Author Archives: Ricky Chen

To Escape From Violence, Iraq Must Tackle Its Economic Problems As Well As ISIL


Smoke billows from a key oil refinery damaged by ISIL attacks in northern Iraq in June. Repairs are expected to take more than a year.

After months of political wrangling in Baghdad and advances made by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) – also known as IS or ISIS – the Iraqi Parliament finally approved a new, more inclusive government led by a new prime minister, Dr. Haider al-Abadi, in early September.

At a recent roundtable event with Iraqi and U.S. experts, held under the Chatham House Rule, participants expressed cautious optimism over the new government. However, in the uphill battle to confront immediate threats to the country’s security, Iraq’s economic crisis has largely been ignored.

According to one participant, the fact that the new cabinet of ministers included members of Iraq’s various minority groups, and that three leading political rivals – former Prime Ministers Nouri al-Maliki and Iyad Allawi and former parliament speaker Usama al-Nujaifi – were given posts as vice presidents, was a good sign.

Another in the room pointed to the moderate leadership of Iraq’s new Prime Minister. Dr. Abadi, who belongs to the Shi’ite Islamic Dawa party, has a reputation as a political moderate, was educated in the UK, and has served on various Iraqi parliamentary committees since 2006, including those for finance and economics. A change in political leadership at the top, the participant argued, could rebuild trust between the central government in Baghdad and Iraq’s marginalized communities. More importantly, Abadi has pledged to foster national dialogue, political reconciliation, and decentralization.

Iraq’s economic challenges – high unemployment, poverty, rising prices, and food shortages – will only contribute further to the security crisis if they are not addressed. More than 50 percent of the goods imported into Iraq – including raw materials and food – have been blocked at the only official border crossing with Jordan, which is now under the control of ISIL. Iraq’s final budget for fiscal year 2014 remains unapproved by the Iraqi Parliament, and since the economy is dominated by the public sector – the government and state-owned enterprises employ about half of Iraq’s total workforce – the lack of government spending has ground the entire economy to a halt.

At the end of the day, ordinary citizens in Iraq are bearing the brunt of economic damages caused by the regional insecurity and the political process in Baghdad.

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Now Accepting Applications for CIPE Internships

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Internships are often great stepping stones to a full-time career, which is why the Center for International Private Enterprise (CIPE) is excited to announce that we are now accepting applications for our 2014 Internship Program at our headquarters in Washington, DC. If you are passionate about supporting international development and private sector engagement in policymaking, then landing an internship at CIPE may be exactly what you are looking for.

I still remember my first internship in the summer following my high school graduation. I had the opportunity to join a human rights organization in Boston, and I was eager to see what the nine-to-five professional experience felt like. What I discovered were colleagues who were deeply passionate about their work and wholeheartedly committed to passing on their knowledge to me. And I consider myself fortunate that I had many positive internship experiences prior to graduating from college.

So what makes an internship great? I believe it boils down to this: the opportunity to gain practical skillsets, the ability to take on projects from start to finish, the availability of professional development resources, and the access to the organization’s network.

In the fall of 2014, CIPE will offer current undergraduates and recent graduates all of the above. Interns will have the opportunity to participate in career development sessions, skills-building workshops, and to attend other local professional events. You can find out more information on our website, and we highly encourage professionals to forward this opportunity to their networks.

Richard Chen is a Program Assistant for the Middle East & North Africa at CIPE.

Startup Rising: Entrepreneurship Ecosystems in the Middle East & North Africa

Jordanian entrepreneur and investor Fadi Ghandour. (Photo: 500 Startups)

Jordanian entrepreneur and investor Fadi Ghandour. (Photo: 500 Startups)

In 1981, Fadi Ghandour returned to Jordan shortly after graduating from George Washington University in Washington, DC. He took a job at a rental car company in Amman, but at twenty-two, Ghandour was restless. His family was in the airline business – his father Ali Ghandour founded Royal Jordanian in 1962 – but Fadi could not wait to let his own passion for entrepreneurship take flight. In 1982, Fadi started Aramex and offered to deliver packages in the Middle East on behalf of global courier services – Airborne Express, Emery, and Federal Express.

As a neutral handler for these competing global players, Fadi and his partner Bill Kingson learned from the very best on how to grow their company. Over the next thirty years, Aramex navigated a region marred by political risks and labyrinthine bureaucracy, and grew to become the largest and most respected courier company in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. Now, Aramex has more than 10,000 employees in over 60 countries with a reported $17.5 million in profits in the second quarter of 2012.

In his new book Startup Rising, author Christopher Shroeder describes Fadi Ghandour as “the [entrepreneurship] ecosystem builder” in the Middle East. Indeed, Fadi was a pioneer who saw opportunities in unexplored markets. Back then, there was no private equity or venture capital.

