When I arrived in Tunis almost a year ago, one of my colleagues at the World Bank office tried to explain to me how the rules in effect had made it impossible to export high-quality olive oil. I found it difficult to understand what she was saying, as it seemed to me that the export of high value-added products should be a major goal for the country. However, to date, the problem persists ...
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Watching party activists pass out election leaflets in Bizerte on Labor Day gave me the first tangible feel that local elections were coming, in an otherwise quite understated campaign. While some may feel disappointed about the relatively low-key process, and even more so with voter turnout, sometimes ‘understated’ is also a good thing: the sense that local elections in Tunisia, the first one since 2011, can be a ‘normal’ political occurrence in a context where democracy is evolving.
Continuing the dialogue and peer-to-peer exchange on the benefits and challenges to fiscal transparency is essential to sustaining the momentum for reform. The time for action is now — the Arab world has a chance to go from lagging to leading on fiscal transparency.
Having spent much of my working life working with and in countries in transition, it remains painful to watch the disillusionment that so often strikes people that had the courage to change a bad political situation, but then are forced to live through economic hardship. It is those that chose change that seem always to suffer most. But one source of hope is that, fortunately, this hasn’t stopped people from trying. This was true for Southern Europe in the late 1970s (though I was still in school at the time), Central and East European countries in the 1990s, several African countries in the 2000s and, as history has a knack for repeating itself, Tunisia today.
I had the privilege recently to spend an unscheduled hour of discussion with a group of young Tunisians who were visiting our offices. As often, on these occasions it is hard not to get captured by the energy and impatience of the young people in this region. It gives hope that entrepreneurial spirit is really alive and well in a country where reliable private sector services remain otherwise hard to come by, let alone public ones. If one combines the energy of youth with the message in a recent (equally energetic) speech by the Minister of Development to a large group of investors, one gets a sense that Tunisia is, indeed, looking ahead and not to the past.
Yet, as always, reality is far more complex, and often we are confronted with a much gloomier picture of a country that is perceived as, economically, turning inward. This is the case even more so now, as Tunisia is coming under immense pressure to get its public finances in order. This has generated some decisions that go right against the message of openness and dynamism that one gets when meeting with young Tunisians. It all begs the question, for a newcomer like myself, which of the parallel universes is the real one, and, as in a movie, which one ultimately will prevail.
Despite a difficult context of political transition and acute economic crisis, post-2011 Tunisia boldly laid the foundations for social dialogue. It allowed the government and key social actors to achieve a consensus on the country’s strategic direction. The 2013 Social Contract addressed the crucial challenge of social inclusion, with the need to target subsidies more effectively to make room in the budget for social investments. This included improving the targeting and coverage of the social safety net program – the Program for Needy Families-PNAFEN. In addition, for the first time, the government’s 2016-20 Five-Year Plan makes inclusion a strategic priority and lays out a vision for building a minimum social protection floor for all.
Those of you who have visited Dubai in recent years may relate to what I am going to say: Dubai is in the middle of the desert, and its land, not that long ago, was really worth nothing. Now it is one of the most vibrant international cities in the world. All this happened in a relatively short time span.
The time needed to acquire a permit to market medicines in Tunisia has been significantly reduced from 2 to 3 years to under 9 months. This was achieved between the years 2014 and 2017, and is especially remarkable considering the difficult political context in Tunisia and in its different industrial sectors. This administrative reform, along with many others, was the result of public-private dialogues (PPD) launched in January 2014 in various sectors. As a sign of the importance placed on the process, it survives despite five recent changes of government in Tunisia.
Education in Tunisia was one of the pillars of post-independence state, with efforts by Habib Bourguiba and successive governments focused on modernizing the system, and ensuring universal access to education by making it free and compulsory.
Like many other countries around the world, Tunisia knows that the creation of knowledge requires a network of institutions of higher education and scientific research that are capable of engaging minds, exploring the unknown and then disseminating the knowledge that is thus created.