Real regime change in Libya means new leaders and new technocrats. The international community must help train them.
In November 2011, Dr. Mahmoud Jibril, former Interim Prime Minister and chair of Libya’s National Transitional Council, opened the Harvard Arab Weekend conference on a pessimistic note: “for 42 years, Qaddafi managed to minimize the government.” Talking about the young revolutionaries, Dr. Jibril went on, “As long as those people are not in leadership positions, instability will continue in this country.”
Dr. Jibril has a point. To have a chance of a successful transition to a stable, democratic regime, and to avoid a repeat of Iraq, Libya needs capable, legitimate leaders and technocrats. Unlike Egypt or Tunisia however, Libya lacks both the higher education system and the network of institutions that allows such leaders to emerge.
This is precisely where the international community should help.
Nation building is always difficult and risky, and Libya must address structural challenges that make the task even more daunting. First, it has the largest proven oil reserves in Africa. This alone could ignite regional tensions within the country and subsequent claims of independence by alienated subgroups. In addition, the National Transitional Council is inheriting a minimal government model that revolved around semi-autonomous tribal structures, bribed by Qaddafi to maintain stability.
Holding the country together while avoiding the pitfalls of oil mismanagement and inter-tribal conflicts will require both determination and competence. At worst, Libya could become a failed state, collapsing into civil war and threatening the whole region, including fragile, transitioning neighbors like Tunisia and Sudan.
Success or failure will depend on the human capabilities available for the transition. A few people – a strong Prime Minister, a few solid ministers, a central bank governor, and some local officials – can form some embryo of a political leadership. Hopefully, they will be found among Libya’s tribal leaders, university professors, and former members of the government.
However, a thin stratum of top leaders won’t suffice. Libya has a constitution to write, sets of law to change, and trade negotiations to conduct. It will need to create new public institutions and renovate old ones, including the education and the health care systems. In short, Libya needs hundreds of talented, highly skilled technocrats. This technocratic class does not currently exist.
Aside from a few returning exiles, aspiring Libyan policy makers are not ready for the job. Libya may have thousands of college graduates, but having been raised under censorship and without access to the international media, they lack the frameworks and the reference points on which to model their future country. To make things worse, students have been trained largely in medical science and in mechanical engineering, but insufficiently in economics or political science.
Libya’s young revolutionaries need to experience what freedom of expression and freedom of speech are – in action. They need to understand firsthand what it means to protect minorities and how they can dissociate state from religion. Just like Dr. Jibril, who studied Political Science at Pittsburgh University in the 1980’s, the new generation of Libyans needs to be trained as leaders, public speakers, and negotiators. They need to learn the basics of modern economics and decision-making.
Instead of watching a tragedy unfold, the United States and the European Union could take the initiative to train Libya’s future government elite in the world’s best business and public policy graduate programs, whether in Boston, London, or Paris. In addition to the ongoing exchange programs already in place that are targeting exclusively English-speaking candidates with excellent academic credentials, there is a need for an expanded, streamlined program geared specifically to Libya’s unique circumstance of having to undergo a sudden and rapid transition.
If the United States and EU start identifying the right candidates today, Libya’s future technocrats could be sitting in the classrooms of Harvard, INSEAD, or the London School of Economics by June 2012. A condensed, three semester program could prepare them to take office by May 2013. To maximize impact, the program should be marketed widely to ensure that it reaches out to the most promising individuals, who may not have foreign education on the top of their head at the present moment.
With a total training cost of $100,000 per person – equivalent to 3 semesters worth of tuitions and stipends in the world’s best private universities – the project may seem expensive. Compared to the cost of NATO military support for the new government, however, it is a drop in the bucket. For comparison, the estimated price tag for America alone in patrolling Libyan air space in March 2011 amounted to $30 to $100 million per week, according to Lauren Thompson, COO of the think tank Lexington. That is enough to train more than 300 promising professionals. Of course, to ensure lasting results, the United Stated and the EU should commit to train 300 professional each year over the course of the next eight to ten years – the minimum time needed for the Libyan higher education system to reform itself.
As with any foreign policy initiative, there is no formal guarantee of success. The young Libyans trained in our countries might not choose to follow the path of democracy. They could also be rejected by the Libyan people. Yet evidence proves that foreign educated individuals, when the education is acquired in democratic countries, tend to promote democracy in their own country. In the present case, there is thus a chance that the young revolutionaries would apply their recently gained knowledge to build a new, democratic Libya. With so much at stake, I believe it’s a gamble worth taking.
Cassandre Pignon is a Master in Public Administration student at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. A former McKinsey consultant, she lived in Casablanca and Tunis between 2007 and 2011.
 Thompson, L., The Real Cost of U.S. in Lybia? Two Billion Dollars Per Day, Forbes, March 28 2011
 Spilimbergo, A., Democracy and Foreign Education, American Economic Review 2009