June 21, 2004 | Copley News Service

Call in the Private Sector in Iraq

My friends tell me I sound like a broken record pleading for a 21st-century Marshall Plan for Arab and Muslim countries in the Middle East and Central Asia. That's because I am passionate about doing everything we can to bring the Muslim nations of the regions into the 21st-century global economy. Not only does the health and welfare of the Muslim people depend on it, the security of the free world depends on it, as well.

Time is running out in Iraq. Continuing violence has stymied efforts at economic reconstruction. Direct foreign investment is nil. Several international aid agencies have pulled out of the country. The conventional wisdom is that little headway can be made on the economy as long as security is lacking.

I reject such linear thinking. It leaves us in a vicious cycle in which violence stalls the economy and perpetual despair and poverty breed more violence and recruit more terrorists. The cycle must be broken, and we cannot wait for pacification before we take action to generate economic growth, jobs and hope. We have to start winning hearts and minds and be seen as a liberator, not an occupier.

Easier said than done, you might say. The private sector is not putting capital to work in Iraq, and the vast majority of the $18.4 billion authorized by the U.S. Congress for Iraqi reconstruction and development is not being spent. Moreover, bureaucratic inertia and interagency rivalries have prevented the small portion of the money that has been spent from being used optimally to benefit the Iraqi people in a timely fashion.

That's why Empower America has decided to approach private companies to underwrite a computer education and training project that Iraqis can run and administer themselves if only they are given the resources. The program Empower America is organizing will train thousands of Iraqis in basic computer skills that will allow them to function in a modern office environment.

The project received enthusiastic support from the Coalition Provisional Authority early on and even gained initial CPA approvals for funding. Unfortunately, the bureaucracy cannot decide how to fund the project, so it lingers in limbo and the important goal of putting digital skills into the hands of Iraqi students and workers goes unfulfilled.

Empower America has teamed up with the ECDL Foundation (a Dublin, Ireland, based nonprofit organization) and its U.S. licensee, International Computer Driver's License-U.S., to help build a 21st-century work force in Iraq by training and certifying Iraqis in basic computer skills. We are asking firms in the United States and Europe to join with us by underwriting the training and certification of Iraqis in skills that range from the basics of how a computer works through common business and usage applications such as word processing, spreadsheets, databases and Web/e-mail use.

The Iraqi Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research has developed a program to train and certify 5,000 Iraqis during the first year as one small step toward putting this nation on the path to economic self-sufficiency. Ten training centers are ready to begin formal training in the ICDL program, which would allow Iraqis to join more than 4 million other candidates seeking this credential, hundreds of thousands of them in neighboring Middle Eastern countries.

What we are attempting is far from a panacea, but it is a beginning, a template of how future private-sector efforts can help Iraqis help themselves, even in these turbulent times. By stepping up to assist Iraq at this critical time, private firms have a golden opportunity to make an enormous contribution to Iraqi economic development and education, which will pay future dividends to the participating companies in unquantifiable goodwill when life in Iraq stabilizes and international commerce begins to flourish in the country. Call it truly enlightened capitalism.

Presently, most countries in the Middle East recognize the importance of basic computer literacy as a necessary component to the efficiency of a national work force and as an integral component toward human resource development in the 21st century. Countries including Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait have instituted national computer literacy programs and are well on their way to making computers a de facto business requirement.

As the center of IT innovation and technology, the United States has a wealth of knowledge and resources to impart upon this eager audience. Iraqis have long been regarded as quick and astute learners, given the chance to perform. Traditional U.S. secondary and higher education program partnerships have been established during the reconstruction effort through U.S. government funding, while vocational and IT training programs remain on the back burner.

While millions of dollars in computer equipment has been either donated or purchased for rebuilding Iraq, it has been accompanied with little or no IT instruction. The Iraqis have expressed urgency toward launching a national training program.

To my friends in the business community I say, be prepared: Kemp is on a mission and will come knocking at your door. I believe the business community will rise to the occasion as Americans always do when duty calls.