When the Internet and email were introduced, Fadi became the first to invest in the first all-Arabic portal Maktoob in the region, because “there is no wasta in the internet” – wasta being the Arabic word for the system of elite connections in politics and business that is prevalent in emerging markets such as the Middle East. Because of technological breakthroughs such as the Internet, entrepreneurs were able to commercialize their ideas before regulations caught up. In 2008, Yahoo! Bought Maktoob for $175 million.

Startup Rising is perhaps the first major portrait of the startup scene in a region that is often deeply misunderstood. It is inspiring and personal. (Shroeder, an internet entrepreneur himself, has befriended many entrepreneurs featured in this book through the Young Presidents Organization). It describes the desire of young people to have social impact through their business ventures. It also tells the story of how businesspeople have used technology, such as mobile phones, social networking websites, and solar panels, to work around cultural barriers and institutional challenges.

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Could Civic Crowdfunding Improve Governance in the Middle East?

(Photo: Twitter user csaila)

(Photo: Flickr user csaila)

Earlier this month, in an attempt to escape the heat wave afflicting Washington DC, I sought refuge on a bus awkwardly packed with well-dressed commuters. Almost all of the commuters were looking down, their palms glued to their gadgets, and their thumbs tapping into their virtual realities. I thought to myself: If only they would unplug themselves for a few minutes, pay attention to their immediate surroundings, and make room for more commuters entering the bus. What if there was an app for bus drivers to communicate with plugged-in commuters to move to the back of the bus?

Imagine a society in which citizens are as obsessed with their public spaces as they are with their smart phones. Instead of spending the five-minute bus ride going through friends’ Instagram uploads, commuters are checking the latest fundraising updates on the city’s bike-share system. Rather than liking someone’s photo on Facebook, commuters are donating $5 to a neighborhood association-backed project that renovates the sidewalks. In Kansas City, the online start-up is trying to turn this idea into a reality. is a website that employs the business model known as crowdfunding – pooling money from the public – to obtain financial support for civic projects. Kickstarter and Indiegogo first popularized the idea by allowing musicians, engineers, designers, and artists to solicit money from the public for their creative works.

On, local governments and non-profit organizations have solicited tax deductible donations to build a playground, a website to help entrepreneurs navigate the application process to start new businesses, and a free Wi-Fi network for low-income houses. Donors’ credit cards will be charged only when the fundraising goal has been reached before the end of the campaign. In return for backing a project, the donors get small perks like free T-shirts and commemorative posters.

Civic crowdfunding is an innovative way to use technology to increase the efficiency, capacity, transparency, and accountability of governance. By engaging civic-minded individuals, websites like and Citizinvestor offer governments a helping hand from the people: money, expertise, and creative energy. They also allow the public to take ownership of civic projects and monitor the progress and delivery of local officials’ promises.

A pedestrian walkway in Holland that might have taken city hall two decades to complete got off the ground in three months. In the Middle East, where citizens face low taxes but rely on the bloated public sector for food and fuel subsidies, civic crowdfunding websites can serve as innovative mechanisms for accountable governance. Imagine if the millions of politically-engaged Egyptians used crowdfunding sites to improve their neighborhoods, pressure the government to be more transparent, and monitor the delivery of public services.

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Thinking Outside the Box: Political Reality TV in Lebanon and the West Bank


As changes continue to unfold in Egypt, young activists in Cairo’s Tahrir Square are trying to translate street power into actual political capital. On July 4th, the Egyptian military met with the youth leaders of the Tamarod (Rebel) movement to lay out a political roadmap following President Morsi’s ouster. But for the youth to be politically engaged throughout this crucial period, they will need to find innovative ways to channel their passion into stable and effective participation in the normal political processes of democracy. On his brief visit to Washington, DC, an Egyptian youth activist coined the term “democratic entrepreneurship.” What he envisioned has already manifested itself in Lebanon and Palestine, where two democratic entrepreneurs came up with a brilliant idea: political reality TV shows.

Al-Za‘im (the Leader) in Lebanon and Al-Ra‘is (the President) in the West Bank are two pioneering TV programs that resemble a reality-singing competition, like American Idol, with a political twist. Whereas the participants on American Idol are aspiring singers, the contestants of Al-Za‘im and Al-Ra‘is are young aspiring politicians who must complete challenges that range from giving one-minute speeches to implementing projects at the municipal level. The judges are business celebrities, well-known journalists, and political leaders, who offer immediate feedback based on their professional experiences. At the end of the day, the audience has the power to decide who gets to move on to the next round.

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