Published on Arab Voices

Transitions and Time Lags: Understanding a Dispiriting but Temporary Phenomenon

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Photo credit: ColorMaker
Originally published on HuffPost.

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. 

There are some striking similarities in these seemingly so different contexts. First, the speed of political transitions seems to forever outpace economic ones, thus pairing open political systems with economic decline. Looking at countries like Poland today, it is hard to imagine that within a few years of the overthrown of a repressive regime, people almost opted for a ‘strong man’ system due to the severe economic hardship that came with a prolonged economic transition. Spain suffered an attempted military coup within years of its transition, also built on economic dissatisfaction. We have seen similar reactions, in different degrees, from South Africa to Serbia and many places in between. Another sense of discouragement comes from the fact the political change is never linear and full, and that what emerges will always retain some elements of the past (and, indeed, this can be quite troublesome). This, understandably, can be hard to accept. 

Yet, as Tunisia looks back 6 years to the past, and there is a justified sense of disappointment with the economic fallout from the transition, I would suggest looking at the positive results of those countries where people ‘hung in there’ through hard times, and gained a better future. Talking to small entrepreneurs and farmers in Southern Tunisia recently, in an area that suffers deeply from the collapse of tourism, I was struck by the fact that people still were able to see the benefits of political freedom, as someone said,

‘Ten years ago we would have never been able to sit here and have this conversation, the police would not have allowed it, and this matters to us’.

This, then, is a real sign of resilience, as are many of the small-scale projects that aim to build a new kind of tourism to replace the ‘old model’, and the women who take control of their own future by starting a textile manufacturing collective. Indeed, it is not that different from similar islands of initiative one would have seen in Poland and Bulgaria in the early years of the 1990s. 

The counterargument that is often given to a comparison with Central and Eastern Europe is that Tunisia does not have the EU membership ‘carrot’. I would counter that with the point that while Tunisia may not be able to aspire to EU membership -- always an incentive for European transition states -- it could still benefit from deeper economic integration with Europe. Listening to young innovator entrepreneurs, that integration is in some ways already a fact, and I would hope the rest of the economy will follow. The choice of economic integration is one that the country can and should make: it would bring the outside investments that will help building Tunisia’s SME sector, and the high-end tourism that can revive regions in the South and West as much as the coast. 

Finally, the most compelling argument to stay the current course is that most countries that lived through the economic troubles of the early transition to retain open economic and governance systems have ended up in a much better economic place, while the reverse argument rarely holds. Hence, completing political transition may not be a guarantee for economic success, yet it greatly increases the chances of achieving this. We also know from previous experiences that pairing an open political system with an open economy is a critical ingredient for the success of both. For the sake of those who have suffered through these difficult years, we should therefore continue to press decision-makers to open up the Tunisian economy in the same way as the political system was opened up previously. In that way, we will in some years be able to quote Tunisia in the same way as we quote our earlier examples today.


Antonius Verheijen

World Bank Country Manager for Tunisia

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