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Tunisia: Do local governments hold the key to a new social contract?

Christine Petré's picture
Also available in: Français | العربية
It’s a simple drain, made of tiles, running down the middle of the street. There is nothing especially dramatic about the drain, but looks can be deceiving. It is in fact a sign of the changing relationship between local municipalities in Tunisia and their residents.
 
Douar Hicher, one of Tunisia’s larger suburbs, suffered years of neglect. Trash went uncollected, and the area was prone to flooding. Under the highly centralized political system of the past, any government authority with the power to effect change was far away in a government building in the city centre.
 
There was no one to complain to locally, and no one that had the budget to do anything about it if you did. That is now changing.    
 
The new constitution inaugurated in 2014 has a specific provision for decentralization, to be achieved by empowering local governments. The drain in Douar Hicher is a first step on the long road to implementing that provision.
 
To support the decentralization process, the Tunisian Government sought the assistance of the Bank to create the Urban Development and Local Governance Program (UDLGP), the first Program for Results funded by the Bank in Tunisia (PforR).  The Program conditions instalments upon completion of a set of defined and agreed goals.
 
One of the first goals of the project was to support the redesign of the way in which funds are distributed from the centre to municipalities. The aim is to give municipalities more control over their budgets.
 
In order to receive their funds, municipalities must meet minimum conditions, with an innovative participatory approach involving the local residents to decide what projects to launch. . Citizens finally have a place to air their complaints, with local authorities motivated to listen to them and act up their grievances.
 
As of April 2016, 243 local governments had met the minimum conditions to be eligible for the Program subsidies, a total of US$18 million in grants had been distributed. As for Douar Hicher, rehabilitation work has begun in two of its oldest and most densely populated neighbourhoods, Cité Essaada and Cité Ali Zouawi, where infrastructure is in desperate need of repair. Drainage was also a problem that everyone agreed on, and local authorities have taken action.
 
“Decentralization can contribute to improving the relationship between citizens and local government,” said lawyer Naim Tayechi who has been acting mayor of Douar Hicher since 2013. But he is also aware that overcoming an ingrained mistrust of government after years of neglect will be a long process.
 
While everyone is talking about the new drains, the garbage situation remains a wide-spread concern. “The trash can stay outside for days,” said 46-year-old Zakia Hammami. She is especially concerned about the health risk to her kids, playing out on the streets. “The municipality doesn’t have enough means to tackle it,” she added.
 
Regaining the trust of young people in particular, who played a prominent role in Tunisia’s revolution, will be a challenge. Twenty-year-old Rawaa Nasri is not convinced that politicians put the interests of citizens first. “When they begin improving the conditions for people, especially in populated areas like here in Douar Hicher, then, and only then, will they receive my trust,” she said.
 
Nasri would like to see improvements such as the establishment of green spaces in Douar Hicher. “Like a park, or a playground for the kids, or a football field,” she added.
 
The acting mayor, Naim Tayachi, is not surprised by these sentiments. “Politicians on TV are not always addressing the issues that matter to ordinary Tunisians,” he explained. Naim believes that bringing government and citizens closer together is key to rebuilding trust. By empowering local governments, that process has begun.  
 
Naim would like to see even more citizen involvement in local legislator’s initiatives. It will provide the kinds of check and balances that prevent corruption and ensure that local government is responding to citizen needs.
 
He is also concerned with engaging young people. Naim has lots of ideas, such as establishing a youth quota for the local government, or a youth board that works closely with the area’s young people and represent their concern.
 
Like the process of decentralization, he knows it will take time, but the first is figuring out how to involve young people in the working of the local municipality. “Maybe then, little by little, they will become engaged and we will build a new relationship,” said Naim.  

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