MENA-OECD Women Business Leaders Forum and Business Forum


Opening Remarks by Angel Gurría, OECD Secretary-General
Cairo, 27 November 2007

Your Royal Highnesses, Your Excellencies, Minister Mohieldin, Minister Bonino, Madame Foning, Mr/Mrs …
Ladies and Gentlemen:

It is a great pleasure to be in this magnificent city, to launch the second MENA-OECD Women’s Business Leaders and Business Forum, in the presence of such an impressive audience. I want to thank the Ministry of Investment of Egypt for its enthusiastic and efficient contribution in the organisation of this event. I see that our agenda for today is a rich one, with the discussions in the morning focusing on ways to improve women’s participation in MENA economies, and in the afternoon, on the role of private sector in investment climate reforms.

Let me begin by saying a few words on the economic progress of the MENA region and the key challenge and immense opportunities of increasing the role of women in economic activity.In recent years, the MENA countries have made remarkable economic progress. The regional economy has been growing at a solid 5 per cent (annual average) since 2001. 

Foreign direct investment flows to the region more than quadrupled during the past three years,  while exports have expanded spectacularly, driving the regional current account surplus to a record 270 billion dollars in 2006.  As a result, the region’s unemployment rate fell from 14.3 per cent to 10.8 per cent between 2000 and 2005.  

Most of the countries of the region have made important efforts to liberalise their economies and to foster competitiveness. The MENA-OECD Initiative for Good Governance and Investment for Development is working with the region to underpin these efforts and to improve its image as an attractive investment location. Since 2005, the investment pillar of the Programme has conducted an assessment of the regulatory environment and identifying key challenges in areas like investment policy, private sector development, taxation, financial sector development, corporate governance and women’s entrepreneurship.

I am glad to report that the Investment Programme has been achieving important results. Most MENA governments have now developed National Investment Reform Agendas, with concrete measurable targets. The recently created MENA-OECD Enterprise Financing Network is helping to improve regulatory conditions for financing entrepreneurship. The first Regional Centres for promoting best practices and improving business climate are already operating in several countries. We are developing an active network of policy-makers from the OECD and MENA countries, fostering the constant exchange of policy experiences.

These are all important achievements. But this is just the beginning. In the coming years, I propose to all of you to strengthen our co operation on investment climate reforms.

As in OECD countries, advancing structural reforms with wide political and social support is a highly difficult task. But it is crucial to achieve vigorous economic growth to meet the region’s employment needs. It is in our best interest to invest in young people and to build an atmosphere of innovation and entrepreneurship. This will contribute to creating a larger and more skilled workforce.

Most of the countries of the region have the potential to achieve a vigorous economic expansion. But this will depend on their capacity to release one of the region’s most important engines of economic development: the active participation in economic activities of business leaders, women and men.

No country can achieve long term growth without the active participation of women in economic life. No country can raise the standard of living of its people without the contribution of half its population. The experience of the OECD shows that women are fundamental agents of economic growth and development.

In several of our member countries the small and medium enterprises owned by women are growing at a faster pace than the economy as a whole.  In the United States, Ireland and Spain, women are beginning new businesses at a faster rate than men and are expanding their share of business ownership.

It is no wonder that by some estimates, the increase in female employment in the developed world has been the main driving force of growth in the past several decades; more than China, India or the Internet. 

The MENA countries are making progress in this area. The rate of participation of women in the labour force has grown at a remarkable speed in recent decades. Most MENA countries have considerably improved the status of women, as a result of larger public spending on health and education. With these investments, the life expectancy of women in MENA countries has increased. At the same time, women’s aspirations to contribute to economic growth have expanded and their ability to earn incomes improved.

However, their participation in the labor force is still one of the lowest in the world, at around 28%) with rates as low as 11 per cent in West Bank Gaza and 15 per cent in Saudi Arabia.  Some obstacles that hinder this participation include: employer gender preferences; the scarcity of jobs in general; and wage discrimination between genders. Laws that restrict women’s freedom to work, travel or borrow from financial institutions have an adverse impact on women’s entrepreneurship. Lack of adequate childcare facilities also hinder the women’s possibility to work.

As long as the levels of female participation in the labour force remain low, the region will not be reaping the full benefits of the investment it has made in all areas that improve their living conditions.

The development of the private sector as a whole is a vital factor for growth in MENA countries. While investment climate reforms are being implemented and investment flows are surging in the region, it is crucial to leverage the benefits of these flows. The role of business organisations and investment promotion agencies is an important one in helping to support the integration of foreign direct investment into the host country.

Business associations not only represent the interests of the private sector, but they are important catalysts for change in economic policies. They can play an important role in the region. First, by creating a functional network and providing various services and facilities for their members. Second, as agents between private sector and governments, with the ability to affect policy design and reforms to enhance the investment climate.

I therefore welcome, as a very tangible outcome of this Forum, the business matching event organised in parallel by UNIDO, in which up to 300 companies will have an opportunity to conclude business deals. The large number of MENA and OECD business associations present today will leverage the credibility of the Business Statement which will be finalised this afternoon and presented to Ministers tomorrow.

Ladies and Gentlemen:

Like other regions of the world, the MENA countries need to draw on their best talents as they embrace a new model of economic development. This model relies less on oil revenues and the public sector, and more on diversified exports, scientific research and private investment. This depends on a dynamic pool of skilled labour.

In a highly interdependent and competitive global economy, prosperity is obtained increasingly from intellectual captital rather than from intense labour and natural resources; more from intangibles than from manufactures. Imagination, inventiveness and innovation are the new vehicles of progress. We cannot develop these qualities without the contribution of business, including young entrepreneurs. As business leaders – women and men – you hold in your hands the potential of equitable development and economic prosperity for the region as a whole.

I would like to add that the approach to today’s discussions is a very productive one. The discussion on integration of women in MENA economies should not be held behind closed doors. After all, the issues that affect women entrepreneurs, such as high capital requirements or difficulty to access credit, are relevant for everyone, but affect women unequally. The themes of the panels today are extremely relevant, and will provide feedback on our discussions to the Ministerial meeting tomorrow.

This kind of private-public dialogue is highly valued at the OECD, with the Business and Industry Advisory Committee representing the voice of the private sector in the work of the Organisation.

The OECD is eager to continue working with the MENA countries in addressing issues on today’s agenda and many others.

I wish you all an interesting and productive forum.

Thank you very much.


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