Tunisia after the Revolution which started the Arab Spring in 2011

A few superficial impressions (from a Rural Development standpoint) from a very short visit 8-11 December 2011.

by John Bryden, 12/12/2011

Introduction & Background

I visited Tunisia at the invitation of IACE to represent the International Rural Network at their conference, which was aimed at the post-revolutionary thinking about the respective roles of State, Civil Society and the private sector (enterprises) in the new constitution. The search is for a ‘new model’ of development which is more equitable and fair. But there seems to be little clarity about what (parts of) the ‘old model were problematic.

Just by way of background, the constitutional assembly was working hard on the mini-constitution which would lead to the election of a prime minister and ministers and a modus operandi to prepare the new national constitution, after which, as I understand it, there will be elections again next year. After the recent election of the constituent assembly, the moderate Islamist Nahdah Party holds the majority of seats, and two other parties including the left socialist party hold the balance. These parties are working together. There were I believe a further 90 or so parties fielding candidates.

My role was to talk about the importance of rural people, rural regions and rural development on a panel reflecting on regional imbalances and inequities. As I said in my speech, it is in the deep rural regions and communities, and in the slums around the cities, that poverty, poor education and health care, unemployment and underemployment, disempowerment, and social exclusion is concentrated. It is as I said, a crime against humanity and an abrogation of any sense of a social contract – as well as a massive waste of human resources – that this is so, and it surely needs to be a priority for action in the ‘new model’ This should start with action at the lowest levels – people need to be involved in reflecting on their needs, resources, and possibilities, but they need help to do this, not in the old paternalistic way, but as a participatory process.

In this context it is worth remembering that the revolution was triggered in a small town in a poor rural region – a town that has since become a ‘hot spot’ in Tunisia. Mohamed Bouazizi, a 26-year old fruit and vegetable street vendor working in the rural town of Sidi Bouzid, set himself on fire after his produce had been confiscated and he suffered abuse at the hands of police and municipal officials. The town was said to suffer from corruption and 30% unemployment, and Bouazizi’s experience and subsequent dealth triggered a local rebellion which spread rapidly to other parts of Tunisia. Rural people were therefore a major force in this movement, and in voting for the Islamist party which they trust more than the others because they think it more likely to deliver on greater equality and equity. The revolution was brought to its first conclusion in independence square, outside the infamous Ministry of Interior, and the Dictator was as the world knows forced to flee to Saudi Arabia, albeit with his Swiss and Cayman Islands bank accounts intact.  After this, I was told that several million dinars/ dollars in cash were found in his safe in the Palace.

The ‘New Model’ of development.

Many people alluded to this. There seem to be many different and quite oppositional ideas of what the ‘new model’ of development might look like, but the key idea seems to be able a better balance and inter-relationship between State and Private sector, rather than a rejection of private sector on the one hand, or a return to neo-liberalism on the other. Key issues seem to be to tackle the considerable inequality within the country, with poor and otherwise disadvantages people concentrated in certain rural regions and in the slums around the cities; to tackle the high rates of youth unemployment; to reform the ‘free capitalist’ model; to establish full human rights; to establish a democratic regime and rule of law protected by a new constitution; to establish a new ‘social contract’. But it is hard to find a clear expression of these goals in a single place. Many of the ideas remain very ‘top down’ and even technocratic, and this needs to change. For example ‘more technopoles’ – which I believe would turn out as they have in the past to be enclaves that do nothing for the poor, or indeed for long term development.

I was in Sousse and Tunis, and was give a short tour between through the adjacent rural areas, small towns and the late Dictator’s new tourist town of Hammamet with its large hotels, artificial markets, and marina stocked with foreign motor and sailing yachts. Hammamet was the initiative of the dictator, who it is claimed managed to salt away some of the “very dirty money” that was invested there. However, I was told that he ensured that the Tunisian banks were also very involved in financing the venture, and the banks are now faced with negative assets, to add to their other problems. It was undoubtedly a very bad investment, and one which remains a drag on the economy.  At the time I visited, it was practically empty, and the small traders seemed very frustrated.

