By J C Suresh
As the international community turns its focus on unabated violence in Syria and a far from predictable course of events in Israel-Iran relations, the World Bank has released a notable study that analyses the pre- and post-revolutionary situation in Tunisia.
The whirlwind transformations in the Middle East and North Africa, which have grabbed the world’s attention, began in January 2011 when a fruit vendor in a small Tunisian city Sidi Bouzid set himself on fire, unleashing the forceful calls for dignity and opportunity that rapidly spread throughout the region and the world.
“The world is looking to the Tunisian experience today as a microcosm and barometer of a larger trend – namely, an increasing demand for fairness and dignity for people long-deprived of the notions. Being the first among many nations to have experienced similar uprisings in 2011, Tunisia is in a unique position to demonstrate to itself and to the world how a society can evolve from an authoritarian regime to a representative system,” says the World Bank report.
In highlighting possible opportunities for successful investment as well as the needs, aspirations, and reflections of the Tunisian people, the study titled ‘Tunisia: From Revolutions to Institutions’ provides a holistic and citizen-driven roadmap for the international community to tailor its support of the evolving Tunisian society.
Published one year after the ouster and exile of long-term President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, the study finds that information and communication technologies (ICTs), which played a central role in the lead-up to the revolution as well as the revolution itself, have continued to influence rapid changes in the past year.
It charts the application of these technologies by citizens, civil society, entrepreneurs, and government stakeholders. The report also identifies openings to capitalize on technology’s ability to improve governance, expand economic opportunity, and encourage social cohesion.
This is particularly important because Tunisians are wrestling with how to wield the power of their increased connectivity to build a society that is more responsive to the needs of citizens and more capable of addressing the economic, political, and technological complexities of the modern world.
Tunisia is suffering an unemployment rate between 20 to 30% in the more isolated interior, compared to less than 10% in the main coastal cities.
The study seeks to describe the factors driving the transformation under way in the Tunisian society, examining how specific elements of society have changed – or not changed – in the post-revolutionary period.
It says: “The ability of the newly formed government to provide health care, economic development, justice processes, and other services demanded by its people will depend on its ability to match their variety and connectedness.”
The report adds: “The opportunities and setbacks faced by the new government, and its success in addressing them, will tell us much about the future of governance in a world that grows more complex every day.”
The report stresses how technology-oriented small and medium-sized companies (SMEs) can generate economic expansion and job growth, including in the economically-isolated interior provinces. “Tunisian ICT companies are likely to find an attractive market in Northern Africa and parts of Europe, thanks to Arabic and French language skills and lower labour costs,” the study by World Bank’s infoDev says.
In interviews with researchers, entrepreneurs however expressed frustration with the cost of doing business and government control of critical markets, which was installed by the previous regime. They also stressed the need for a more market-responsive higher education system that produces graduates with more up-to-date and practical knowledge.
Central to the Tunisian revolution of 2011, ICTs remain critically important to helping address the root causes that led to the uprising in the first place, says the report, adding: “New technologies and applications are necessary to creating a vibrant economy that produces sustainable jobs for the country’s young population and helping to constitute an open and transparent society.”
The report underlines that Tunisia is “a clear and coherent example of how an increasingly complex society contributed to the failure of an authoritarian government to maintain control.” During more than 20 years of Ben Ali’s regime, the Tunisian governing body was powerful and pervasive, but it was also largely static in nature. Ensconced in a robust grid of personal power networks, the ruling elite had little incentive to evolve its patterns of behaviour and control, argues the report.
Simultaneously, a broader change occurred among the Tunisian populace through the spread of information and communication technology. Satellite televisions, first introduced in the early 1990s, increased citizen awareness of social, political, and economic conditions elsewhere in the world – and of the inequality at home.
Mobile networks, expanding exponentially in penetration since the late 1990s, increased connectedness among a population that had been somewhat atomized by distance and levels of educational attainment, as well as by communal, regional, and cultural rifts.
The Internet, when it first exploded among Tunisian consumers in the early 2000s, allowed for widespread exposure to foreign ideas; it also offered a platform for a digital public square that had more variety than the government could easily control, says the report.
As a result, the Tunisian populace in 2011 was more connected – more complex – than when the Ben Ali government first came to power. Connectivity expanded awareness of economic inequality and increased levels of popular frustration; it also strengthened citizens’ ability to organize and demonstrate. In many ways, the governing elite did not evolve in response to these changes; the structures, tools, and processes of governance adapted to new ICTs slowly and with difficulty.
Against this backdrop, “the people of Tunisia demand good governance and civil participation. They want inclusive economic growth, which is at the core of our programs,” says Eileen Murray, World Bank Country Manager for Tunisia. “By leading in ICTs, which are essential to any competitive economy, Tunisia can continue to be a leader in the region,” she adds.
Throughout the research, which included more than a hundred interviews with representatives from all layers of society, Tunisians expressed optimism and hope about their increased participation in governance processes.
“This is certainly supported by the growing abundance of social and internet-based political media, which is giving voice to a new class of aspiring entrepreneurs and creative professionals,” says the report.
“Tunisia is a unique and promising location for understanding the role that ICTs can have in economic and social development,” says Valerie D’Costa, Program Manager of infoDev. “This study details what more needs to be done so ICTs can help to create a dynamic economy, an accountable government and social inclusion,” she adds.
The Tunisia research, which was performed by economic consultancy firm Reboot and local partners, is part of an upcoming UKaid-financed infoDev study of the role that ICTs are playing in post-conflict and post-revolution reconstruction, covering six country studies in total.
Post-revolution Tunisia was included in the study because of its ability to complement the more “traditional” post-conflict case studies infoDev has commissioned for Afghanistan, Liberia, Rwanda, Sri Lanka and Timor Leste. Once these reports are finalized in the coming months, infoDev hopes to synthesize lessons learned in order to provide recommendations to policy-makers and donors who seek to effectively utilize ICTs in post-conflict environments.