A decade after the Arab Spring, there are still high hopes for a long-promised “Tomorrowland” of opportunities in Tunisia. However, such a reality remains an enigma for so many of the country’s youth. As a young peacebuilder in Tunisia, I understand that the state has very limited resources. But even so, our leaders have not delivered the desired (or expected) developments that could support so many citizens — including youth, women and vulnerable communities.

Pedestrians in the Tunisian capital of Tunis. September 30, 2021. (Ivor Prickett/The New York Times)
Pedestrians in the Tunisian capital of Tunis. September 30, 2021. (Ivor Prickett/The New York Times)

A Lack of Opportunities at Home

Many Tunisians have resorted to searching international platforms or reaching out to international institutions for a “ticket” out of the country through a training program, scholarship, internship or grant.

Those unable to acquire a “ticket” are still leaving Tunisia in droves. The total number of Tunisian minors who arrived in Italy in 2021 reached an alarming 2,731 — of which 2,076 were unaccompanied. Tunisia has also contributed over 3,000 foreign fighters to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. When the world sees Tunisian youth, they see a group of alienated, hopeless and increasingly radicalized individuals.

However, that’s never been the true reality. What they often don’t see is the cause of Tunisian youth’s disillusionment, alienation and their dangerous sense of hopelessness. Most lack access to equal economic opportunities. The unemployment rate for young people aged 15 to 24 in the first quarter of 2022 stood at 38.5 percent (39.8 percent for men and 36.0 percent for women).

Notably, the surge in national inflation in 2022 (which reached 8.4 percent in August) forced Tunisia to redirect all its resources to combat the spikes in commodity prices while also dealing with the legacy of COVID-19 on all levels. The country is left with little space and no resources to redirect funds or consolidate national strategies toward key issues such as unemployment or violent extremism. However, livelihood programs and social safety nets appear to be the least of the government’s priorities as depicted by the 2022 state budget, where priority is given to security. These economic and social challenges — combined with the country’s political tumult — are key drivers of social unrest and open the door for the luring narratives of violent extremism.

What the world also doesn’t see is the resilience and passion of young Tunisians as they work to improve their communities. I’ve established an organization to advocate for inclusive youth policies both in my city and across the country. And to raise awareness of the (albeit limited) existing opportunities, I co-founded a popular group on Facebook to share jobs, internships, scholarships, events and volunteer openings, as well as ways develop ways to consolidate our individual experience and knowledge. There are countless others who are undertaking similar efforts throughout the country.

Replacing the Old Paradigm of Economic Empowerment

Tunisia needs new, inclusive policies that create an enabling environment for innovation and digitization, especially for youth and women in interior regions. To do this, the country needs to do away with the old paradigm of economic empowerment used in classic development models that have been implemented since the 1980s.

To address and update their strategy, Tunisia’s government can enact policies such as direct subsidies for vulnerable youth and families; encourage ventures and startups through ideation and incubation programs; and develop a multisectoral approach to analyze, understand and prevent drivers of instability in the most heated zones.

The way forward is to provide an enabling environment for ventures to grow, innovate and be competitive so that they absorb the increasing demands of Tunisians for employment — especially among youth and women in interior regions.

With the emergence of new booming industries and innovation in gaming, artificial intelligence and robotics, the Tunisian state and the private sector could invest in those new job markets, while considering those opportunities as alternative solutions for the younger generations to shift them away from harmful norms and extremist behaviors. These could be perceived as innovative preventive mechanisms to de-radicalize and redirect youth from extremism to creative thinking and productivity in society.

Community-Level Development Priorities

While many could argue that the issue is purely a structural state problem at the national level, successful initiatives on the community level — driven by international aid agencies and grassroots organizations — have proven their efficiency in changing the status quo.

Those types of initiatives are leading remarkable transformations in the lives of affected populations in the most neglected zones. For instance, Souk At-tanmia — an initiative implemented by the African Development Bank — worked on the promotion of employment in Tunisia through support for entrepreneurship. Souk At-tanmia offered integrated support that combined funding, coaching, mentoring, market access and networking services and succeeded in creating 161 new enterprises leading to more than 1,137 jobs across the country.

Another remarkable initiative to mention is FHI360’s ACEA project, aiming at increasing sales and exports of Tunisian handicrafts that are produced by rural women in the northwest of Tunisia, one of the most disadvantaged zones. Direct support is being given to a core group of rural women-run cooperatives through capacity development, technical assistance and trade fair participation leading to their sustainable economic growth while preserving their cultural heritage. 

Such “quick win” initiatives are undoubtedly contributing to direct and indirect job creation. Tunisia needs to reverse the dangerous flow of youth out of the country by encouraging entrepreneurial projects and 21st century skills like coding. At the same time, the country needs to ease the costs of starting a business to provide a steady income, social support and — most importantly — a dignified status for marginalized youth and others below the line of poverty.

With the boom of digital platforms and solutions, innovation is no longer a luxury — it is a vital priority in a race against the alarming fall in the purchasing power of Tunisian households.

Tunisians, always creative and agile, can begin building their “Tomorrowland” now by shifting away from harmful norms and antiquated development strategies. Tunisia should support innovation by investing in strong digital infrastructure equitably across the 24 governorates while protecting ethical competition, reinforcing the application of law on an equal basis, and empowering emerging sectors and industries.

The new Tunisia is a place that disempowers stagnant corporatism and invests in renewable and sustainable business models. The new Tunisia is where education is reformed to meet international standards and where international resources are used to create opportunities for youth and women seeking to expand their horizons. The new Tunisia is where minors do not flee the country to the closest border across Europe and where the deradicalization strategy is designed, enacted and operationalized to prevent the pitfalls of the last decade in this fledgling democracy.

Mohamed Arous is a USIP Generation Change Fellow and co-chair of the USIP Youth Advisory Council. He recently worked for the World Bank in Tunisia on redress mechanisms and social development.

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