Third annual Arab Liberty Festival promotes role of private sector as agent of change in region

Arab Liberty Festival

The third annual Arab Liberty Festival, held from Dec. 8-9 in Rabat, Morocco, focused on promoting stable institutions that encourage entrepreneurship and rule of law throughout the Arab world. Hosted by the Arab Center for Scientific Research and Humane Studies and sponsored by Atlas Network, the Arab Liberty Festival brought together nearly 100 members of free-market think tanks and organizations from across the region.

“The aim of this conference has been to promote the role of the private sector as a strong economic player and as an agent for change in Morocco and in the Arab world,” said Kathya Berrada, research associate at the Arab Center. “We hope that the conference has been successful in conveying this idea and made participants consider the role of the private sector beyond the negative representations associated with it in this part of the world.”

Organizing on the theme of the “Role of the Private Sector,” there were three major panels, with the first discussing the role of institutions in fostering economic development, the second on business-friendly reform, and the third on public-private partnerships. The conference featured two days of interactive sessions on how the think tanks, scholars, and activists throughout the Arab world can achieve strategic reforms that improve institutions and foster prosperity.

“The Arab Spring protest revealed an economic fragility that persisted in the Arab World,” continued Berrada. “Government intervention and weak regulatory framework had jeopardized economic development in the Arab world. Today, there is a real need for reforms promoting the role of business sector and entrepreneurship. Such reforms are highly needed in countries with some of the highest unemployment rates.”

At the Arab Liberty Festival’s gala dinner, Atlas Network presented its 2017 Regional Liberty Award for the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region to the Lebanese Institute for Market Studies (LIMS) for its “Legalize Electricity in Lebanon” campaign. LIMS developed an awareness campaign about the current shortcomings of the state-run electricity sector in Lebanon and how those problems can be addressed with free-market solutions like cutting subsidies to the state-owned electricity company and allowing private electricity companies to enter the market. Though originally aiming to simply raise awareness, it created such a stir that political parties began debating the issue and the government has now committed to reducing subsidies to the state-owned electricity company. This was a project workshopped through Atlas Network’s 2016 “Unconference” program as part of the annual Liberty Forum event.

"We don’t really have market prices to drive our entrepreneurial calculations,” said Patrick Mardini, founder and president of LIMS. “In our line of work the profit comes from such as the 2017 MENA Liberty Award, an excellent indicator confirming the value of LIMS action. This award goes to a hardworking and passionate team that has benefited from the continuous support of Atlas Network."

Atlas Network’s George M. Yeager Chair for Advancing Liberty and Executive Vice President for International Programs, Dr. Tom G. Palmer, was presented with an award from the Arab Center in recognition for his work to promote liberty in the Arab world.

“Promoting liberalism is indeed not an easy task in Morocco and is even more difficult in other parts of the Arab world,” concluded Berrada. “Liberalism is often associated with foreign hegemony and interventionism. Socialism’s legacy is still lingering in some countries of the Arab world. Via its conferences, workshops and publication, the Arab Center for Scientific Research and Humane Studies is trying to diffuse another narrative. This narrative focuses on presenting more objective facts and countering an ideological message which is far from objectivity.”

The Arab Liberty Festival concluded with a pitch competition for projects developed through the Arab Center’s Averroes Academy. Now in its fourth year, the Averroes Academy is an advocacy training program created with the goal of building new capacity within civil society organizations, so that their members can more effectively advance and advocate for economic reforms in their countries. The program specifically focuses on advocating reforms and insightful ideas for change, with the aim of improving business climates, promoting entrepreneurship, and empowering a strong and competitive private sector throughout MENA and beyond.

Participants in the Averroes Academy receive a six-day training that includes lectures, workshops, and networking. Each of them identifies a key economic issue to focus on as part of a longer-term project and then spend six months working with a mentor to develop a policy paper on the issue. The program concludes with a three-day training and presentation of the completed papers at an international conference. The program trains 20 participants annually. The winners of this year’s pitch competition came from Tunisia: that group of three individuals, each representing separate civil society organizations, pitched a project to raise awareness about the root causes driving illegal immigration.