• A hunger for change

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    ISTANBUL: Talking to young tech entrepreneurs gathered at a conference here, you hear the hunger for change that is pervasive in the Middle East. They’re frustrated and angry about the status quo, not least because they fear it has helped spawn the extremism of jihadist groups such as the Islamic State.

    “Youth in Egypt want change and they’re not going to wait for it,” says Waleed Abd El Rahman, who runs a tech business forum in Cairo. One of the start-ups he’s working with is building an app to help navigate Cairo’s notorious traffic jams; another is creating online alternatives to expensive private tutoring.

    Rahman wants to build businesses that have positive social impact, not make revolution. But he says that when he attended a tech conference called “Rise Egypt” last year, “it was like Tahrir Square all over again. It was about people who want to change the world.” Extremists feed off the gap between the rising generation and the “monotone” of the power structure, he fears.

    Rahman and five other young techies spoke at a session of the Abraaj Forum, an annual meeting sponsored by the Abraaj Group, a private-equity firm that invests in emerging markets. The members of the tech panel were drawn from a larger group of so-called “Global Shapers” assembled by the World Economic Forum.

    The panel was chaired by my friend Chris Schroeder, an investor who once ran The Washington Post’s online unit. Schroeder wrote a groundbreaking 2013 book called “Startup Rising” about young technology entrepreneurs in the Middle East, a survey that’s a welcome antidote to gloom about the future of this region.

    The young entrepreneurs represent an elite slice of their generation, and they’re hardly voices from the street. But their restlessness illustrates a desire for empowerment that is spreading throughout developing countries — where young people are suddenly connected with each other and the world through the Internet. Most of the tech entrepreneurs here seemed to see the Islamic State through that prism, even though none had any sympathy for the group’s violent extremism.

    “This is what happens when we don’t pay attention to the 99 percent,” says Olajumoke Adekeye, who runs a start-up in Abuja, Nigeria. She fears that the Islamic State is recruiting among “young people who feel disconnected from the economic progress we’re making around the world.” That recruiting pool includes young Muslims in Britain, France and other Western countries who “feel disenfranchised” there.

    “None of the structures that are supposed to work for our generation are there,” says Ling Wong, a Chinese-born tech investor based in the US. She notes that young people have big student loans, high costs for housing and little confidence that programs such as Social Security will remain solvent. The global spirit of her generation is: “We’re creating a new future because the current world seems so uncertain. We are not going to wait and see.”

    A similar impatience was expressed by Rina Onur Sirinoglu, a Turkish woman who started a gaming company called Peak Games and is now branching out into other areas of e-commerce with HemenKiralik, a vacation rental marketplace. Because Internet penetration is high in a Turkey that is racing headlong into the future, it is “open space” for entrepreneurs, she says. Sheel Tyle, a 23-year-old Indian-American venture capitalist, says he finds the same hunger for capital among start-ups he encounters, from Africa to India.

    Thomas Dermine, a young Belgian consultant, is experimenting with “social impact bonds” that could, for example, finance rehabilitation programs for ex-convicts to reduce the likelihood they will return to expensive incarceration—and then share the profits between the government and investors. When he looks at the hundreds of angry Belgian Muslims who have traveled to Syria and Iraq to fight with the Islamic State, he feels a deep frustration. “We hate this war,” he says. “It reflects our failure.”

    © 2014, The Washington Post Writers Group

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