This month, the US-Lebanon Partnership Fund will launch its new e-portal, which aims to promote trade between the Unites States and Lebanon through business matching, enhancing the e-commerce capabilities of local firms and disseminating sector-specific information. The partnership—which was initiated by the White House and a group of American business leaders last September—announced its five ‘work streams’ supporting economic growth in Lebanon at the Paris III donor conference in January.
Although its goals are ambitious, the exceptional caliber of the partners involved adds credibility to the project. The partnership was founded by Craig Barrett, chairman of the Intel Corporation; John Chambers, chairman and CEO of Cisco Systems; Yousif Ghafari, chairman of GHAFARI, Inc.; and Dr. Ray Irani, chairman, president and CEO of Occidental Petroleum; Microsoft CEO Steve Ballner recently joined the partnership as well. According to the partnership website, the project is founded on the idea that, “a stable and secure Lebanon has the potential to become an anchor of stability in the Middle East. And Lebanon’s fundamental characteristics—a skilled workforce, entrepreneurial spirit and commitment to democracy—give us hope that, with support from American citizens and businesses, Lebanon can become this anchor.”
Furthermore, as Intel’s Barrett adds, “Lebanon will only be rebuilt through actions improving the educational and economic infrastructure.”
The five work streams include crisis relief and response, information communication technology (ICT) infrastructure, workforce training, private sector revival and connected government.
The first work stream, crisis relief, joins global efforts in the wake of last summer’s war with Israel. It primarily addresses the needs for housing, schooling, and adequate nutrition, working hand in hand with various NGOs such as Habitat for Humanity, UNICEF, Mercy Corps and American Near East Refugee Aid.
The second work stream promotes innovation, investment and development of ICT infrastructure by assisting the Lebanese Telecommunications Regulatory Authority. “The partnership hopes to contribute in developing the 21st century telecom sector, as studies show that countries with proper IT structures benefit the most from an economic standpoint,” explained an American embassy official. An international gateway and internet exchange point are also scheduled to launch in the month of March. The endeavor, supported by the American Chamber of Commerce, provides a networking and communication platform for American and Lebanese businesses. In addition, it may include the donation of equipment, training and consulting services. “The goal of the portal is to establish commercial dialogue, highlight opportunities in Lebanon and facilitate business partnerships in a result-driven manner. Technical assistance through online resources and seminars will also be offered,” says Aram Zamgochian, project director at the partnership. Phillip Farah, a partner at Cisco, underscores the increased visibility in the US markets offered by the portal to Lebanese companies, which will drive the demand side of the equation.
Tapping Lebanon’s human resources
The third work stream, workforce training, taps directly into the country’s rich human resource pool. 500 Lebanese interns will be placed in Lebanon and the United States over the next three years, with Cisco alone committing to host 100. “The internship aims to significantly improve skills and marketability of candidates and will be either held locally over an 11 month time period, or for 6 months in the States. Candidates will be encouraged to return to Lebanon at the end of the training,” explains Georges Akiki, Cisco’s program manager for the partnership. The company has also pledged to double the number of its networking academies in Lebanon, increasing from 21 to 43.
Private sector revival—certainly the boldest work stream—seeks to create jobs and push Lebanon into the gleaming waters of the 21st century global economy. “The secret of American productivity resides in the ease of doing business, which contributes to our high employment rates. This model needs to be urgently reproduced in Lebanon, where unemployment rates amount to 30 or 40 % in some regions,” reports the embassy official. Through the portal, global companies can reach out to Lebanese businesses by initiating joint ventures, capital injection, co-branding, R&D partnerships and licensing agreements. Six key industries have been identified as priority areas, including technology, tourism—with a focus on eco- and heritage tourism—banking and finance and agribusiness; developing essentially niche markets within sectors such as health care and manufacturing is also on the agenda, with 120 projects already under discussion. “We feel that the business-matching approach is more suitable than any other and can generate a self-perpetuating momentum. We realized that companies are more easily mobilized when they work on specific projects. They can also choose to directly invest in local funds, namely the Bader equity fund or the recent BEI and Byblos fund. Our goal is to set up an ongoing process that can deliver significant value over the years,” says Farah.
According to Mohamad Chattah, an advisor to Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Seniora, the last work stream—dubbed “connected government”—is still in its nascent stage. “The partnership will enable intra and extra online communications with the government, facilitate access to public e-services as well as the creation of a connected community,” adds Akiki.
Finally, the partnership will be teaming up with Overseas Private Investment Corporation and the Near East Consulting Group, as well as key Lebanese organizations such as Kafalat, IDAL and the AmCham. “Through the efforts of this partnership, we can make a meaningful contribution to help position the country for leadership in the future,” emphasizes Chambers. “The time to act is now.”
For further information, visit the partnership website: www.lebanonpartnership.org