Economic, Energy and Business Affairs, Jose Fernandez, who will discuss his just completed trip to Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, and Morocco. In Algeria, Assistant Secretary Fernandez led the U.S. delegation to the first-ever U.S.-Maghreb Entrepreneurship Conference. He also unveiled the U.S.-North Africa Partnership for Economic Opportunity, which is a public-private partnership focusing on boosting economic opportunity in the region.
Without further ado, Assistant Secretary, thank you.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY FERNANDEZ: Thank you. Good morning. Thank you, Mark. This is my first time here to brief this group and I hope there’ll be more, so thank you for coming.
What we thought we’d do is speak to you for a couple of minutes about my recent trip to the U.S.-Maghreb Entrepreneurship Conference that took place on December the 1st and 2nd in Algiers. I was there to announce a really exciting web of partnerships with the Maghreb region, which we’re calling the North Africa Partnership for Economic Opportunity, or NAPEO.
NAPEO is really the outgrowth of the new beginning laid out by President Obama in his Cairo speech in 2009, and builds on past partnership efforts that we’ve had in the Maghreb region. The basic framework of NAPEO is to strengthen dialogue, understanding, and deeper cooperation between Muslim majority countries and the United States. It was developed in conjunction with a wide range of public and private sector partners, and in collaboration with each of the five countries in the Maghreb with Algeria, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco, and Tunisia. So what I thought I’d do is give you a quick readout on the conference and then talk a little bit about NAPEO itself.
I think the basic idea that I want to get across is we thought, and I think the consensus was that the U.S.-Maghreb Entrepreneurship Conference was really successful. It was a real good conference. It was built on the accomplishments of the summit – President Obama’s summit – this past April. And what we did is we brought together a number of youth entrepreneurs and business leaders from North Africa, from the United States, from the North Africa diaspora, and we also put them together with U.S. investors as well as U.S. entrepreneurs, as well – and also government officials. We had about 350 attendees from the Maghreb region, and then we also had about 70 people and panels and speakers from the Maghreb, from the U.S., from Europe, and from the Middle East.
And the conference provided a real good chance for capacity building for budding entrepreneurs through skill training workshops and networking opportunities, and it also connected entrepreneurs. And this was wonderful to see entrepreneurs exchanging business cards and talking about business deals. And so it connected entrepreneurs with a real good delegation of representatives from U.S. companies and foundations. We had the Kauffman Foundation there, the Angel Capital Association of America, we had the School of Business at Berkeley – the Haas School of Business, Babson College. So we had a real cross-section of academics, of entrepreneurs from the U.S., capital, private equity capital types. It was a good conference. And I’ll be happy to discuss any other aspect that you’d like later on.
The second point that we wanted to just talk about is the broader point, which is part of the purpose in our co-hosting the conference was to launch NAPEO, the North Africa Partnership. And the aim of NAPEO is to try and foster increased U.S. economic engagement in the Maghreb and overall economic opportunity and trade and commerce in the region.
And it tries to do this in two ways: Number one, by encouraging startups through training and improved access to capital; and secondly, by inspiring youth and budding entrepreneurs of all ages to play a role in job creation.
NAPEO will be managed by the Aspen Institute, which will serve as the independent secretariat of NAPEO. And then we’ll have a board of advisors in each of the countries. Each of the five countries will have a board of advisors and we’ve started work on that. And then we’ll have a regional board of advisors that will serve as the umbrella organization together with the Aspen Institute.
I’m not going to go through the five pillars of NAPEO. You have a – I think you’ve got a fact sheet there. Just to give you – just the highlights, there’s a young business leaders network which is basically an online social network of entrepreneurs in the region and in the U.S. who are interested in working on the initiative. There’s an incubator. Think of it as a startup incubator for innovation and technology. And then we’ll create, together with academic institutions and with governments in the region, we’ll create a center of excellence in each of the five countries that will bring together best practices, shared knowledge, and will act as a – think of it as a small academic institution on entrepreneurship. So that’s NAPEO.
After the conference, I traveled to Tunisia, to Libya, and finally to Morocco to talk to government officials and to talk to entrepreneurs in the region and get their reaction and get their feedback to see how we could incorporate it into NAPEO. And I was really pleased to see the support that I got in the region for this new initiative from governments as well as from the private sector. During my travels in Algeria and Tunisia, in Libya and Morocco, I met with a lot of youth entrepreneurs and heard their stories and I heard their challenges. I also met with government officials in each of the four countries that I went to in the Maghreb and explained to them how this partnership would work, and it’s a partnership that incorporates the public sector in each of the countries as well. And I encourage private sector representatives to participate in this initiative.
