Ten Lessons from Tunisia

(6.19.2013: This post was crossposted on GBSN’s blog with minor edits)

I went to Tunis to speak at the Global Business School Network’s annual conference on using mobile tech to leverage entrepreneurship training. While I was there, I took the opportunity to learn more about the region’s startup ecosystem, ICT industry, and the government’s various economic development policies. Luckily, the conference, which was attended by heavy weights from various industries in the MENA region as well as deans of business schools from more than 30 countries, allowed me to chat with key influentials in those realms and get multidimensional perspectives. Special thanks to Prof. Zeghal from the Mediterranean School of Business (MSB)!

These are the key take-aways from my first visit to Tunisia. Feel free to leave comments- they are all work in progress!

  1. Entrepreneurship in developing countries is a NECESSITY and not a choice. In the States, we see startups as sexy, hot, and often times, a hobby taken up by the well-to-dos. However, in developing countries, mathematically, there simply aren’t enough jobs for everyone. 600 million jobs need to be created in the next 7 years to keep up with population growth[1]. Existing companies can only fill a tiny fraction of these jobs. The majority has to be CREATED. Thus in order to have livelihoods, people have to create jobs.
  2. Business schools are businesses. Many of them are struggling with how to integrate MOOCs and mobile technology in their classrooms while still keeping their core business and values intact. It’s a challenge that they are forced to face as alternative method to in-person classes and trainings become more popular.
  3. The MENA region is unique in that the more educated people are, the more likely they are to be unemployed[2]. The labor skill mismatch is a huge problem because it indicates a human capital waste. People are not put to good use and their human capital and potential are squandered.
  4. Underemployment is a bigger problem than unemployment. 8% of the world is unemployed but 19% is underemployed[3] (both numbers have risen for 2012- global unemployment rate at 9.2%). Both are serious problems in developing countries though developed countries, such as the US, have a much higher disparity between the two.
  5. Whenever we talk about increasing human capital, all governments point to increasing literacy and primary school enrollment rates. They are great news. But once the workforce is educated, the government needs to focus on bridging the gap between education and the workforce. They have fostered their nation’s most crucial resource- human capital– and now they need strategies on how to best use and allocate it. The private sector should also play a pivotal role in this dialogue, but as MENA governments employ 30-50% of the entire work force, they need to be the leader.
  6. The Arab Revolution (in Tunisia, the Jasmine Revolution), is not as liberating and open as the Western media makes it out to be. Sure, authoritarian regimes were overthrown and political freedom has been widened. But the trade-off is the ushering in of a much more Islamic government, leading to violent protests and pitting extremists against the moderate majority. Women’s rights are curtailed and religious offenses are more ubiquitous and harsher [4]. As my friend who works for Tunisiana, the leading telecommunication operator, describes it: “we’d rather want stability and security than political liberty.” This is not only happening in Tunisia but also in the entire region, such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.
  7. Religion is becoming a hot topic in this pre-revolution secular country. 98% of the population is Muslim but for a better half of a century, Tunisia was secular. Hijabs and beard were banned and Islamic extremist was brutally suppressed. But after the 2011 revolution, the ban on hijabs was overturned and extremism and conservatism is on the rise. Anecdotally, many moderate women feel intense societal pressure to dress more conservatively and be more outwardly in their faith[5]. This begs the question: is the current trend a consequence of religious freedom that we should just endure because that is freedom or should we be more selective and limiting on who to give the freedom to?
  8. Democracy is the hope but most people in developing countries also recognize that a certain degree of authoritarianism is needed in order to reach full-scale democracy. As a former student of political economy in developing markets at the University of Chicago and as someone who has traveled extensively, I’ve noticed that trend across borders and continents. This trip confirmed my belief. A senior U.S. State Department official quietly suggested South Korea, Singapore, Tunisia, and pre-1990s Cote d’Ivoire as supporting evidence.
  9. A second class of countries does exist. As Prof. Zeghal of MSB clarifies (translation from French to English), “Tunisia is not an underdeveloped country. It’s not a developed country. It is in development.” It has basic infrastructure and institutions and has fostered human capital, but what to do with all the resources? And is this the same distinction as frontier vs. emerging markets?
  10. Startup visa is not only a Western goal. It’s a universal goal. The heads of government, deans of international leading business schools, and leaders in the private sector all want immigration to be easier for entrepreneurs.

Note: while I am well versed in the ancient history of the Near East and Islam, I started this trip without knowing much about the current situation in the region. So I sound ignorant on some of the points…but we all got to start somewhere, right?


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