‘Low hanging fruits’

In my very preliminary and superficial view there are some simple and low cost things that need to be done. First is to start the dialogue with local people about needs, resources, opportunities and possible joint action between state, communities, civil society, enterprises and the human expertise sometimes in universities but also elsewhere. This is a bottom up process, and it could be inspired by the earliest form of the EU LEADER programme (‘Leader 1 and 2’), aiming at local bottom up development organised by local partnerships and with some core seed corn funding from the centre and minimal rules. This is not just or mainly about agriculture, but it should include farmers as well as other local interests and actors, and cover the small towns and villages in rural regions. Later, but not too much later, some seed corn funding (perhaps with some external funding without ties) could be used to implement this ideas generated.  Second, and as part of this, some ‘innovation platforms’ can be established to consider some key sectors and initiatives such as adding value to Tunisian olive oil through better quality control, branding, differentiation and marketing. At present most Tunisian olive oil is sold in bulk to Italy which markets it as Italian brands, or the same for Tunisian wine  which seems to be of high quality, but little marketed outside the country (import of foreign wines is not currently permitted). The latter could learn from the well know efforts to improve the quality and branding of Tuscan wine in Italy.  Possibilities in the Organic and ‘fair trade’ markets might also be explored.  Some other issues that seem to me to be potentially priority areas are listed below.

Other Food

A more problematic area is the complex controls over food prices and markets involving effective food subsidies on e.g. grains and bread. The bread (and many other products) is undoubtedly cheap, but the result is that there are only two types of bread available on the market as it is effectively a state monopoly.  This has many distorting effects, involves high transactions costs falling on public budgets as well as the private sector agents involved, and opening scope for corrupt practices. Yet it does provide cheap bread, and changing this will need very careful political handling. It may be better to ensure that incomes of the poorest quartile, say, are enhanced (by improved ‘safety net’ and better minimum wages), because at the moment both rich and poor get the subsidies.


There are also fuel subsidies, which help the rich more than the poor, and which encourage large private cars etc, as well as unsustainable practices in general. These should be ended as soon as possible in my view, coupled with some investment subsidies to affected enterprises aimed at encouraging energy saving, energy recycling etc.

As I understand it, Tunisia has an energy deficit, and is dependent on fossil fuels for electricity production and transportation. So far the blandishments of projects like ‘Desertec’[1]  have fallen on rightly sceptical ears, but there is a UK company promoting a solar project in Tunisia with the aim of serving local industries which is being viewed more sympathetically. I do not have details. As I have argued and written elsewhere, renewable energy offers many potential opportunities to rural communities and interests, but these are rarely if ever realised through foreign investment in ‘enclave’ projects like Desertec where the technology is imported and the energy produced exported, and on-going local employment is minimal.  To turn renewable energy into a local development engine requires at least two things, and preferably both. First it needs significant local ownership and control. Second it needs related innovation and supply chain activities at local and regional levels. A third will also be needed in Tunisia, notably a new energy policy which aims at local development as well as replacement of energy imports and ‘green energy’, and engages in dialogue both with the rural communities and the companies with relevant expertise.

Water, Sanitation and Waste management

Water is a scarce resource in Tunisia, and most especially in the poorer regions away from the coast. Water is a state monopoly, and local initiatives to manage and control water and prevented. Moreover, since the Ministry of Agriculture took over responsibilities for the environment, it controls all aspects of water, including irrigation, domestic water and related health and pricing issues. The most problematic areas lacking water and sewage are the poorest and most remote, typically rural, areas. Locally I was told that there are governance issues in the centralisation of control of water, and I have read a report which criticises the prevention of local initiatives to deal with these problems. Equally, there are reasons to believe that decentralised ecological sewage systems, perhaps combining digestion with bio-energy, and producing more accessible fertiliser nutrients as a by product might be a more useful and sustainable approach for many rural regions including the small towns. This could also be combined with better waste management and recycling strategies, with multiple benefits for economy, society and environment.  Professor Petter Jenssen, an ecological engineer at UMB Norway, has considerable expertise in this area in many countries including Norway, Greenland, India, Pakistan and Nepal.


