Opening Ceremony of the Tunisia Investment Forum

Jose W. Fernandez
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Economic, Energy and Business Affairs
Tunis, Tunisia
June 16, 2011

Mr. Prime Minister and other honored guests. Good afternoon. I am glad to be back in Tunisia. I am also honored to be speaking to all of you at the opening event of the Tunisia Investment Forum – the first international economic event in the post-revolution era. Tunisia is officially open for business.

We have seen the Arab Spring take flight, but now we must help the Arab Spring take root. The United States is working to ensure the revolution delivers on its promise, and we stand ready to support Tunisia as it liberalizes not only its political system, but its economy as well.

A fair and inclusive economy is one where people can provide for their families with dignity; where a fear of failure is not a binding constraint for a budding entrepreneur; where the formal sector is hospitable, not hostile; and where a young generation can utilize the passion and determination that lights the flames of change to create a prosperous economy for all Tunisians.

Tunisian poet Aboul Qacem Al-Shabbi captured this spirit when he said: “When the people choose to live by life’s will, fate can do nothing but give in.” As President Obama articulated, the United States strongly supports political and economic change in Tunisia and throughout the region in order to meet the people’s legitimate aspirations.

This includes support in attracting the investment Tunisia needs and supporting strong private-sector development. Our hope is to be a partner to Tunisia on the path to sustainable and equitable growth, supported by a thriving private sector and an open and transparent regulatory environment.

Our co-signature to the Deauville declaration that followed the recent G8 summit, which includes a commitment “to launch an enduring partnership” with Tunisia, is an important indicator of the United States’ interest in “developing the rule of law and citizen engagement, as well as fostering economic and social reforms to meet the aspirations of the Tunisian people.”

The July meeting of finance officials from the G8, Tunisia, and Egypt will be key to establishing a clear set of goals and deliverables. We have pledged our support, both in Tunis and in Washington, to work inclusively and collaboratively to make this partnership a success.

The United States supports not only transitions to democracy, but transitions to economic principles that promote democratic growth, which can provide more opportunities for all the people, particularly the young people in the region.

In addition to our support through the G8 and multilateral fora, the United States is working bilaterally to directly support Tunisia’s transition.

We are supporting job creation through academic exchange, cultivation of entrepreneurship and innovation, skills training for youth, and support for institutional reforms that will encourage investment and growth. Our support will directly assist young Tunisians as they seek to transform themselves from job seekers to job creators.

Another important way that the United States is partnering with Tunisia is through direct private sector investment in Tunisia’s economy. One major initiative, recently announced by Secretary Clinton, is a $2 billion fund through the U.S. Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC) to catalyze private sector investment and provide access to credit for business financing in the Middle East and North Africa, including Tunisia.

The fund will prioritize support for small- and medium-sized enterprises across a variety of sectors.

Tunisia’s economic future will also depend in part on policy reforms to improve the business climate, and on bilateral agreements with key economic partners, including the United States. The United States stands ready to strengthen transportation ties with Tunisia through an Open Skies agreement; to promote franchising – a growing field in Tunisia and a promising direction for partnership with the U.S. private sector; and to reinvigorate the U.S. trade and investment framework agreement, which can be used in multiple ways to advance discussions between our governments on trade and investment issues.

We remain interested in Tunisian suggestions on how we might work together to improve Tunisia’s business climate and help generate the domestic resources needed to help Tunisia self-finance private sector development.

For example, our new domestic finance for development, “DF4D,” pairs with like- minded partners to explore how countries can better mobilize domestic resources, improve transparency, and mitigate corruption – all of which are key to more transparent and accountable political and economic governance. I was pleased to see in the Jasmine Plan that the Tunisian government has a similar view, and has made “better governance,” including transparency, the first pillar of its “Jasmine Plan” for socio-economic development.

Entrepreneurship represents another promising way to expand economic opportunity and create jobs for youth in Tunisia. As the business community in the audience would say, entrepreneurs are the engines of economic growth and job creation and the champions of change. They are individuals who take an innovative idea and transform it into a product or service, or develop a new process or production method themselves. The talent and skill of Tunisian youth are among the country’s greatest natural resources. Many young people in Tunisia would be willing to take risks to create new jobs through start-up businesses if shown the way and offered the chance to succeed.

In recognition of the importance of entrepreneurship for job creation, the Obama administration made a commitment to tap American expertise to develop opportunities and spur interest in entrepreneurship around the world, including in Tunisia. To galvanize this effort, President Obama held a Presidential Summit on Entrepreneurship in April 2010.

As part of this push, the U.S. government has made the Maghreb region a priority for its entrepreneurship and job creation efforts. In December 2010, just before the historic events in Tunisia, I led a delegation of senior U.S. officials and American entrepreneurs to Algiers to participate in the inaugural U.S. – Maghreb Entrepreneurship Conference.

There we launched the U.S.-North Africa Partnership for Economic Opportunity, or NAPEO, focused on the countries of Tunisia, Morocco, Algeria, Libya and Mauritania, as part of Secretary Clinton’s flagship initiative Partners for a New Beginning. Through NAPEO, we aim to build a network that increases people-to-people exchanges between entrepreneurs in the United States and the Maghreb, encourages start-up businesses, and inspires youth and entrepreneurs to play a significant role in job creation.

I am pleased to announce that the U.S.-North Africa Partnership for Economic Opportunity is taking root in Tunisia. Yesterday, along with our private partner, the Aspen Institute, we launched a local NAPEO advisory board in Tunisia composed of Tunisian businesses, universities, investors, youth, and local CEOs of American companies such as Microsoft and Cisco. This mechanism for local ownership and participation is important because it helps to ensure that the work is driven by a broad array of leaders and voices in Tunisia.

Under the auspices of NAPEO, we will lead in the upcoming months a delegation of U.S. technology entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, and other investors that will offer mentoring to young Tunisian entrepreneurs and sponsor a business plan competition – the Tunisia Start-Up Initiative – which will connect them to Tunisian Diaspora investors in Silicon Valley on an annual basis. This will be an opportunity to showcase the rising stars among Tunisian innovators and entrepreneurs. 

Public-private partnerships will be a key ingredient in our commitment to Tunisia’s success. We will depend upon business leaders like you to be our partners to ensure that these are the right initiatives and that they bear fruit.

Finally, I want to acknowledge the ongoing conflict in Libya, which has had a catastrophic effect on the people of Libya and the security, livelihood and economic success of Libya’s neighbors. We are grateful for the hospitality, humanity and kindness that the Tunisian people have shown to the Libyan people in their time of need. To help mitigate the impact of the Libyan crisis on Tunisia and Libya’s other neighbors, the United States has provided over $50 million in humanitarian support to the international organizations that facilitate evacuation and repatriation, and support refugee camps upon which Libyan refugees and conflict victims rely. But we know that your costs are much greater. We admire your generosity. We join Tunisia in seeking a rapid end to this conflict which recognizes the will of the Libyan people, respects their human rights and lays the groundwork for real and lasting political reform.