Strengthening Local Governments in Tunisia as a First Step toward Decentralization

July 24, 2014

Arne Hoel l World Bank

  • 7 million Tunisians, two-thirds of the total population, live in the country’s towns and cities.
  • Under the highly centralized decision-making system of the previous regime, municipalities had limited responsibilities and played a relatively minor role in local development.
  • The World Bank has launched a program to improve the capacities of local governments and increase the participation of citizens in local decision making in support of the emerging national priority of decentralization.

Tunisia is one of the most highly urbanized countries in the Middle East and North Africa. Roughly 70% of the country’s 11 million citizens live in towns and cities. Tunisia’s urban sector is the most vibrant part of the national economy and accounts for more than 85 % of Gross Domestic Product.

Yet under the highly centralized decision making of the previous regime, municipalities played a relatively minor role in local development. Their share of total public spending has only amounted to 4%. By law, municipalities have had limited functional responsibilities.

In the aftermath of the “2011 Revolution”, Tunisia’s interim political authorities have had to seriously rethink the role of the state and the high level of centralization, and reevaluate the importance of municipalities in urban development. The new constitution, adopted earlier this year, has clear commitments to decentralization. The document outlines a vision of fully devolved and empowered local governments with autonomy for executing their mandates of providing local services according to transparent principles of participation by, and accountability to, their citizens.

The Interim Government has also signaled its intent to place municipalities at the heart of the urban development process – by making them more active players in the planning, implementation and delivery of municipal infrastructure and services. There is now widespread recognition that elected municipal councils and mayors must be more than “passive spectators” in urban development and must become more transparent and accountable to local citizens. Finally, key central government departments (such as Caisse des Prets et de Soutien aux Collectivites Locales (CPSCL) and Direction Generale des Collectivites Publiques Locales (DGCPL)) recognize the need to reform and reorganize the way in which support is provided to local governments. 

The government has launched a five-year municipal investment plan to strengthen local governments and address the needs of disadvantaged areas. A central focus of this US$770 million plan is to reform the management of, and responsibility for, the public funds destined for municipalities. In line with the national priority of redistributing decision-making from the central government to local governments, the aim is to put municipalities in charge of their budgets, and give local citizens a say in how the funds are spent.

" For decentralization to work, local governments need to be empowered, capable and accountable. "

Jaafar Sadok Friaa

World Bank Lead Urban Specialist

The World Bank has launched the Urban Development and Local Governance Program in support of the efforts of the Interim Government. “For decentralization to work, local governments need to be empowered, capable and accountable,” said Jaafar Sadok Friaa, World Bank Lead Urban Specialist and the leader of team that developed the program and will oversee its implementation. “Our focus will be on building up the financial and managerial capacities of municipalities, so that they are ready to assume full responsibility over their resources, and establishing mechanisms for citizens to fulfill their vital role in decision making and oversight to improve the performance of local governments,” he added.

The program is designed to benefit all of Tunisia’s 264 municipalities and their 7 million inhabitants by:

  • improving the system by which funds are transferred from the central government  and launching demand-driven institutional and capacity development activities, to strengthen the delivery of municipal infrastructure and services and bring them in line with citizens’ priorities;
  • implementing initiatives to build knowledge and capacity of municipal council members and municipal staff on participatory governance initiatives which will underpin broader efforts to improve municipal performance and build new social contracts between citizens and local government;
  • increasing the participation of local communities including, importantly, women and youth, in planning development activities managed by the municipality at the local level to ensure all groups’ needs are addressed, further fostering citizens’ engagement and contributing to long term sustainability.

Special consideration has also been given to the 500,000 Tunisians living in disadvantaged areas, especially in regions with fewer economic opportunities and a slower rate of development than the rest of the country. The program has identified 229 disadvantaged neighborhoods that will benefit from:

  • improved local service delivery by providing municipalities with the resources to finance the upgrading of informal and disadvantaged neighborhoods;
  • direct involvement of the population in setting investment priorities, with, for example, new public lighting and sidewalks in response to demands articulated by women in disadvantaged neighborhoods;
  • temporary employment opportunities generated by the activities funded by the project, which will be targeted specifically at the neighborhoods’’ large number of unemployed young people.