Education is a critical issue for the future. There must be a renewed commitment to quality universal education at primary and secondary level, and a greater focus on training of practical skills. In the latter, the role of apprenticeships should be carefully examined, as a pact with the private sector could also help reduce levels of unemployment.  The demographic situation means that a better education system can have early dividends in future. This should focus not only on academic skills, but the development of the whole person including through participatory teaching and the development of democratic practice in the schools form the earliest levels. There is good experience of this in Norway.  However, there needs also to be attention to the educational and training needs of the adult population through local ‘folk high school’ equivalents, and these could start in the rural regions where the needs are greatest. The agendas must be able to respond to local needs in the practical areas of life, as well as to national needs in terms of the development of democratic practices.

Many people alluded to the problem of unemployed graduates of the university system. I am not able to comment on the quality of the university system, but I did hear many comments about the disconnect between the university and enterprises/ innovation and I did talk to someone who, after graduating went overseas to continue his studies and became very critical of the quality of his training in Tunisia as a result. It may be that the governance of the Universit(ies) needs to be reviewed, especially the incentives given to staff for research, publication and quality teaching, while at the same time emphasising the independence of universities and research institutes as well as the academic freedom of individual professors and researchers. This will be an important constitutional issue for the future of Tunisian democracy. It may also be that too much emphasis is given to an academic education, and not enough to the acquisition of practical skills which are very important for innovation systems in many areas of life including engineering. These questions should at least be asked.

Rural Tourism

 I have not seen the deep rural areas, but I understand that little effort has been made to develop alternative forms of tourism, and that the focus of investment and infrastructure has been on coastal tourism, the extreme case being the (in my mind) ugly Hammamet development. Rural tourism is not a panacea, but it does provide opportunities for rural people and enterprises, and can be a more positive force than hedonistic coastal tourism. There is a demand for cycling  and other low key recreational opportunities such as hiking in the Atlas mountains and foothills, for more indigenous forms of tourism and cuisine, in rural environments, and some of these offer off-season opportunities, such as cycling and hiking. The scope for cycling routes and trails in rural regions should be explored, and perhaps linked with simple accommodation based in traditional architectural forms, and existing facilities even if these need some investment for upgrades. I have a friend in Kerala, India, who organises 10-day cycling tours for elderly Swedish ladies in the cooler winter months every year, and which uses the smaller rural roads and tracks. This is but one example of many.

Local Government

In my view local government has a crucial role to play in the development and maintenance of democracy, in relaying to the centre the needs of people, and particularities of place, and in providing local employment and quality of life. This role is generally understated, or buried by negative views which arise from inadequate local government systems and governance.

The experiences in the rural town of Sidi Bouzid last year suggest that there are problems with governance in local administrations in Tunisia, and indeed it gives the impression of a highly centralised country. Four things seems to be important. One is reviewing the statutes, powers and financing of local government. Another is reviewing the selection and election process, and consideration of positive discrimination for excluded groups (as has been done in India, for example). A third is carefully assessing the scope for much greater devolution and subsidiarity, as well as the development of a fiscal equalisation scheme to support local governments in difficult regions, to ensure that local government is able to play an equally effective role everywhere in the country. A fourth is institution a training and learning programme for local government politicians and officers to improve capacities and effectiveness.

Democratic local government  cannot and should not be replaced by centralised public agencies – it should rather be made to work effectively as a focus for local demands and solutions.


The foregoing thoughts are offered as contributions to a debate which has to be a local debate, and they come from a very short visit as well as non-random conversations that were not interviews, and therefore have little scientific validity!

As Charles Tilley has argued, revolutions don’t (always) achieve (all of) their objectives. The objectives for this, the “Sidi Bouzid revolt” (or “Jasmine Revolution” as it is dubbed by the western press), seem to be sound ones, and we must all hope that they are pursued with clarity, vision and effectiveness, rather than being captured by narrow interests.

JOHN BRYDEN is one of the ICRPS consortium founders and has a PhD in economic development. Among his merits, he is Professor Emeritus at the University of the Highlands and Islands and Professor of Human Geography Emeritus at the University of Aberdeen, both Scotland. He now lives in Ås, Norway. 

[1] DESERTEC is a massive solar (thermo-solar) project planned for North Africa and mainly promoted by German interests, with the aim of providing (solar) power to European market. According to press reports, it will start in Morocco in 2012.