Published on Arab Voices

Tunisia’s window of opportunity is still open, for now

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Last Thursday I had dinner with my friend Youssef. He told me he was disappointed with the way things were turning out in his country.  A young Tunisian educated at the Sorbonne, Youssef took leave from his cushy management consultant job to volunteer for the government after the revolution.  Like Youssef many Tunisians feel disillusioned.  I replied that now is the time to redouble the efforts.

I’m not sure that inspired him but I wasn’t being flippant. International experience shows that countries have a two to three year window following a democratic transition to change. And this is not just regime change but change that addresses the underlying problems that led to the democratic movement in the first place. If you miss the window, you can lose another generation. Tunisia is two years into its transition. How is it taking advantage of the opportunity?

World Bank | Arne HoelThe caretaker technocratic government appointed shortly after the departure of Ben Ali faced a tall order. The economic shock was severe: tourism, mining and private investment plummeted virtually overnight and this exacerbated pressure on a fragile financial sector. Expectations are always high after dramatic transitions and citizens wanted to see immediate change: they wanted an accountable government, they wanted good jobs. None of this comes with the flip of a switch.   

In the immediate aftermath of the revolution, the World Bank worked intensively with the other development partners in Tunisia to quickly put together a combined financial package of $1.3billion (or approximately 3 percent of GDP). This was done by June 2011 which was record speed, even if I say so myself.  This financing helped maintain macroeconomic stability, reestablish social peace and boost the economic recovery.

The first democratic elections took place in October 2011, the new Constitution is being drafted and after contracting by 2 percent in 2011, economic growth has resumed and GDP is expected to grow by just under 3 percent in 2012 and 3-4 percent in 2013.  Similarly unemployment shot up to 18.9 percent in 2011, but has now stabilized at 17.6 percent. This is all pretty good news.

In tandem with the financing, the Bank also assisted the government in quickly adopting a package of emblematic economic governance reforms to help realize the aspirations of the revolution and set the country on its new post revolution path. These include accountability, citizen participation and increased economic opportunities. There are some notable results but many of these reforms are a work in progress. Accountability is a fine commitment to embrace but creating the mechanisms and organization to realize a noble goal is not a wave of the wand.    

Following the revision of Ben Ali’s draconian Law of Associations, Tunisia now has non-governmental organizations (NGOs), think tanks and other groups associating easily and openly, and participating in public life, including in lively debate.  Indeed, there is a blossoming with almost 1700 new NGOs registered by March 2012.  Debate on economic and social policies is now the norm across the country.  

Ben Ali’s state was extremely secretive and there were no means for citizens to hold government accountable.  Today journalists and civil society still have difficulty getting the information they’re looking for but some progress is being made. A right to information law was enacted in June 2011 including clear provisions for access to social and economic information and the Ministry of Finance now publishes quarterly data on budget execution. It also has an interactive web portal in the works where citizens can make their own tables and charts with public finance data. There are more good examples and where there are problems, as with datasets from the Statistical Office,the Bank is helping to fix them.

In the interests of citizen participation government has piloted social accountability tools to give citizens a say in the management and evaluation of public services.Approximately 9,000 citizens provided feedback in the First National Scorecard which covered more than 10 public services between April and May 2012. The results have been published ( and a second National Scorecard exercise was carried out in June focusing on the services and benefits from the National Health Insurance Fund.Civil society organizations have also carried out local scorecards across four regions, in partnership with local mayors and governors, focusing on employment services, social protection, health and education. A rapid household survey in various regions is envisaged annually. Again all pretty good news but to scale-up, more is needed to break away the extreme suppression of information and participation of the past.

On the economic front government is reducing suffocating red-tape and slashing the “formalities” (regulations, licenses etc.) which were a notorious source of corruption. There has been a systemic review of procedures and formalities in customs and taxes all carried out by the government in collaboration with the private sector.  

So what does all of this add up to for Tunisia’s path ahead?  The socio-economic situation has stabilized but Tunisia’s transition is happening just south of the Eurozone crisis. Further, key structural (and difficult) reforms are still needed to accelerate economic growth and the creation of good quality jobs. Just this past week a fresh wave of violent protests broke out in the province of Siliana, reflecting the legitimate frustration of Tunisians at the lack of jobs and opportunities to earn a decent living for their families. And politically there are divisions and concerns about individual freedoms, women rights, and the steady rise of violent extremist minorities.  So the challenges remain huge.    

But overall, while tensions and risks remain high, Tunisia has come a long way since January 2011. Recent World Bank research shows that around 40 percent of democratic transitions fail. So far Tunisia has avoided falling in that group. Indeed the same research highlights that Tunisia is among the best suited for a smooth and successful transition. When I next see Youssef I will insist that the window of opportunity to get the transition right is still wide open, and Tunisian need to work together to make it succeed.


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