Getting real in Tunisia


Some people think they’re entitled to more money just because Ben Ali is gone, when ironically, the country has only got poorer since then, and therefore it just can’t happen.

Ahmed Medien
26 June 2012

Recent economic indicators from Tunisia are discouraging. The economy hasn’t picked up, even in the second year since regime change in the North African country. A recent report from the National Institute of Statistics reads that the unemployment rate rose to 18.1% in the last quarter of this year, with an average of 27% in the southern less developed regions. 24.1% of the population is reliant on social benefits from the state. The energy sector, being one the principal sources of income from the state, is not generating as much money as in past years because of the ongoing strikes. Tourism is still in abeyance, the security vacuum having reduced it to a minuscule number of tourists touring around Tunis’s old Medina and the historical sites.

Doing business, in Tunisia, is not so hard as young people might think. State corruption was certainly a disincentive for young university graduates starting their own businesses. But statistically the country is in good shape. Tunisia is currently ranked 46 on a 183-long list by the website doingbusiness.org. It’s not that far behind other western countries such as France, Scandinavia or the United States. It is even within range of other western countries such as Spain and Portugal, and can improve. 

If you spend at least one week in Tunisia, in any region, you’ll notice that there are a great number of Tunisians who appear jobless. Cafés are scarcely empty. You might hear in the news unemployed Tunisian protesters “demanding” jobs every other day. The government is incompetent by Tunisians’ standards because it is failing to create jobs. Every debate in this small North African country, no matter how insignificant it is, seems to end up being about unemployment. If you keep listening to the people long enough, they will almost convince that it’s seriously the government’s problem to give them jobs.

It might be difficult to admit this, but it does feel as if the country has just woken from a long state of hibernation. People, all of a sudden, have started demanding, recklessly, everything from their government. Some people think they’re entitled to more money just because Ben Ali is gone, when  ironically, the country has only got poorer ever since, and therefore it just can’t happen. The budget deficit has increased* to 4547 million dinars (3,050 million US dollars). This amount is worth hundreds of thousands of public service jobs that the state can’t create for the moment.

So, young Tunisians will have either to create jobs themselves or find them on their own in the private sector. If you take a walk in Tunis’ suburbia, you will find thousands of well-off young Tunisians enjoying challenging careers and higher salaries than the average regular government job. They are marketers, journalists, graphic designers, you name it. They had a regular education like most of their unemployed compatriots, but were more serious about finding a job and building a career.

Yet, amid protests and despair, Asma Mansour and Sarah Toumi, two young Tunisian university graduates, actually worked on a plan to help solve the unemployment crisis in Tunisia and alleviate the poverty in the marginalized regions. What they are introducing us to is social entrepreneurship. It is not very well-known in Tunisia, yet elsewhere, it has been revolutionary.

Asma and Sarah co-founded – with the help of another Tunisian residing in the US – a pioneer center for social entrepreneurship, the Tunisian Center for Social Entrepreneurship. Asma had to go abroad, to Japan, to realize the impact of social entrepreneurship. Sarah is a French citizen, originally from a tiny village in the coastal city of Sfax. Her attachment to her father’s hometown has motivated her come back and to found a small association to help local communities improve their financial conditions. Both have been exploring this associational territory for some years now, and know exactly what they’re doing.

“Our sole objective is to educate and support social entrepreneurs,” said Asma Mansour over lunch.

Asma is actually a friend of mine. She speaks with passion and can easily stands out of the crowd. She says that she had refused many opportunities to work abroad. She loves what she’s doing right now and she wants to stay in Tunisia. Asma intends to pursue a teaching career later, and help other young Tunisians launch their businesses and careers.

The three founding objectives of the center are to educate Tunisian job seekers about social entrepreneurship, incubation and connecting entrepreneurs with sponsors.

Asma, accompanied with her team, has been touring Tunisia for some months to introduce this new concept to other Tunisians living outside metropolitan Tunis. The center has many affiliated members across the nation and organizes frequent round tables and debate circles and workshops with the locals to push local people to think about their problems and think of financially rewarding solutions.

Asma says that “Tunisians, in urban areas, seem much more concerned with problems relating to the environment, health, education and unemployment, whereas, in rural areas, Tunisians were more concerned with economic exclusion – especially women – and bad governance.”

However, Asma and her coworkers do not intend to give hard-earned private funding to these entrepreneurs. “We can’t trust them like that (the apprentice entrepreneurs), we can’t just give them money.” The center’s real objective is to teach people how to write up a social business model that will help them orientate their business to fix a social problem but also to make profits at the same time.

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