A child born along the coast of Tunisia will live a very different life than one born in the country’s interior regions. A young girl from seaside Nabeul will likely be reasonably well-educated, have her health needs largely met, travel over good roadways on her way to school, and have access on par with parts of Europe to technologies that connect her to the rest of the world. Her peer in the rural town of Thala is less likely to attend school past the age of 10, will not expect any response in cases of health emergency, let alone regular health screenings, will probably lack reliable transportation to basic services or markets, and will likely not consider how a mobile phone could be useful in her life.
These regional disparities are structural and institutional, and have been cemented over decades. Coastal regions tend to be wealthier in general, but these disparities are much more severe in Tunisia, largely due to the political dominance of networks centered around the Ben Ali regime. Factories (and employment prospects) have long been concentrated along Tunisia’s coast. The people in the interior regions are isolated from these hubs of economic activity not only by distance but, more significantly, by a lack of transportation and information networks.
The system of inequitable resource allocation, deeply entrenched in Tunisian society, complicates current efforts toward political progress, economic development, and social cohesion. It is clear that among ordinary Tunisians in the interior regions, trust in institutions is low. The exceptions are schools, hospitals, and postal offices; a number of citizens regard these as the most trusted arms of government because many Tunisians work in these systems, and because they are often the most important interfaces in delivering services. Yet overall, government institutions are not symbols of hope for Tunisians. Lacking examples of how a governing bureaucracy could operate fairly and efficiently, the country maintains a wait-and-see attitude.
Fortunately, there is relative consensus among Tunisia's leaders about the importance of addressing this regional disparity, and leading politicians have begun to at least publicly discuss proposals to alleviate regional inequality. On the one-year anniversary of Mohamed Bouazizi’s self-immolation, for example, four of the country’s highest-ranking political leaders gathered in his neighborhood for a conference organized by the Sidi Bouzid Foundation for Regional Development. Their discussions focused on improving living conditions in the area, developing greater opportunities for the region’s youth, and making Sidi Bouzid a destination for “freedom fighters from around the world.”
World Bank research on inequality across the Middle East and North Africa region suggests the need for a multi-sectoral and multi-institutional approach to resource allocation, monitoring, and coordination. While ministries could benefit from more accurate and broader statistics on regional disparities, better implementation of their existing mandates could also improve service delivery drastically. The World Bank research also suggests that improved transportation and digital connectivity networks could advance lagging areas through simple proximity—in other words, very poor areas may only need short distance ties, via transport or broadband, to become connected to greater prosperity in transformational ways.
Technology is a key catalyst for development, but it also carries risks, particularly for rural communities. Recent work on cooperative networks and the rural-urban divide suggests that ICTs leveraged for sustainable development sometimes operate as a double-edged sword. While ICTs can help to mitigate isolation from urban economic hubs, they can also drive a net outflow of resources from rural areas, undermining long-term economic goals.
To begin unwinding the inequality cemented into Tunisian policy over the past few decades, several structural interventions are necessary. Transparent, accountable institutions, Tunisians say, must replace opaque, unaccountable, informal networks. Citizens should be able to request and receive financial assistance through a government service delivery chain and not via a third-party intermediary. Government officials should be empowered with professional guidelines and accountability structures to make assistance decisions based on beneficiaries’ needs and not their social positions. Their neighbors should know that these decisions were made based on merit, by way of a neutral administrative process, and reliable data on outcomes should be available to citizens. There are many opportunities for technology to be helpful in achieving these aims. In launching this report with a focus on the regional disparity that has torn so many threads in the social fabric of Tunisia, the intention is to give voice to regions of people who stand ready and willing, if given the opportunity, to work for a new Tunisia.
On his recent visit to Sidi Bouzid, Head of the Constituent Assembly Mustafa Ben Jaafar reflected on a verse in the Tunisian national anthem: “We all die, but the country remains.” Indeed, an inclusively developed Tunisia would bode well for a future of economic prosperity, and would answer the last wishes of a fruit vendor whose desperate plea for dignity launched waves of change across an entire nation.