Seen from afar, Tunisia has all the favorable conditions for digitization, including effective and affordable access to the internet and a largely young and highly interconnected population. And yet the nation continues to lag behind in digitizing all its services, both public and private, by decades of corruption and government inaction.
When COVID-19 arrived in Tunisia in March 2020, the government imposed strict lockdown, revealing a fragile and largely traditional economy. But then came a dizzying wave of innovations, from telemedicine and telecommuting to entertainment and online education. Employees began to telecommute, and the government began using robotic and digital technology.
In this way, COVID-19 accelerated digitization in Tunisia like no previous government could achieve, and the country gained more digital momentum in a single month than in previous decades.
For Karim Koundi, director of the Joint Committee of the Public, Private and Civil Society for Digitization, the pandemic crisis has resulted in the equivalent of the “fall of the Berlin Wall” between the administration and the Tunisian digital industry.
Will the COVID-19 pandemic continue to act as a catalyst in streamlining your economy and online services?
Ambitious plans … postponed
Digitization, the process of collecting, storing and disseminating information online, enables more transparency and evidence-based policies essential for good governance. As former Prime Minister Youssef Chahed stated in 2019: “Digitization is the best weapon to fight corruption,” which is the international consensus.
In 2018, the Government founded the National Strategic Council for the Digital Economy (CNCEM) with the ambitious “Digital Tunisia 2018” plan to create an enabling digital ecosystem. With an overall allocated budget of US $ 867 million, the digitization plan envisaged the creation of more than 100,000 jobs. But the plans have been implemented slowly or entirely postponed. “Digital Tunisia 2018” became “Digital Tunisia 2020” before being postponed once again to 2025.
Mohamed Fadhel Kraiem, Tunisian Minister of Technology, Communication and Digital Transformation, admitted in May, during the lockdown, that “almost half of the projects of the strategic plan 'Digital Tunisia 2020 ′ have not yet seen the light”, and changed the program to the new “Digital Tunisia 2025”.
A series of setbacks
Tunisia was among the first to promote the technology in the region, and the goal of digitizing the nation was nothing new. Its digitization plans date back to 1999, when the National Electronic Commerce Commission was created to oversee the development of the sector.
In 2005, Tunisia held the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS), which sought to bridge the digital divide that separated rich and poor countries. As a result, pioneering projects such as the Tunis Commitment, the Tunis Agenda for the Information Society, and the creation of the Internet Governance Forum were approved.
But these great announcements weren't followed by concrete action, and the plans took years to materialize. A public-private task force was formed in 2012 to revitalize the sector and develop a digitization roadmap, but these plans remain delayed, despite Tunisia's modern fiber optic infrastructure.
Late digitization is a symptom of a political stalemate in Tunisia, where the authorities are pioneers in the adoption of progressive legislation, but have difficulties with its implementation. The political decisions they make at the top often remain invisible on the ground, causing frustration and discontent.
In 2011, youth took to the streets with protests demanding immediate and structural reforms, but turned a deaf ear to these demands and, almost a decade later, the situation remains unchanged for many and even worse for some.
“Since the revolution, we have neither freedom nor dignity,” Sofiene Jbeli, a young unemployed computer engineer, said in an article in Le Point.
Youth unemployment has risen to 36%, and corruption is also on the rise. The economy continues to be supported by intensive jobs such as agriculture and manufacturing, along with a bloated government bureaucracy that, in 2018, employed almost 800,000 people, which represents 46% of the national budget.
“Tunisia has been applauded for its peaceful transition and for not falling into civil war like its neighbors in the region,” said Mohamed Khalifa, a retired Tunisian engineer who spoke to Global Voices:
The dark side of the acclaimed consensus politics, between secular and Islamist, is that it has merely postponed rather than resolved deep-rooted issues. Donors ’money has flooded the push for institutional reforms that failed to materialize in the life of the population. It has rewarded the status-quo. Since then we are stagnating.
The dark side of the acclaimed consensual politics, between secular and Islamic, is that it has merely postponed deep-seated problems rather than solving them. Donor money has flooded the momentum of institutional reforms that failed to materialize in the lives of the population. Has rewarded the status quo. Since then we are stagnant.
Tunisia pays a high price for its stagnation. Studies have estimated that complex bureaucracy and intense regulations have cost companies around 13% in public revenue and encouraged corruption.
“Unfortunately, today there is strong resistance to digital change and reforms in general, emanating from various circles in the administration, the business world, state institutions, and so on,” said Amine ben Gamra, Tunisian Chartered Accountant at Tunisie Numerique . “The goal is to keep their jobs, enjoy and benefit from corruption without worrying about the negative repercussions in the country.”
Youth exodus leads to brain drain
At the threshold of Europe, Tunisia has a young and educated population. Each year more than 12,000 computer engineers emerge out of a total population of 11 million people.
But in the absence of real prospects, the young graduates leave the country. More than 3,000 computer engineers leave annually. Although salaries can be 2.5 times higher abroad, money is not the only reason for the brain drain, as Nadhir, a Tunisian programmer living in France, explains in an article by Jeune Afrique:
If the departure of IT professionals is massive, it echoes the desire to leave that is widespread among young people. What motivates the departures is mainly disappointment and pessimism about the future.
If the departure of IT professionals is massive, repeat the desire to leave so widespread among young people. What motivates the exits is mainly disappointment and pessimism about the future.
Meanwhile, more than 12,000 computer engineering jobs remain vacant in Tunisia. This mass exodus has added to the slowdown in economic development and the digitization of the country.
But amid the COVID-19 crisis, politicians have been quick to cash in on quick wins and make new promises.
Mohamed Fadhel Kraiem, Minister of Communication Technologies and Digital Transformation, promised on Twitter:
Mohamed Fadhel Kraiem: The phase after Covid-19 will be marked by the accreditation of the digitalisation du pays https://t.co/i75nkytiYj pic.twitter.com/xOsbwbIHwQ
– webmanagercenter (@webmanagercente) June 3, 2020
Mohamed Fadhel Kraiem: The post-COVID-19 phase will be marked by the acceleration of the country's digitization.
But with little confidence in politicians and a long history of broken promises, Tunisians are still not convinced.
What is clear is that, in the absence of a cure or vaccine, the era of social distancing and restrictions on freedom and movement is likely to continue. And so there is mounting pressure on governments around the world, including Tunisia, to adapt to the new paradigm and create an enabling environment late.