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Willing and Able, Tunisian Civil Society Actors Pursue Skills Critical For Demanding Accountability

The 2011 Tunisian uprising brought about unprecedented levels of freedom for civil society groups suddenly no longer hindered by regime co-optation or repression. Tunisia under former dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was a police state, beset with high levels of endemic corruption, centralized control, and “crony capitalism” that perpetuated widespread social exclusion, which is today one of Tunisia’s key developmental challenges.

According to a Global Financial Integrity estimate, the Tunisian state lost more than $1 billion annually to corruption, bribery and kickbacks during the Ben Ali years; these losses were largely in the extractive industries sector. These issues, which were at the forefront of the 2011 protests, gained prominence and urgency in the explosion in civil society organization (CSO) voices, especially those interested in working on the country’s natural resource sector. Indeed, the phosphate industry, a mainstay of Tunisia’s economy, was the tinderbox beneath the revolution leading to Ben Ali’s downfall. (Tunisia’s phosphate production is concentrated in the Gafsa region, which suffers from high unemployment, underdevelopment, social exclusion, and environmental degradation.)

In June 2012, as a result of CSO mobilization, Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali announced Tunisia's intention to join the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI). This would oblige the government to involve CSOs in decision-making around assessment and reform of resource governance. Tunisia's commitment to principles of open government in 2012 led to the adoption of a number of positive, transparency-focused measures, including the publication of budgets online and ultimately to joining the Open Government Partnership (OGP), in January 2014. That period of time also saw the peaceful handover of power to a non-partisan technocratic government, and the adoption of a new, pioneering constitution—a process that was open to comment and debate by citizens and CSOs dealing with various issues. However, no further steps have been taken by the government to join EITI (which could be due to the many changes in government in recent years). The approval of a new unity government by the newly elected parliament in the beginning of 2015 has led a number of CSOs to renew advocacy for EITI accession, and to push for the inclusion of extractives transparency in the OGP Tunisia action plan that the government and CSO representatives have drafted.

We at the Natural Resource Governance Institute (NRGI) have sought to help sustain the momentum towards greater transparency and to help transform government commitments into reality. We have provided project management and proposal writing coaching to civil society organizations which have then embarked on NRGI-funded projects, on issues ranging from the reform of hydrocarbons legislation to the improvement of recruitment policies of the Compagnie des Phosphates de Gafsa, and the reduction of citizen dissatisfaction in the region. While these initiatives are still underway, public debate around these issues has already increased. In its most recent round of funding, NRGI gave priority to activists and efforts focusing on the producing regions most affected by the lack of transparency and accountability in the Tunisian extractives sector.

However, despite positive changes and institutional efforts to tackle social injustice, corruption and social exclusion persist. And despite growing activism and enthusiasm, Tunisia’s fledgling civil society remains inexperienced, weak and fragmented. Mistrust and tensions abound; a culture of networking is absent, even though partnerships are crucial to the achievement of most civil society groups’ aims in the sector. “Our project is not just for our CSO, but for the benefit of the whole region of Gabes,” stated trainee and proposal writing workshop participant Foued Kraiem, president of l’Association Tunisienne de l'Environnement et de la Nature (ATEN), an NGO operating in the southeastern phosphate-producing governorate of Gabes.

NRGI and partner Publish What You Pay International (PWYP) have found that coalition-building is a priority for achieving concrete impact in terms of extractives transparency reforms and may indeed help reduce tensions amongst civil society actors and further empower them to achieve impact. “Tunisian CSOs need to work together, and consolidate their efforts,” said Diana al Kaissy, PWYP Middle East and North Africa coordinator. “An overall advocacy-based strategic plan should form the foundation from which civil society will collaboratively launch its push.”

Staff of CSOs working on natural resource issues need, as a first step, to improve their understanding of the issues they face—after all, wider access to data and increased knowledge improve the ability to hold those in power to account. One event organized by NRGI in collaboration with the Forum Tunisien des Droits Economiques et Sociaux (FTDES), a key stakeholder in the mining basin, revealed that participants had at best only a rudimentary understanding of the natural resource sector. “Although we live in a producing region that is directly affected by extractive issues, CSOs do not have the understanding of the sector that would allow them to participate in the debate,” said Leila Dab, a member of l’Association de Développement Sans Frontières, a CSO operating in the Tataouine region. Her organization’s NRGI-funded project aims to train other CSOs on extractive transparency issues. “This workshop enabled our team to learn about the specifics of the sector, especially with regard to the policies of international oil companies operating in our region, which we believe need reform.”

Through project proposals developed in close collaboration with NRGI staff and implemented with support from team members, partner CSOs are now preparing to advocate, in collaboration and as part of a nascent coalition of transparency-focused members, for the government to enact its promise to adhere to EITI.

“EITI is a norm that will allow us more auditing jurisdiction in terms of our work with companies operating within the extractives sector,” explained Fattoum Ouselati, government auditor and member of the Association Tunisienne des Controleurs Publics (ATCP). “EITI can be our bible, in that it will help us ensure the conformity of the management of natural resource revenues to international norms.”

Patricia Karam is NRGI’s Middle East and North Africa regional coordinator. Hanen Keskes is NRGI’s Tunisia associate.