Working out of poverty

Breaking the cycle of poverty in Tunisia

Breaking the cycle of poverty can be done through the development of disadvantaged areas and creating opportunities for the local population. In Tunisia, the ILO has launched a series of projects in these areas using a participative approach that includes beneficiaries in their implementation. Young people are central to this process, as the school to work transition determines an adult’s chances to escape poverty.

TUNIS, February 2016 – The sun lights up the pretty facades of Avenue Habib Bourghiba, centre of the capital. In the midst of this decidedly mild winter, in contrast with the harsh economic, social and security climate of the country, walkers gather to enjoy the shade of the ficus trees lining the avenue.

On the steps of the municipal theatre, we meet a young man, Osama Benguila. The 28 year-old student is surviving by doing odd jobs, mainly in the informal economy.

When asked about the Nobel Peace Prize, awarded in 2015 to the Tunisian Quartet, including the trade unions and employers UGTT and Utica, he recognizes that it is an honour for the country. “From the popular uprising of 14 January 2011, Tunisian youth acquired freedom of expression. But our goal as youth is also to have work,” he says.

Unemployment – especially youth unemployment – is central to the economic and social crisis facing Tunisia. In January 2016, Tunisian youth came out in force on the streets demanding the jobs that are sorely lacking.

It might be said that fate haunts this country of just over 10 million inhabitants, which was for years a favourite tourist destination for many foreigners. The terrorist attacks in 2015 on the Bardo Museum in Tunis, and then at a hotel near Sousse, drove away tourists.

These events had serious consequences for employment in the tourism industry as a whole, including hotels, restaurants, and for service providers, artisans and the merchants of the medinas.

Help for disadvantaged regions

But the effects on the tourism industry that primarily concern coastal areas conceal an even harsher reality, that of the underdeveloped interior regions of the country.

These have been neglected for decades, in favour of coastal regions. After the revolution, the government has tried to restore some balance, but it remains an enormous task.

This is particularly true for the governorate of Sidi Bouzid, 250 km south of Tunis, where the Tunisian revolution began.

On December 17, 2010, Mohamed Bouazizi, a young street vendor, made desperate by the inability to make a living and the bullying he suffered from the police, set himself on fire in front of the governorate. He died a few days later. Although different versions exist on the circumstances of the tragedy, this act is generally considered the starting point that led to a general mobilization of the people, resulting in the fall of the dictatorship on the 14th of January, 2011.

Like his cousin, hero of the Tunisian Revolution, Salah Bouazizi is a street vendor at the Sidi Bouzid market.
Five years later, we are in Sidi Bouzid. It was this city, a symbol of the economic and social crisis in Tunisia, in which the International Labour Organization (ILO) decided to implement a pilot project creating a covered market in the city centre, built using labour intensive techniques, a method that promotes the use of local resources, job-creating capacity and integrates with local development dynamics.

This construction is particularly symbolic as it will allow traders, including some street vendors, to work in decent conditions during the daily market and large weekly souk.

To date – for lack of suitable space – traders settle in a disorderly manner in the narrow streets of the town centre, with no possibility to properly display their products, creating a particularly chaotic situation, especially in rainy weather, blocking streets and leading to conflict with city authorities.

“The ILO project being completed will allow merchants to have suitable premises, giving them the opportunity to showcase their products in a building respecting the traditional building style of the region and promoting the use of local materials,” says Jean-Louis De Bie, Chief Technical Advisor of the ILO’s Support Programme for the Development of Disadvantaged Areas (AZD). Funded by the European Union, it is supporting job creation, local economic development and vocational reintegration by supporting the Tunisian State in the governorates of Gafsa, Siliana, Le Kef, Kasserine and Sidi Bouzid.

Close to the market construction site, we meet the colourful mobile stall of Salah Bouazizi, who told us that he was a cousin of the hero of the Tunisian Revolution. The 31 year-old father of two children somehow survives as a street vendor. He has a good view of the construction site for the market. When completed, the structure will accommodate 372 traders, including stalls, vegetable and bric-a-brac shops spread over 2.7 hectares.

The project has relied particularly on small local contractors. Forty workers are permanently present on site, all employees of regional contractors. Most of the material used, such as stones, slabs and paving comes from local quarries.

Daly Karim is a young 31 year-old building contractor. After graduating in civil engineering, he has been out of work for a long time. Building the market has been his first contract. “On this site, I have gained experience that I can use elsewhere. I have since won new contracts and might employ up to 12 people in constructing the market,” he enthuses.

