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The triumph of pragmatism.

In eleven short years under the leadership of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, Tunisia has been transformed into a modern economic powerhouse. It is now poised to join the ranks of the developed world.

Tunisia, sandwiched between its physically massive neighbours, Libya and Algeria, may be small in size but it packs a more powerful economic punch than any other country in the southern Mediterranean. This north-African country, once the seat of arguably the greatest city-state of antiquity, Carthage, is once again poised to become the hub around which the trade of three worlds, European, Arab and African, will revolve.

By the year 2008, barring unforeseeable obstacles, Tunisia will have moved up its weight class from 'emerging economy' status to 'developed nation' status. It will open its borders to free trade with the increasing powerful European Union block. This will give it access to a high-income market of over 350m people.

Tunisia's remarkable transformation from a lower middle-income country into an economic dynamo has taken just 10 years. What makes Tunisia's success even more impressive is that it does not possess any valuable natural resource such as oil or minerals; and half the country consists of desert. Unlike South East Asian economics, it does not have a large industrious population to give it a competitive edge and yet it comes second to Mauritius as the most competitive country in Africa. Over 30% of the population is under 16 years of age, yet the per capita income, at $2,224, with a purchasing power parity of nearly $5,100, is one of the highest in Africa. Some 80% of households own their own homes and the middle class forms 60% of the population. Few African or Arab countries have so many women in such high professional positions as does Tunisia.

Yet, a little more than a decade ago, the idea that Tunisia could make such strides in so many areas in such a short time would have been laughed out of court.

The country's first President, Habib Bourguiba, who set the foundations for a modern Tunisian state, was 80 years old and his mental faculties were failing him. The entire region was being rocked by conflicting ideologies and swept by fundamentalist winds. The government of the day decided to take a pragmatic course and Habib Bourguiba was retired. Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, then the Prime Minister and constitutionally-ordained successor, took over the Presidency on 7 November 1987. This is referred to even today in Tunisia as the "the great change", the start of a new era of modernity and prosperity.

President Ben Ali's first priority was to create an open society. He gathered technocrats, professionals and politicians into his cabinet. Decision making came via a pyramidical structure with the people forming the base, experts and the government outlining and executing policies. "The prime factor in any process of development, the condition for its success, is the human factor," says President Ben Ali. "We have therefore made sure that the Tunisian citizen is at once the author and the beneficiary of the general effort of social and economic development, as well as the source of support."

Perhaps Habib Bourguiba's greatest legacy was to completely change the status of women and set them on the road to total emancipation. After 1987, a series of constitutional amendments to divorce, inheritance, social security and home ownership laws has made women equal partners with men and has led to a highly enterprising class of women professionals and heads of business. Education is mandatory for all boys and girls to the age of 16.

The other pillars of policy included reducing income disparities without discouraging the entrepreneurial class, raising the national income levels, developing a highly-qualified workforce and making the entire economy and administration efficient and competitive.

This is still very much the case today and explains the importance given to the National Solidarity Fund aimed at marginalised groups, the allocation of 20% of the budget to education (one of the highest in the world); the plethora of training and retraining programmes, the free access to basic health facilities, the zeal over environmental issues and the careful husbanding of the economy.

Compulsory schooling and a large number of institutions of higher learning and training have produced the best qualified labour force not only in the whole of Africa but also in the southern Mediterranean. Per capita income has leap-frogged from $30 in 1956 to $2,226 in 1977. Poverty levels have been hammered down from 33% in 1967 to 6.2% in 1997. Life expectancy has risen from 50 years in 1956 to 71.3 years now and infant mortality has dropped from 60 to 30 per thousand during the same period. The population growth rate of 1.6% is the lowest in Africa and one of the lowest in the developing world.

All this has been made possible by a steady economic growth of around 5.7% since 1987, peaking at 8.6% in 1992. The aim now is to reach and maintain a growth of around 6% per annum over the next decade.

Pragmatism is the key

What is the secret of Tunisia's success?

"Pragmatism and the development of our people," says President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. The nation's concept of basic human rights consists of ensuring that all citizens have access to food, clean water, health facilities, education and the opportunity to fully realise their potential. The quality of its human resource is Tunisia's most potent tool.

