Tunisia facing uphill battle to curb poverty, unemployment
Tunis - After years of economic decline, Tunisia is ramping up efforts to deal with long-standing issues of poverty and unemployment, which analysts said have laid fertile ground for jihadist activity and illegal migration.
In November, officials presented a 5-year development plan that included several ambitious reforms: A target growth rate of 4% per year (later revised to 3.7%), dozens of infrastructure and education-related projects and efforts to create 400,000 jobs.
However, in Tunisia’s political climate, characterised by internal disputes and a fractured ruling party, policymakers face an uphill battle in implementing the required economic agenda.
“If things remain as they are on the political scene, it will be very difficult for Tunisia to make major economic improvements,” said Mohamed Sami Ben Ali, a Tunisian economist who specialises in economic development and is a professor at Qatar University.
Ben Ali said achieving the government’s target growth rate of 3.7% is possible, albeit challenging, but objectives such as increasing average individual yearly income to more than $5,200 by 2020 and creating 400,000 jobs are less realistic.
“Even if the government’s objective for individual income is possible to meet, although not very easy, what is more important is to see an increase in real individual income taking into account the rise in the rate of inflation. This translates into purchasing power,” he said.
“In terms of employment, I would not count on the 400,000 new jobs that the government is targeting. This also depends on the nature of these jobs. Are they permanent jobs?”
That question resonates with many of the country’s unemployed — 15.6% of the workforce — who have become frustrated by what they perceived as government neglect during years of economic turmoil.
Nowhere is this more relevant than in north-western Tunisia where poverty and unemployment are well above the national average and government efforts to help have been largely ineffective.
“It is very difficult to find a job,” said Achraf Ayadi, a native of the town of Jendouba, where the unemployment figure is 26%. “Nothing has changed. Things are the same as before the revolution,” he said.
Ayadi, like many others from the north-western region, now works in Tunis, where there is more opportunity for employment.
Early last year, unrest over the lack of jobs sparked violent protests across the country, leading the government to impose a nationwide night-time curfew for almost two weeks.
The renewed focus on economic development has also shed light on the plight of young Tunisian women, who like most others their age in the Arab world, face disproportionately high rates of unemployment despite often being highly educated.
In late 2016, female unemployment in Tunisia was nearly double that of men — 23.5% compared to 12.4% data from the National Institute of Statistics indicate — and women’s participation in the labour force was even more dire — 27% compared to 69% for men.
In rural areas of Tunisia, 63% of women between the ages of 15 and 29 are neither studying nor working. These figures are particularly alarming given the demographics of Tunisia’s education system, which show women being significantly more likely than men to enroll in tertiary education.
The contradiction, in which women are both educated and disadvantaged, goes back decades in Tunisian society. In the 1950s and 1960s, then Tunisian president Habib Bourguiba enacted sweeping reforms aimed at promoting women’s rights and gender equality. During that time, more girls were being enrolled in school and legislation passed improving the marital and labour rights of women. Today, partly as a result of that legacy, Tunisia is one of the most liberal countries in the region in terms of women’s rights
However, why so many women in the country are unable to find work is an enigma.
Experts said the problem has more to do with cultural norms than economics.
“Female graduates prefer to get married first and then consider career options,” said Olfa Touati, a project manager for the Association of Women’s Training and Employment in El Kef. She said traditional values sometimes prevent women from participating in the labour force.
“Generally, the issue of unemployment for women is a cultural problem,” said Ben Ali.
There are also logistical issues at play, said Touati, who added men are more likely to move to find employment and are generally open to a wider range of job options than women.
This is particularly true in rural areas, she said, where jobs available are not that appealing to women.
“Young female graduates do not want to work minimum-wage jobs in barns or farms as part of a governmental programme,” she said.
Whatever the barriers, the economic imbalance “has a negative impact on women”, said Amira Dhifallah, a university student in Sousse. “The government should encourage working women and emphasise their role in improving the country’s economy.”