“Work, freedom, dignity” was the slogan chanted by Tunisians who took to the streets to topple the dictator Ben Ali. Two years after Tunisia’s revolution, the “work” part remains an unfulfilled promise for many. Switzerland is trying to help.
“Call centre operators wanted.” A look through the job vacancies in Tunisian newspapers suggests that for a young person just out of university who knows a couple of European languages, one of the few opportunities available is to work at a salary of 600 dinars (CHF400) in one of the many call centres which have sprung up all over Tunisia in recent years.
More than an impression, it’s a reality, says Belgacem Ben Abdallah, a member of the national office of the Union of Unemployed Graduates, addressing the Swiss delegation to the World Social Forum in Tunis.
The organisation he represents is among those that did the most to light the spark of revolution in December 2010. The slogan “work, freedom, dignity” grew out of the union’s protest campaign.
According to official statistics, there were 653,000 unemployed in the country at the close of 2012, which is 16.7 per cent of the working population. This figure is thought by many to be on the conservative side. The union talks in terms of a million out of work. About a third of them are young people with a university degree.
The situation is even more serious than it looks because “underemployment has developed and society is more and more fragile, especially because of an incredible rise in prices”, explains Fathi Chamkhi, a member of the Raid/Attac Tunisia organisation. In 2012, inflation stood at 5.6 per cent, but the local consumer advocacy organisation thinks that in reality it is something in the range of 10 to 15 per cent.
Swiss cooperation with Tunisia
Following the Arab Spring in North Africa, the Swiss government substantially reinforced Swiss involvement in the region “with the aim of creating adequate conditions for an effective transition”.
The strategy followed for Tunisia, Egypt and Libya has three main emphases:
The first involves support for the transition to democracy and strengthening of human rights. In this, for example, Switzerland is able to support a radio station, the Tunisian Association for Integrity and Democracy in Elections and the Tunisian independent electoral commission.
The second involves economic development and job creation. Besides the clean production programme and the I-SEMER project, Swiss cooperation involves overhauling and upgrading infrastructures for water supply in the Kasserine region and in projects to adapt vocational training to the needs of the market.
The third field is migration and protection. Switzerland and Tunisia have ratified three partnership accords on migration and Bern has started a voluntary repatriation programme for asylum seekers. Among other things, Switzerland also provides support to the Tunisian authorities so as to improve management of frontiers and migration flows.
Economic vision lacking
“No-one knows what to do with 800,000 unemployed”, said Hédi Sraieb, an economist and consultant with the World Bank taking part in one of the workshops at the World Social Forum held in late March. “But the worst thing is that the old model has reached the end of the line. The automatic social advancement once represented by a university degree no longer exists today.”
So far the revolution has not borne the fruits expected. “No change has been made to the economic and social decisions of the Ben Ali regime, things just continue along the neo-liberal path,” emphasises Ben Abdallah, a science graduate who like tens of thousands of his contemporaries tries to make ends meet with a bit of private tutoring at four dinars (CHF2.50) an hour.
For a young person, starting a new business is a complicated affair. “There is a lot of bureaucracy and getting a loan can be very difficult.”
In political debate on the future of the country, however, economic issues are getting scant attention.
“Every week, Ennahda [the Islamic fundamentalist party that won the last elections] comes out with some provocative statement to get publicity: on polygamy and so on. It never concerns itself with the issues that were brought up during the revolution. Our problem is not Islam, as they would have us believe, but poverty and unemployment,” says journalist Sophia Hammami, correspondent in Tunis for the London-based Arab news site hdhod.com.
One of the main focuses of Swiss cooperation in Tunisia is job creation and increasing the competitiveness of local businesses.
After the revolution, the Swiss government decided to ramp up support for Tunisia significantly. The budget for projects in the country this year amounts to over CHF30 million. About two-thirds of the total are earmarked for economic initiatives.
For example, Switzerland has launched an initiative for jobs and rural micro and small enterprises (I-SEMER). The goal is to create about 10,000 jobs in four particularly disadvantaged regions, such as Kasserine and Sidi Bouzid, flashpoints in the revolution two years ago.
The project works through micro-credit, at times a controversial system due to the high rates of interest (about 15 per cent), but which it seems is bearing fruit.
“Currently about 1,800 micro-credits have been granted. Each one of them has resulted on average in the creation of 2.5 jobs”, explains Danielle Meuwly, of the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation.
Tunisia: facts and figures
Area: 163,610 km2
Population: 10,549 million
Annual population growth (since 1990): one per cent
Life expectancy at birth for women / men: 76.7 / 72.6
Rate of adult illiteracy for women / men: 29 / 13.6 per cent
GNP per head of population: $4,198 (CHF3,900)
In collaboration with the United Nations Industrial Development Organisation (UNIDO) and the Tunis International Centre for Environmental Technologies (CITET), Switzerland is also funding a project to increase the competitiveness of Tunisian companies through better management of resources and use of innovative technologies in the renewable energy sector, including training 200 specialists in solar paneling and clean production.
“The goal is to promote the idea that actions in the environmental field may mean a gain from an economic point of view,” says Alban Bitz of SOFIES, a Geneva company specialising in industrial ecology that is involved in the Swiss cooperative effort.
“For example, in a big hotel we succeeded in reducing water consumption from 3,000 to 700 litres per overnight stay, using a series of changes to the renewal cycle of water in swimming pools.”
VACPA, the most important producer of dates in Tunisia, which employs 1,200 workers, most of them women, is one of 75 companies that were able to avail of this expertise.
“We consume a lot of energy for refrigeration and a lot of water for cleaning and processing the dates,” explains Afef Ftouhi, an engineer with VACPA. “Our goal was to reduce this consumption by five per cent, and thanks to a series of actions we succeeded in doing it.”
“These actions helped us save about €30,000. Our intention is to go ahead with savings in energy, so we can free up funds for other kinds of investment,” she adds – such as creating new jobs.