November 2008 marks 21 years of rule under President Zine al-Abidine Bin Ali. The last fifteen years of this period are remarkable for the progress Tunisia has achieved in poverty alleviation and state-society synergy through the country’s impressive National Solidarity Fund or Fonds de Solidarité Nationale (FNS), also known as “Caisse 26-26” (26-26 Fund). The FNS is Tunisia’s “oil.” Government statistics indicate a halving of the country’s poverty rate from over 10 per cent in the mid-1980s to less than 5 per cent at the turn of the millennium.
Though often criticized for clinging to the presidency for life (especially after declaring his candidacy for a fifth term in the 2009 elections), Bin Ali boasts of creating a deeply institutionalized culture of solidarity and self-help. And indeed, the success of the FNS is proving infectious. Several neighboring North African and sub-Saharan countries are adopting it as a model, through which they are seeking to replicate Tunisia’s success in poverty alleviation.
There are quantitative and qualitative aspects to the FNS as an instrument of statecraft in the hands of the Tunisian ruling elite and under the aegis of the ruling Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD). Quantitatively, the statistics produced by the state and the RCD to corroborate the FNS’s success story are impressive. By 2004 the FNS had funded projects for eradication of so-called “shadow zones” (slums) in more than 1760 areas across the country. These interventions, according again to state statistics, benefited nearly a quarter of a million families or 1.2 million inhabitants at a cost of more than 750 million Tunisian dinars (about $550 million). The improvement of living conditions of the needy and creation of affordable housing are central tenets of the FNS. A large share of the monies raised for the FNS is allocated to repair and improve living conditions as well as build new houses. Some 30,000 housing units had been built for the benefit of the poor by 2004, not including houses repaired, electrified, or equipped with sanitary amenities or drinkable water.
The FNS’s reach as an institutionalized charity is being continuously diversified. The collection and distribution of used primary and secondary school books is an annual event to which nearly all Tunisian households contribute. In 2008 nearly a quarter million books were donated, sparing thousands of households expenses that come with the new school year. The project serves also as a recycling device that is environmentally friendly. Another FNS activity has been the qawafil (caravans) in which special buses take all kinds of goods and services to remote or isolated regions, including border towns and villages. These goods have included medical teams, internet services, clothes, toys, children’s theatre and books, and even entertainers and clowns.
The FNS also mimics the Bangladeshi model of microcredits, targeting primarily graduate employment and small entrepreneurs and business. Nearly 85,000 families have so far benefited from FNS intervention in the field of microcredits for small business and entrepreneurs.
Working in tandem with the FNS is the Fonds National de L’Emploi (FNE) created in 1999. This has introduced specialization and a kind of division of labor in the domain of solidarity. Tunisia suffers from the same problems of youth and university graduate unemployment found throughout the Middle East and North Africa region. This FNE instrumentality relies on local know-how and resources to ensure that work done by the FNS in terms of poverty alleviation is not undermined or defeated by swelling numbers of hittistes (North African term for the unemployed). More than half a million Tunisians have reportedly benefited from FNE funding to young entrepreneurs and graduates with agricultural, commercial, technical, or business training. Figures from 2003 show that of the 300,000 recipients of FNE funding since 1999 nearly 20,000 were university and college graduates. The synergy linking the FNS, FNE, and the BTS generated 94,000 jobs between 1999 and 2003.
Most Tunisians dip into their pockets to donate money to the FNS. In fact, it is no exaggeration to say that an ethos of solidarity has been institutionalized in the whole country. Donation to the FNS is quasi mandatory and most wage earners set aside a few dinars from their monthly salary for the purpose. Donations are paid to the Banque Tunisienne de Solidarité (BTS -Tunisian Solidarity Bank). The number of donors jumped from 180,000 in December 1994 to more than two million nine years later. In Tunisia, December 8 is the National Day of Solidarity, an occasion for intensive fund-raising activities and donation involving the whole country.
Qualitatively, solidaristic policies and attendant institutions and programs have empowered Tunisia to rely on local resources to remedy problems of inequality, poverty and unemployment. For a country that fiercely guards its sovereignty, Tunisia has succeeded through these various solidarity schemes to escape the political conditionality of global aid donors at a time when democracy promotion has risen on the global agenda of wealthy states.
In addition to alleviating poverty, the NSF has also served domestic political purposes by borrowing a leaf from the Islamists’ book. Tunisia’s anti-Islamist leadership has replicated the social welfare programs and activities that are the exclusive bastion of Islamist organizations in Palestine, Lebanon, Egypt, Jordan, and in Algeria before 1992. Bin Ali and the ruling RCD are mindful of the risk of neglecting social welfare, which would play into the hands of rival centers of power, especially Islamists who are adept at political organization and mobilization through charity and social welfare networking. Thus Bin Ali legalized and institutionalized solidarity, making it yield results that have been possible due to management of this domain and to mechanisms set in place to minimize corruption. Also, by attempting to level the socio-economic playing field through institutionalized charity, Bin Ali’s aim is to minimize the number of Tunisians who could be susceptible to radicalization.
One further benefit of this approach is possible. The potential for applying state-society synergy and partnership in the arena of socio-economic solidarity to future political liberalization is tremendous. Credit for the success of solidaristic activities in Tunisia is also due to Tunisia’s society, which has been a willing and active partner with the state in the enactment of national solidarity. If this partnership spills over into political participation and institution-building, Tunisia could, in the long run, replicate the FNS and FNE’s success stories in the realm of democratization.
Larbi Sadiki is senior lecturer in Arab democratization, University of Exeter, and author of Arab Democratisation: Elections without Democracy (forthcoming, Oxford University Press, March 2009).