Tunisia has Changed, now the Economy
February 25, 2014
An Arabic version of this article first appeared in Assabah News
I was very moved last month when my colleagues and I looked on in solidarity as Tunisia’s elected assembly stood and sang the national anthem after voting in the new constitution that enshrined government transparency and guaranteed gender equality, including equal representation of men and women on elected councils.
In the three years since my first visit shortly after the January 2011 revolution, the world has watched Tunisia as it negotiated its path to democracy. The role of the Quartet in leading the National Dialogue and brokering compromises to overcome political deadlock was inspiring. Civil society was ready to resume its role as watchdog and mediator. Advocacy groups and the press have been instrumental in informing citizens about the Constituent Assembly and holding members to account, tweet by tweet. Politicians placed cohesion and common goals above division and strife. It has also been a story of remarkable resilience, with Tunisia overcoming the many roadblocks that could have derailed its transition to increased accountability, voice, and inclusion.
As I return for another visit, I wish to acknowledge these successful transformations and pay tribute to the Tunisian people, as well as to congratulate the new government and confirm that Tunisia can count on the World Bank’s full support. I will also take this opportunity to express my sorrow for the tragic deaths that occurred during this period, including the murder of Chokri Belaid and Mohamed Brahmi.
Tunisia has come so far, and there is much to be proud of, but it will be important now to focus on the economic recovery, which has not yet matched the impressive social and political achievements. During my visit I also plan on emphasizing the importance of tackling this challenge. It is, after all, the economy that will deliver jobs and economic opportunities for the Tunisian people. Economic recovery is at the heart of keeping Tunisia’s transition on track. Now is the time to consolidate Tunisia’s achievements with bold economic reforms that will increase transparency, competition, and equity.
Tunisia has come so far, and there is much to be proud of, but it will be important now to focus on the economic recovery, which has not yet matched the impressive social and political achievements.
For too long, Tunisia’s economy has underperformed its competitors, failing to produce enough good jobs for Tunisians, and resulting in low investment and high prices for Tunisian consumers. Under the old regime, this lack of competition led to predation by the ruling elite, which acted with impunity while Tunisia’s economy, its job creators, and its workers suffered. The basis of that system remains largely in place today. It is high time for Tunisia to make reforms to its competition law, investment code and its banking sector so that all Tunisians get to play on a level playing field.
To many of my Tunisian friends, these reforms should wait until the political situation has stabilized. It is certainly true that Tunisia faces pressing demands that cannot wait to be addressed. Security remains an urgent challenge, divisions in the country will test the ability to find consensus, and as the World Bank recently reported, Tunisia’s economy remains vulnerable to internal and external shocks.
But if not now, when? I believe that reforming the economy now will anchor political and social progress, accelerate Tunisia’s development and guarantee its success on the regional and international scene.
Thanks to provisions in the new constitution, Tunisian leaders now have a mandate to make sure that Tunisia’s interior can be fully developed so that every Tunisian can access basic services and find meaningful employment. The constitutional provisions on decentralization of powers offer opportunities for local development that will not only empower citizens, but could also transform regional development in Tunisia and become a regional model. The opportunity to prepare the groundwork for economic recovery is now.
On the business climate, the government has embarked, in partnership with the private sector, on an ambitious reform of government regulations and red tape which should result in lower administrative burdens for Tunisia’s private sector and less opportunity for discretion and greater transparency in government decision making. Forthcoming audits of Tunisia’s public banks will help in the process of reforming the banking system so that it is more transparent, better governed and better able to provide credit to Tunisia’s entrepreneurs. Straightforward and internationally sound reforms to Tunisia’s public procurement rules could open the door to greater investment in Tunisia’s lagging regions, one of the key demands of the revolution.
It is in this context that I would like to reiterate the commitment of the World Bank to Tunisia. We have been by Tunisia’s side throughout the transition. We have provided financial support, advice, and technical assistance to help the country to manage its transition and prepare for a better, more prosperous future for all Tunisians. We have continued to work with the Tunisian government on its reforms to support economic growth, job creation, greater accountability and better governance. The World Bank will continue to be a steadfast partner to the Tunisian people.
The adoption of Tunisia’s new constitution showed the world what Tunisians already knew, that consensus is possible and that Tunisia’s transition can succeed. My message will be the very same one I have delivered on every visit to the new Tunisia: The World Bank will be there to do its part to help support the success of the transition.
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