His enthusiasm is shared by Rachid Omri, another entrepreneur from Sidi Bouzid who, after finishing the work awarded on this site, won the contract for the construction of the Youth Centre in Sidi Bouzid by offering the same techniques as used for the central market, that is to say, building in the regional style and using stones from quarries in the region.

The search for skilled agricultural workers

The ILO’s AZD programme has developed, in parallel, another activity in the region of Sidi Bouzid, in the locality of Regueb, known for its fertile soils. Yet, the inhabitants of the region gain few benefits from land belonging to large landowners living nearby. Despite high unemployment in the region, they were bringing in labourers from coastal areas, because they could not find locally skilled workers.

As for the market of Sidi Bouzid, the ILO project in Regueb largely involves the social partners, public, private structures and populations grouped within a Local Economic Development Forum, created by the project, and providing a space for dialogue and consultation.

“Here, the ILO has identified opportunities in training to create a pool of agricultural service skills,” says Said Ayouni, ILO expert in local economic development in Regueb. “This pilot project allowed us to train nearly a hundred people to the pruning and grafting of fruit trees and vegetable crops, or picking and packing of local agricultural products.”

Ali Jalali is 24. He was previously unemployed and needed a way to support his family, including his two siblings. “I knew nothing about fruit trees before my training and now I am qualified in this field. Through the project, I could find work. I earn about 450 dinars per month, plus room and board,” he enthuses.

The fate of Fatma Jaballi, obliged to take the farm from her parents despite her Masters in Geology, is symbolic of the jobs crisis for young Tunisian graduates.
Near to Ali, a young woman attracts our attention. Fatma Jaballi has just celebrated her 30th birthday. She too, attended the training. Yet, when you learn her story, it encapsulates the seriousness of the state of unemployment among young graduates. Fatma tells us that she holds a Masters in Geology.

“I graduated first in my class at the University of Bizerte. Like other classmates, I could not go for a PhD in Europe or Canada. Despite my degree, I had no prospect of employment, and it was necessary that I find a paying job to support my family,” she explains.

Tired of being unemployed, she decided to take over the family farm from her parents in the Regueb region. Taking advantage of easier access to credit for the “educated unemployed” helped revive her business. The ILO provided timely training to support her with some of the agricultural skills she still lacked.

Taking charge

The young woman does not think of herself as a victim. True, she regrets not having been able to find work in her chosen sector given her level of education, but she has rebounded, and with different skills should be able to ramp up her activity.

When asked about the desperation of some young people, she considers that they should also be able to change their mentality. “Young Tunisians have to change, not wait. We must be proactive and create opportunities,” she says.

Back in Tunis, another young entrepreneur gives us an almost identical speech on the need for young people not to expect everything from the state and to take charge. Mohamed Riadh Sallem is 28. He runs a company specializing in electronic security.

The young man employs seven people in a developing sector. However, to prove the quality of his company’s work, he obtained CETIME certification (Technical Centre of Mechanical and Electronic Industries), with the support of the National Chamber of Unions for Electronic Security Companies.

Certainly, beyond a few successes, the situation for job seekers, including young graduates, remains very worrying. According to statistics for the fourth quarter of 2015 from the Tunisian National Institute of Statistics, the unemployment rate among higher education graduates reached 31.2 per cent, against 15.4 per cent for the overall population. The unemployment rate among female university graduates climbs to 41 per cent, twice the rate of men.

Meanwhile, the Bureau of Employment in Tunisia shows that 75 per cent of young workers between 15 and 29 years are working in the informal economy.

Quality job creation

Before leaving Tunis, we speak with the Minister of Social Affairs, Mahmoud Ben Romdhane (see also page 13), who does not deny the scale of the challenge. “We must move to a quality job creation development model,” he insists.

“We are a country under reconstruction. This means a huge development plan, a Marshall Plan. The backing of the international community can help Tunisia, helping to ensure its democratic consolidation, because Tunisian democracy today is a global public good,” he adds.

The Minister also stressed the priority given to social protection in the fight against poverty, especially in the development of unemployment insurance and health coverage for the 10 to 15 per cent of Tunisians who still do not benefit.

Decent jobs for Tunisian youth
In Tunisia, the ILO also provides technical expertise, supports inclusive development and institutional strengthening for the various actors responsible for promoting youth employment locally, regionally and nationally through the PEJTUN project funded by the Danish Development Cooperation (DANIDA).

The project is realized in close cooperation with the government and the social partners.

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By Jean-Luc Martinage and Marcel Crozet (photos)
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