This piece is co-written with Steven Koltai who was Senior Advisor for Entrepreneurship at the US Department of State from 2009-2011. He is a long time business executive and entrepreneur who ran a "software as a service" Internet company. He is a Guest Scholar in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution, a Fellow and Senior Advisor for the Bretton Woods II Program at New America, and author of Peace through Entrepreneurship: Investing in a Startup culture for Security and Development (Brookings Institution Press, Summer 2016).
As the new Jewish year comes upon us, we always pray for peace.
The moment of reckoning is, again, upon us. Can 2017 be the year that Israelis and Palestinians find common ground and create an ecosystem in which peace is the prevailing currency, or will, in the shadow of a new American president, the United States be simply a bystander--a passive observer-- to another period of division and hostility in a part of the world that affects our security and where prosperity could prevail. Will Syria and the wider Middle East descend this year into further chaos with terrorism and violence increasing, and immigrants in record numbers fleeing destruction? Are we destined to watch another administration in Washington grapple with a world of angry, jobless young people whose actions impact our own peace and prosperity? Or could this be a new era?
The questions are not new. But the answers might be new, if we step back and look at the tools that exist today to address a Middle East region that is teeming with young people with economic potential on the cusp of something big. Can we turn a region exploding with bombs and bullets into one full of blogs and business plans? The answer is yes. But we have to go back to basics and groom young leaders.
In the Middle East, everyone starts from a place that didn't exist before, whether it was the pre Israeli state of British Palestine, or the colonial dominated countries throughout the region or Palestinians still in search of a homeland. What we fail to focus on, however, is that the common denominator for restless souls is the deep determination to work--to have meaningful employment, to innovate, to change. We cannot abandon the need to find people, even though who have left the chaos of Syria--jobs and the possibility to innovate. Among the millions of refugees fleeing war and conflict are entrepreneurs--people with ideas and aspirations. They are everywhere in the Middle East. But they need a catalyst for change.
If we apply an economic and employment lens to the wider Middle East, there might be a way out. We have to invest again in the region with programs and projects that positively engage people. Even the Arab Spring had its start in the deep desire of people to have fair work. Remember that small fruit stand in Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia, where a single act of frustration and despair by a seller of produce ignited a firestorm. Recall Mr. Mohamed Bouazizi who set himself on fire in the streets of Tunisia to protest unfair employment practices. He came to personify the power of economic obstacles and how a lifetime of shakedowns and confiscation of goods by authorities can stifle hope of meaningful work or entrepreneurship and how governments can reverse that cycle. How one act ignites a chain reaction.
But when change happens, it has to be sustained or it withers. We need to keep the spirit of entrepreneurship alive even amidst the ruin. Early in his term, President Obama signaled the need to move beyond oil, terrorism, and traditional unrest in the Middle East with a brand new idea-- to focus on how to deepen ties between business leaders, foundations, and social entrepreneurs in the United States and Muslim communities around the world. It was not exactly the Marshall Plan for the Middle East but it was a start. What Obama seemed to understand was a key concept; namely that entrepreneurship is more than a means of building wealth. It is a powerful force for good around the world. It is a straight line from entrepreneurship to job creation, from economic growth to political stability and to a civil society. And young people are at the forefront of economic change.
But like most ideas with the potential to succeed, we need not only a vision and presidential leadership but sustainability and a cultural shift both within our own government and in the region toward entrepreneurship. We need more than one speech or even one set of summit-- to go beyond sporadic successes--delegations of business leaders going to the Middle East, an A-list of angel investors and rock star entrepreneurs paying their own way to the region, mentoring young leaders, and investing in startups. We have to create jobs--the foundation of a stable, civil society.
The lesson for this new year is that we need sustainability in our peace efforts. Absent U.S. coherence and continued focus, the governments in the region fall back to the pattern of low expectations and entrenched bureaucracy.
2017 is the year to return to our efforts at peacemaking by pushing innovation in a region that has young innovators. Today we face another critical fork in the road. A U.S. presidential election ushers in a new administration. Governments in the region are wrestling with terrorism and economic difficulties. People are on the move and more connected through technology and transportation that ever before. This could be another moment to infuse ourselves and the region with a new investment of time, energy and dollars.
We can't control nor predict what other countries do. But we can influence their choices. The United States, for all its faults, has a great tradition of pursuing freedom and prosperity for all its citizens while also standing for freedom and prosperity for others around the planet. Our foreign policy has always enlisted our military to defend what we believe is right, and our diplomats to negotiate for the welfare of Americans. It is time that we enlist entrepreneurship in the service of foreign policy and put America's best foot-forward. For the sake of the Middle East, and ourselves.
Happy New Year.