And I can tell you without any reservations that the overall reaction was very, very positive. It was really about as good as we could have expected. And the reason was from the government’s side, officials realized that this was a way to foster private sector growth, to foster job creation, and that entrepreneurship, and that the links that it would create with U.S. entrepreneurs and entrepreneurs and private investors in the region was something that would – something that they wanted to encourage. The private sector also saw it as a way for them to try and push some of their initiatives and some of their – some of the companies that they would like to create and some of the business opportunities that they see in this part of the world, and there are many. I think there was a clear recognition that the old state-driven economies that rely on a small set of export items is not a viable model for long-term economic growth.
So in general and in summary, I found that a widespread recognition that partnerships like NAPEO will bring real and lasting positive change in the Maghreb, and the reaction was good on that. Now we have to perform, now we come to the next steps. So with that, I’ll take your questions, and I thank you very much.
QUESTION: Yes, sir. Welcome to the briefing room.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY FERNANDEZ: Thank you.
QUESTION: My question to you, this partnership, is it done independently with each one of the four country, or is it done together with all four countries? And if that is the case, how does, let’s say, the tensions between Algeria and Morocco over the Western Sahara play into this?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY FERNANDEZ: Thank you. It’s an overall partnership, and so it’s each country will have a Center of Excellence, each country will have a network, each country will have a board of advisors. But we will also seek to foster intra-Maghreb commerce. And there are a number of obstacles, one of them being the border between Morocco and Algeria, but there’s other obstacles that we need to deal with and that’s something we’ll need to address as we go forward.
QUESTION: So you don’t feel that the tensions between Morocco and Algeria can be an obstacle in –
ASSISTANT SECRETARY FERNANDEZ: I think it’s something we’ve got to deal with. But if you talk to the entrepreneurs in the region and the entrepreneurs from Algeria and from Morocco, at the conference and in other situations – because we’ve invited them, actually, to the State Department a number of times – you put them together and they start exchanging business cards, ideas, business opportunities. So I think we’re going to make it work from that point of view.
QUESTION: Thank you.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY FERNANDEZ: Thank you.
MR. TONER: Go ahead.
QUESTION: (Inaudible) from Algeria News Agency, APS. After your visit in Algeria, how do you see the future of the economic partnerships between the United States and Algeria?
My second question: In your opinion, what are the condition of the success of the NAPEO initiative? Thank you.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY FERNANDEZ: The conditions for the success of the new initiative?
QUESTION: Success of, yes.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY FERNANDEZ: I think the future of economic relations is bright. There are opportunities in Algeria and in a number of other countries. There’s great infrastructure that’s being built in all of these countries. And so I think from a general point of view, the economic opportunities are quite bright.
What are the pillars of success? Well, we’ve got to get local cooperation, local buy-in. I think we made a really good first step to achieve that by getting the private sector excited, by getting the governments really to say this is an excellent initiative, we’ll be your partner. And the point that I want to make is that this is a partnership, so it’s got to work with the private sector, with the government, with entrepreneurs. And that’s really the – that’s the key to making this work. And so far – we’re at the starting blocks, but so far I thought it went very well and we’re at a good stage right now.
QUESTION: Did you decide on the date for the next entrepreneurship summit that Turkey is going to host?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY FERNANDEZ: Not on this trip. What we did decide is that the second U.S.-Maghreb Entrepreneurship Conference will be held in Morocco. We were delighted and really very honored to have the president of CGEM, Confederation Generale Du Maroc, C-G-E-M, to invite us. And they have invited us to – and we’ve – all of us have agreed to have the second conference, entrepreneurship conference, next year in Morocco.
QUESTION: Next year?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY FERNANDEZ: Yes. And it’s – they need to fix the date. It’ll be sometime between September and December. But that’s a wonderful development.
