CAIRO: At a protest in Tahrir recently, there were about 50 people chanting slogans about freedom, God and justice. Although the number of protesters eventually grew, there were initially more spectators than protestors. A handful of important-looking officers oversaw as their many subordinates loitered. Journalists scribbled notes and cameramen recorded videos.
About 100 meters down the street was a young boy selling tissues. He sat on a piece of cardboard reading a school textbook and writing in a notebook which he held above the text. He was doing his homework.
Ceteris paribus is a popular term amongst economists. It means with all other things being equal. Bearing it in mind, this boy will grow up to be the blight of the economic process. It is him, and all laborers, who restrain economic development. This is essentially the message of economists and businesspeople. They say our workers may be cheap, but they are inefficient.
But people are more than an instrument of production; they are the reason for production. The purpose of the economic process is to serve the needs of human beings. We may boost trade, we may attract foreign investment, we may buy the latest machines, but if we don t do something to make sure that the young boy selling tissues some day has a role in the economic process, it is all for nothing, not because the level of output we aspire for will not be met but because the young boy will have no livelihood.
An eight-year-old boy who studies while doing business on a cold concrete pavement cannot be blamed for the impoverishment he is destined for. Neither can his parents; one can only imagine a commendable upbringing that generates such determination. The young boy also clearly has no shortfall in his work ethic; he solemnly accepted the 50 piasters I gave him in exchange for a packet of tissues and returned immediately to his homework.
But something will happen to this boy over the next decade or so that will cause his creativity and initiative to wither. It may begin in an educational system that discourages freedom of thought. This may be augmented by a manager who refuses to devolve authority, at a company with little regard for its line staff and where docility is a safer alternative to action.
At present, the educational system is so rich with reform programs that an industry of consultants funded by donor agencies has been built around it. But without comprehensive change, citizens will be the real financiers with their lives spent by years of unfulfilled reliance on their government. And the eyes of specialists are filled with shock and sorrow at my naiveté when I suggest a comprehensive overhaul of the education system in lieu of piecemeal programs.
Meanwhile, most businesses make vague references to the inefficiency of their labor, preferring ambiguous cultural stereotypes to tangible administrative metrics when assessing their employees. They complain of the expense of training and wait idly, hoping the government will provide them with the necessary program.
And politicians join businesspeople in speaking knowingly about the skills gap and the lack of alignment between the supply and demand of labor, as if the diagnosis and solution were one and the same. They explain that education should be driven by the needs of business with few suggestions of an inclusive policy to achieve this. Some cite China s centralized approach to training as a superlative example, but this method is undermined by our limited power to predict the future of an ever-changing world economy.
In the end, the government, businesses and academics can all contribute to improving the state of the nation s workforce and the chances for its youth. The Nazif government has realized that partial solutions may provide palliatives in the short-run, economist Samir Radwan wrote in Al-Ahram Weekly in October 2004, but for the long-term, there is no alternative to the introduction of unconventional policies and innovative institutions within a coherent strategy capable of sustaining growth and creating employment.
Today, 18 months on, the Ahmed Nazif government has made reasonable progress on investment and trade, but its efforts on education and training remain disjointed and are far from the coherent strategy Radwan suggested. The one comprehensive training project, the National Fund for Vocational Training which was adopted before Nazif came to power, has ended up being ineffectual due to a standoff between the Ministry of Manpower and businesses over the latter s contributions to the fund.
As for businesses, they should match their promotion of increased private-sector participation in the economy with a demonstration of their commitment to the workforce. Good corporate citizens provide satisfying jobs; this is far more beneficial to society than any corporate social-responsibility campaign. Good corporate citizens train their employees, oversee their performance and hold them accountable.
Academia also has a role to play. In addition to macroeconomic research, scholars can examine the managerial approach of local businesses along with the impact of this approach on the productivity of workers and suggest alternatives. This would replace unhelpful conjecture regarding labor efficiency with specific administrative assessment and solutions.