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Five Ways Tunisia’s New Mining, Energy and Renewables Minister Can Maintain Positive Momentum

As part of Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi’s initiative to form a national unity government, the country once again has a new minister of energy, mining and renewables, Hela Cheikhrouhou. She is the eighth person to hold the post in five years. Such sustained flux in leadership poses risks that might lead to fragmented decisions and makes it difficult to uphold Article 15 the constitution, which stipulates that “public administration is at the service of the citizens” and “is organized and operates in accordance with the principles of impartiality, equality and the continuity of public services,” conforming transparency and accountability rules.

What’s at stake? The prospects for Tunisian citizens to benefit from the country’s endowment of phosphate and oil. Indeed, Tunisia has made startling progress on improving resource governance in a relatively short time. However, the forward momentum must be maintained.

The ministry itself must ensure stability. Until late 2011, it was known as the Ministry of Industry and Technology. It became the Ministry of Industry in 2012 and then the Ministry of Industry and Commerce the same year. In 2013, the portfolios of industry and commerce were separated again. In 2016, the Ministry of Industry was split: separate portfolios were dedicated to energy, mining and renewables on the one hand and industry on the other.

Frequent structural change has meant commitments and trajectories agreed to by former ministers and other stakeholders in the extractives process have been abandoned. Organizational flux has in some cases brought reforms and programs to a halt. Changes also affect the public sphere and engagement of civil society, which in Tunisia is already fragile after years of repression. Periods of uncertainty can lead to complacency or disengagement. This has negatively impacted relations with the government and creates tension amongst sector stakeholders.

The recent split in the ministry has also strained human resources. Scarce personnel are now distributed between two ministries, likely resulting in further bandwidth issues.

In order to avoid development risks, Cheikhrouhou should aim to preserve certain achievements made by her predecessors.

Remain open to civil society and restructure the sector’s stakeholder dialogue.

The Open Government Partnership (OGP) has provided common ground for debate and action in Tunisia, bringing together government and civil society. This cooperation has enabled the government to meet its OGP pledge and to launch an open data portal that includes all relevant information in the extractives sector. (This was part of Tunisia’s first National Action Plan.) The preparation of the next OGP plan (2016-2018) has fostered further exchange. After a series of meetings, both parties agreed on implementing international standards of transparency for extractive industries and a framework mechanism for information dissemination. The draft OGP plan includes a pledge that now heads the Tunisian government’s list of commitments: it will join the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI) and has set the timeline for the accession process. Meeting this commitment is critical to ensure the sustainability of sector reforms.

Set a timetable for the completion of the legal reform process.

Over 18 months ago, the ministry began preparing draft laws to revise the hydrocarbon and mining codes and formed an expert panel to support these preparations. In May, the ministry also held a seminar on the activation of constitutional provisions related to governance and transparency. The event was attended by civil society representatives and members of parliament, and was organized in partnership with the International Academy for Good Governance within the National School of Administration and NRGI. It is a matter of utmost priority to push the dialogue forward and set an accurate timetable for the preparation of the draft revisions for the codes, as foreign investors are becoming more and more reluctant to invest in Tunisia. Exploration and research work is decreasing: 58 licenses were granted in 2010, dropping to 38 in 2014 and 18 in 2015. It’s also worth mentioning that the 2015 licenses were related to renewals, extensions and cessions, meaning the ministry didn’t grant any new research and exploration permits last year. (For more, see the official gazette and the presentation of the minister of energy, mining and renewables during a hearing session in parliament on 8 June 2015.) Investment requires clear and attractive legal and institutional frameworks at all levels.

Meet the open contracting commitment.

During the Anti-Corruption Summit held in London last June, the Tunisian government pledged to implement “open contracting” principles. In May, the ministry published all the oil contracts, making contracts that were shrouded with ambiguity transparent. This constituted an important step toward implementing the principles in question. The dissemination process requires continuous cooperation with civil society to promote an understanding of these contracts, which would spare the government any tension or clashes with civil society organizations. This would also enable CSOs to fulfill their role as oversight and accountability actors, which is the ultimate goal behind contract disclosure. Finally, the ministry could seize the opportunity of the legal reform process to incorporate the principles of open contracting within the legislation, since open contracting as a concept is more encompassing than contract disclosure.

Promote open data policy.

Launching the ministry’s open data portal is a major achievement. The portal can be improved by updating available information and filling gaps in data. EITI standards can be used as a reference to detect shortcomings in terms of data disclosure. In this regard, it should be noted that the Tunisian government, in partnership with the World Bank, NRGI and the Columbia Center on Sustainable Investment, is developing a new website that will include all oil contracts. This website will comply with international standards on document clarity, search functionality and usability. The website will contribute to achieving compliance with the open contracting commitment, thus making Tunisia a pioneer in this area.

Build capacity.

Building the capacities of civil servants is one of the main components of Tunisian government’s governance strategy. For that purpose, the ministry is trying to organize a yearly training seminar on the governance of the extractive industry sector, in cooperation with the International Academy for Good Governance. The training’s target audience is not limited to civil servants concerned with the sector, but also includes staff from parliament, CSOs and the private sector.

The above elements are part and parcel of the priorities listed in the Carthage Document, which constituted the culmination of the dialogue process on the national unity government and the priorities for the phase to come. The process involved a number of parties and organizations active in Tunisia, and concluded on a six-point agreement that included “fighting corruption and laying the foundations of good governance.”

These steps are designed to transform Tunisia into a model country when it comes to natural resource governance. It is now time to act.

Wissem Heni is the Tunisia program officer at the Natural Resource Governance Institute.