QUESTION: Have you heard any linkage from the participants between the commerce and investments from the two parties, from the Americans and the Maghreb people or the Middle East in general, and the expectations in the Middle East of a stronger role for the United States to bring peace to the area? How much would that be very helpful and reenergizing the atmosphere and increasing the trade and commerce between the Middle East as a whole and the United States? Have you heard any comments related to this?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY FERNANDEZ: I heard a lot of comments related to a desire to have more U.S. investment, more links between entrepreneurs in the United States and in the Maghreb. There’s a real – not to exclude anybody, not to push anybody off, but there’s just a – it’s seen as a positive growth. If more U.S. companies can invest, if you can get more entrepreneurs and investors from here to go there and work with Maghreb entrepreneurs, then that’s – I’d say there’s a great desire to do that. Entrepreneurs in a number of these meetings would say, “Okay, we’re sold. What’s the next step?” So that was very encouraging.
QUESTION: I’m talking about the political aspect of – the role of the Obama Administration, the openness to the Islamic world and to the Middle East. The change that the Middle East has seen after the Bush Administration, how promising is this? What’s your observation of this?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY FERNANDEZ: At every stop I made clear that the origins of this policy was, first, the President’s 2009 speech in Cairo, followed by the Presidential Summit on Entrepreneurship that we held here in April of this year. So it’s a process. It’s something that we’re working on, and that this is one more step in implementing the directive that we’ve received from this Administration to try and deepen economic relations with Muslim-majority countries around the world.
QUESTION: Thank you.
QUESTION: How open is Libya to business from the U.S.? Are they still as distrustful as they were in the past, given the – I mean, that rapprochement we’ve had with Libya –
ASSISTANT SECRETARY FERNANDEZ: No, no. The response from Libya – again, because I was there to talk about economic issues – was very, very positive. They actually have created a Center for Entrepreneurship. They – on their own, even before we got there – said we have created an incubator, an incubator to support new companies in the technology sector, new companies in women’s entrepreneurship, “We’d like your help, and can you give us a work plan to try and put it together?”
So the response that we received – and we met with a number of high-level ministers integrally. Frankly, it was quite encouraging. It was really good. It was quite good. As I said at the beginning, overall I was – we couldn't have had a better response from the governments, including the Government of Libya.
QUESTION: So you find the same – sorry – the same level of reciprocity with Libya like you would with Tunisia and Morocco?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY FERNANDEZ: Yes, very much.
MR. TONER: Go ahead, please.
QUESTION: Regarding Morocco, in which was your visits and meetings with Moroccan officials and entrepreneurs helpful in order to further promote U.S.-Morocco trade and investments? And how would you assess in general the bilateral and economic relations with regard to the FTA which is in effect between the two countries since 2006?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY FERNANDEZ: With regards to that?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY FERNANDEZ: Okay. The FTA – I don’t have the numbers off the top of my head, but trade has increased significantly because of the FTA. They see it as one more step. Commercial relations with Morocco are good. There’s always things that we could do to improve. And they saw this as one more step to, again, try and create links, links between both private sectors and investors. So I’d say that it is one more step in a general overall framework that we’re trying to create to promote economic relations.
QUESTION: Are there more opportunities that need to be seeken – or taken?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY FERNANDEZ: I’m sure, I’m sure. And that’s part of the reason I was there. I mean, you start with entrepreneurship, you create links with business people, and then hopefully other opportunities come up. You put business people together – and it is one of the principal tenets of this initiative – you put business people together and they will create opportunities, they will create deals, they will create jobs. And that’s part of what we’re trying to do in this – with this initiative.
MR. TONER: We have time for just one more, if you have any more. Are we exhausted? Go ahead.
QUESTION: You mentioned that you met with youth entrepreneurs across the region. What kind of challenges did they voice that they face in the future of the business climate?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY FERNANDEZ: Well, I don’t have, again, the exact numbers, but one of the challenges in the Maghreb is the demographic bulge. Depending on the country, you go from 50-70 percent in the number of young people in the region. So in some places, 70 percent of the population is under 30 or under 35. That creates a need to have more jobs. And if you look at entrepreneurship, it involves small and medium enterprises which foster jobs. And so that we saw and we kept talking about it. We kept talking about entrepreneurship as a way to deal with the demographic issues that are coming in that the governments realize is there. So that’s one of the benefits. And I think we also support an organization called INJAZ, I-N-J-A-Z that promotes entrepreneurship in young people around the – in Muslim majority countries.
QUESTION: Thank you.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY FERNANDEZ: Thank you.