Positive discrimination not enough to bridge Tunisia’s development gap

Sunday 19/03/2017
Unmet expectations. Tunisian youth walk in the west-central town of Sidi Bouzid. (AFP)

Tunis - Despite implementing what aspire to be “posi­tive discrimination” pro­grammes, Tunisia’s re­gional development gap is as stark as ever and the govern­ment is struggling to develop last­ing solutions to bridging the divide, experts said.

While coastal areas such as Tunis, Sousse and Sfax have maintained stable industries that provided jobs, development in other regions lagged.

“Conscious decisions made by successive governments since Tuni­sian independence have resulted in a substantial development gap be­tween the coast and the periphery,” Hamza Meddeb, a visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, wrote in a January report.

“Tunisia’s long-neglected hin­terland continues to suffer from a rampant informal economy, high unemployment, corruption and an underdeveloped private sector.”

This is especially evident in north-western and west-central towns where residents have long complained that government initia­tives were misguided and impracti­cal.

“After years of empty promises, locals long ago ran out of patience,” said Olfa Touati, a project manager for the Association of Women’s Training and Employment in El Kef. “Now they want instant solutions.”

Touati said government actions to address the lack of development and unemployment in interior re­gions — notably training sessions — have been rejected by locals who demand “concrete and permanent resolutions”.

Unfortunately, instant solutions are nowhere to be found, said Mo­hamed Sami Ben Ali, a Tunisian professor of economics at Qatar University. “Positive discrimina­tion policies demand significantly more funds in order to overcome the problem and reduce disparities between regions,” he said.

Funds have been even scarcer since 2011, with the slowdown in economic growth, due to strikes and work stoppages, disruption of phosphate production and the slump in tourism revenues mainly due to terror attacks. New security needs have led to expenditures at the expense of development pro­jects.

Tunisia adopted a new constitu­tion in January 2014 that stressed the importance of positive discrimi­nation in economic development. Government officials promised to implement these policies in periph­eral areas, where social unrest was particularly rife.

One such policy was les chantiers, a government initiative employing up to 100,000 workers from under­developed regions in maintenance and service industries in 2015.

In 2016, the Tunisian Ministry of Employment announced another positive discrimination programme — Mechanism 16 — which aimed to provide employment opportunities for thousands of young men from interior regions, particularly Gafsa, Kasserine, Medenine, Sidi Bouzid and Jendouba.

Experts point out that more sys­temic measures need to be imple­mented to tackle such problems as insufficient investments as well as poor infrastructure and industrial base, which lead to chronic unrest and exodus from the interior.

Critics argue some of the new initiatives offer mostly temporary, low-paid positions that do little to advance social mobility or long-term economic sustainability.

“Far from supplying sustainable economic opportunities, employ­ment schemes offering temporary jobs contribute to ongoing patterns of subordination and marginalisa­tion,” Meddeb wrote.

Ben Ali said positive discrimina­tion policies are part of the solu­tion but must be implemented in conjunction with broader economic reforms.

Among critical steps he high­lighted were combating corruption, improving the effectiveness of the administration, increasing public investment and establishing real and effective private investment policies.

During the last six years, varying ratios of development funds allo­cated to the interior have not been spent due to ineffective public ser­vice and disruption of the decision-making process since the 2011 revo­lution. Senior government officials also often complain that some po­litical and union activists exploit the issue of development dispari­ties between regions without con­sideration of budget pressures.

The Tunisian government is hoping to make significant inroads in private investment.

In November, the country hosted Tunisia 2020, a major international investment conference that drew thousands of leading business and political figures to Tunis. Many hoped the gathering would be a turning point in jump-starting the country’s economy by channelling billions into infrastructure and de­velopment projects.

“Tunisia 2020 is a major step towards boosting the wheel of the Tunisian economy,” said Ben Ali, “but its effect will depend mainly on the effective willingness of donors and funders to fulfil their commitments, which will depend on their trust in Tunisian policy­makers.”

Recent actions taken by the Inter­national Monetary Fund (IMF) sug­gest that such trust might still be a work in progress. In February, the IMF postponed the second instal­ment of a loan worth $350 million due to the country’s sluggish pace in installing economic reforms, Tu­nisian Minister of Finance Lamia Zribi said.

Zribi told Reuters that “the gov­ernment was ready to launch a new push on the reforms package in the public sector, the banking sector, state companies and taxes”.

Despite these setbacks, Tunisia’s economy has shown flurries of op­timism.

On February 7th, Björn Rother, IMF mission chief to Tunisia, cited “improved confidence” in the Tu­nisian economy and called it “re­silient in a difficult domestic and international environment”.

In December, Tunisian Prime Minister Youssef Chahed had pointed to Tunisia 2020 as “the best proof of Tunisia’s ability to win back the confidence of its part­ners”.