The 5th Middle East and North Africa Development Forum will take place in Beirut from April 6-9. Led by Middle East and North Africa think tanks in partnership with the World Bank Group and the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), the event will be dedicated to making reform work in the MENA region. EXECUTIVE talked to World Bank representative for MDF Chantal Dejou, MDF head of Secretariat, Hana Salah and Oussama Safa General Director of the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies (LCPS), the MDF’s local partner, about the aims and expectations of the conference.
E Lebanon recently won the bid to host the 5th Middle East North Africa Development Forum (MDF). How intense was the competition?
CD: As this is the 5th edition of MDF, we as organizers have past experience. The LCPS, as a leading partner, has taken part in the dialogue and in the organization of the MDF. The competition was intense and fierce among the regional local partners, but Lebanon was chosen because we felt there was a sense of momentum and historical change in the country during 2005.
E Who are the main competitors?
OS: Well to be honest, the challenges were more with internal competition rather than external competition.
E What gave Lebanon its edge?
CD: 2005 was a good example of the dynamics that affected Lebanon. The demonstrations and the involvement of the youth in particular were of interest to the MENA region. In addition, Lebanon is a country that offers high quality services. It is cosmopolitan, has connections with the rest of the world and offers wide media coverage.
E The bidding team needed the support of the private sector. How difficult or easy was it to generate interest in the turbulent year that was 2005?
OS: It was a double edged sword. On the one hand, there was uncertainty and on the other, it demonstrated belief in Lebanon. The Lebanese private sector has proved a very high level of maturity in seizing the opportunity and the need to develop such an event in Lebanon, especially in the hard times we are going through today. None of the first batch of sponsors, and they include, and I have a list here, Banque de la Mediterranee, Byblos Bank, Bank Audi, Team Holding Group, MTC Lebanon, the Central Bank, Middle East Airlines, Blom Bank, Averda Servus and Fidus, agreed to lend their support to this event for commercial reasons. They simply wanted to show their commitment to the country in an event that conveyed to the world what Lebanon is all about. Others are following their lead. Lebanon has everything it takes to become a tiger economy, whether it is in terms of infrastructure or the human element. The private sector found in this forum the opportunity to show the region and the rest of the world Lebanon’s willingness embrace change.
E What are the aims and objectives of MDF5?
CD: In the MENA region, change is needed. But what is most important is how to make it happen. The way forward is through the empowerment of the agents of change, from the government and the Parliament. The MDF is the point of departure for fostering networks, community participation, and a process for building coalitions. One essential feature of this forum is that the MDF should be a dialogue led by the forces of change in the region itself. We also want to make sure that new types of participants, those perhaps who are not normally included in the debate, like mayors and municipality officials, are also included.
E Why specifically did you choose the theme The Political Economy of Reform?
CD: Within it are the crucial themes of governance in all its forms, private sector development to support of SMEs (small and medium enterprises), and trade reforms. We will also be addressing gender and the role of women in promoting development; the role of youth and the role of local governments and lastly the role played by NGO’s at a local level to promote project development.
E Key note speakers are an increasing must have in today’s conference circuit? Who is being courted for MDF5?
CD: We will have a high level of participants not only from government ministers, but also opinion makers from the civil society and key figures from the private sector. I do believe in the peer pressure actors in the region. Fuad Seniora, the prime minister of Lebanon has been invited to open the first session and a number of ministers across the region have been invited, as well as leading figures in the Middle East such as Amr Moussa from the Arab League.
E MDF5 offers many organizational challenges? Can you tell us something about the numbers involved – delegates etc – and who are your strategic partners in the execution of the conference?
CD: We are expecting between 500 and 600 people with a high level of guests and participants. Organization is heavy but we have a have the LCPS on our side as our conference planner; the secretariat of the MDF is posted for the MDF partners at the World Bank and that is why we are working as a team. We also have an associate partner here in Lebanon, which is the Lebanese Transparency Association. Now we are entering into the intensive phase of organizational process. Also MDF partners across the region are working on their selected themes for the past two years.
E What impact will the success of MDF have on the image of Lebanon?
OS: I cannot quantify it but I can qualify it. I think MDF5 is going to be the event of 2006.
E What is your nightmare scenario?
OS: We are optimistic, and we have chosen not to discuss this issue (laughs). Lebanon has a long history of enduring the knocks and bouncing back. It takes a lot to throw us off our stride and short of a full blown regional conflagration I cannot see the conference being postponed or cancelled. In fact last year the Arab Economic Forum was held in the wake of the Hariri assassination and we responded by dedicating the event to his name. We are confident of success. We have to be.
E What systems do you have in place to ensure the results of the studies and discussions at the forum are implemented?
OS: In fact, speaking as a partner, not just as an organizer, we and the other partners (UNDP and Lebanese Transparency Association) will be taking advantage of MDF to first build local and regional support for our follow up and plans for our research agendas. Second, we will use the impact of MDF as much as possible to disseminate and at the same time, solicit feedback on what we have done. I think this will be the beginning of new work. For us for example, we are going to work on declaring a regional network of professionals.
CD: There is one important thing in the guidelines which are agreed upon together by the MDF partners, it is that there should be an action plan and a proposal from what we have learned across the region for supporting reforms and how we are going to promote it in the years to come. It is also important to have donors to support and implement the action plans. In fact there are international actors (Italy, Spain and Sweden) that are very interested in supporting such action plans. Things that happen here will have a real impact on the future.