It is this confidence in the capabilities of its people that encouraged Tunisia to become the first country in the southern Mediterranean to sign an association agreement with the European Union (EU) in 1995. The agreement became effective in 1998 and will lead to a free trade zone for industrialised goods by the year 2008. This is a risky undertaking because if the Tunisian industrial sector, which currently contributes over 50% of exports, fails to reach European standards by that date, European imports could swamp the country and destroy its industrial base.

But Tunisia is facing the future with a well-calculated confidence. "The agreement means that Tunisia must raise itself to the level of the European economies in order to acquire the necessary competitiveness and vitality. This implies an indispensable upgrading of all sectors of the economy," says President Ben Ali. "What is necessary above all is a new mindset with competitiveness as a major concern, that of an economy geared essentially towards production and export," he adds.

The upgrading is already in full swing with the state providing subsidies and support to major companies in an effort to modernise and streamline the productive, distributive and administrative functions,

The 'mindset' change, which is cultural and regarded as by far the most difficult to achieve for any society, is already evident in the streets and offices of Tunisia's major towns. The work ethic has become paramount but without sacrificing the traditional Tunisian friendliness and hospitality. Schools are being computerised and virtually everybody you meet is talking about the internet. Tunis, the capital, is sparkling - thanks to an aggressive environment friendly campaign; the roads, especially the motorways, are a joy to drive on and there are telephone and postal links to virtually every corner of the country.

Moiz, who works as a chauffeur, says he missed out on some schooling because "in those days, our parents did not place much importance on learning." Nevertheless, he is fully aware of Tunisia's date with destiny and takes great pride in pointing out its landmarks. There is not much fear that his own children will miss schooling because primary education is compulsory. "The children are teaching us now," he laughs. "They know things we could not even dream about."

By 2008, these children and others who preceded them will form the bulk of the workforce. They will be fluent in French, Arabic and very likely, English. They will be perfectly at home with computers and all other forms of electronic multimedia. They will have taken Western output levels for granted. They will be grounded in their rich historical heritage and will therefore be able to assimilate and adapt new ideas with the ease that comes from self-confidence. They will be able to function as comfortably in the European world as they will in the Arab and African worlds. Tunisia, as it did when Carthage was in its pomp, will once again be the axis around which the African, Arab and European worlds rotate.

RELATED ARTICLE: Tunisia: the country which gave Africa its name

As one of the oldest countries on the continent, with archeological evidence of human inhabitants dating back more than two million years, it is hardly surprising that Tunisia gave the continent of Africa its name. Named the "Province of Africa" by conquering Romans in 146BC and later Arabised to Ifriquiya, the term eventually extended to the rest of the continent.

Legend tells how Princess Dido founded the city of Carthage in 814BC. The Carthaginians grew in power until they became major rivals with the Romans for dominance of the Mediterranean. After the three Punic Wars between 264BC to 146BC, the Romans finally defeated the Carthaginians, naming the province Ifriquiya.

After 700 years of rule, Roman influence was replaced by that of the Vandals, a German tribe and later the Byzantines.

In 670AD, Muslims invading the Byzantine kingdom founded the city of Kairouan, about 90 miles south of Carthage and this became the Arab capital as well as a political and religious centre. In the ensuing centuries, five Arab and Ottoman dynasties enriched the Islamic heritage of Tunisia. In the twelfth century, the Hafsid dynasty was founded in Ifriquiya and survived until the sixteenth century. The capital was moved to Tunis and the country became known as Tunisia.

In 1881 Tunisia became a French protectorate, a move which marked the beginning of rapid development, but whose benefits were mostly accrued to French settlers. This gave rise to a nationalist movement calling for independence. During World War II, the Tunisian nationalists supported the French war effort, but after the allied victory resumed their struggle for independence.

After it was obtained in 1956, Habib Bourguiba was nominated President and later had himself proclaimed President for Life. However, towards the end of his 30 years in office, his health deteriorated and in 1987 Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, in accordance with Tunisia's constitution, assumed the Presidency himself.
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Title Annotation:transformation of Tunisia into a modern economic powerhouse; includes related article on the history of Tunisia; Special Report: Tunisia
Author:Versii, Anver
Publication:African Business
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:Mar 1, 1999
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