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Why putting money into Tunisian roads matters even more now

Vickram Cuttaree's picture
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Highway Tunis-Béja - By DrFO.Jr.Tn l Wikimedia CommonsPeople familiar with Tunisia know that the country is polarized—with really two Tunisias, one poor, the other richer. The city of Sousse, for example, is among the country’s main economic centers on the coast; Kairouan by contrast, in the Center-West region, has 15% unemployment, a poverty rate of 32% (according to 2013 figures) and has witnessed frequent demonstrations of popular frustration.

Development in Tunisia is, in fact, regionally differentiated, with the three largest cities—Tunis, Sfax and Sousse—accounting for 85% of national GDP. Most industries and services are located on the eastern, Mediterranean coast. Poverty rates are highest in the most disadvantaged regions, notably the predominantly rural western part of the country. With their economies centered on agriculture and mixed farming, the hinterland and inland areas have not benefited from economic growth in the same way as the coast has.

From Tunisia’s revolution in 2011 onwards, citizens from these underdeveloped regions have been asking for equal development—opportunities, access and inclusion. This starts with roads.

Mobility is a precondition for development. Roads in Tunisia play a vital role in the economy by accounting for virtually all movement of persons and over 80% of goods. People also rely on roads to access employment, education and health.

Regions lagging behind in development suffer from poor, unsafe road conditions and slow traffic from single-lane roads and heavy trucks carrying agricultural products and raw materials. Improving road connectivity is expected to play an important role in improving the economic situation of the poorest regions in Tunisia. Improving sections of roads to link them to centers of growth like Sousse has been seen as a key step toward increasing private sector investment in these regions.

The results of our investments in roads have shown how transformative a country’s infrastructure can be to redressing economic imbalances. In recognition of the fact that transport underpins more inclusive human and economic development, the World Bank has just approved a US$200 million loan to improve connections from the Tunisian coast to cities such as Kairouan, Siliana and Zaghouan inland. These connections include the road between Sousse and Kairouan but also a portion of the transport corridor linking Siliana to Tunis. Road safety along those corridors will also be improved.

It takes time to start building or repairing roads but, eventually, almost 375,000 (373,500) people are expected to benefit from the new sections of road. Direct employment in construction is likely to be created. In the medium-term, the effect of the new roads should be to increase private sector investment along these corridors with a positive impact on employment. Road improvement sends a very strong message to communities that may otherwise feel overlooked: the government is taking care of them.

This project is also an opportunity for the Bank to re-engage in Tunisia’s road sector after an absence of more than ten years. The next stage should be to combine the rehabilitation of infrastructure with softer measures to promote sustainable employment—including jobs for young people—and address high priority social issues.

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