The “Programme d’Appui à la Société Civile" managed by PASC-Tunisie is one of the most ambitious and innovative initiatives for Democracy Support that the European Union has recently launched in its Neighbourhood. In the wake of the Jasmine Revolution and for the first time in the history of European cooperation, the interim Tunisian government decided to reallocate a substantial envelope of bilateral funds (7M€) – originally foreseen for technical assistance and institutional building – to reinforce the capacities of Tunisian Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) so that they could be able to play a crucial role in the transition to democracy. With a budget of 3.400.000 Euro, the projects runs for 36 months.
After two and a half years of activities, Vita International talked to Mr Imed Abdeljaoued, PASC-Tunisie program manager, on the program’s progress and its efforts to help civil society raise its skill levels in order to accomplish its expected mission in a democratic society.
What is the mission of Pasc - Tunisie?
The overall objective of the programme consists on supporting Tunisian Civil Society in its efforts to contribute to political and economic dialogue, consolidate the rule of law and promote socio-economic development. To this purpose, the programme aims at building spaces for dialogue at local level around policy issues that must be identified by the CSOs themselves, thus enhancing their ownership over the programme and reversing the top-down approach that was in place during Ben Ali’s years.
The climate of distrust resulting from a long dictatorship that used CSOs as a means to embroider its external image is to be overcome by tackling simultaneously the needs of both kinds of stakeholders – public administrators and civil society activists – and by promoting the establishment of “operational partnerships”, which will address the main public problems the country is currently facing.
Trust among otherwise separate – and often confronted – stakeholders needs to be established, first and foremost through the collective analysis of the issues addressed by the programme. This preliminary phase of participatory assessment is key to ensure the legitimacy of the actions to be carried out by PASC and represents the cornerstone of the methodology, based on a shared ownership over the objectives and expected results of the dialogue process.
The programme is strongly policy-oriented so as to provide CSOs and public bodies with a shared approach to problem solving, which represents a considerable progress towards a participative democracy. In the long run, this operational partnership will lead to a better understanding of the others’ capacities and strengths.
What kind of programmes does PASC run?
Regarding the main focus areas, I highlight decentralisation, participative democracy, good local governance, employment and socio-economic development, with a special focus on disadvantaged regions and active citizenship based on gender equality and human rights.
What about the main activities?
Among the many, I single out our efforts in promoting and structuring CSOs participation in the decision-making process in the field of public policies; supporting the implementation and the formalisation of dialogue spaces dedicated to public services provision; establishing smooth communication channels (peer to peer) between stakeholders; developing tools and solutions adapted to the real needs of CSOs (tailor-made approach); strengthening the core capacities of civil society as well as their capacity for dialogue vis-à-vis the public sector, at national, regional and local levels; setting up actions to improve the institutional and legislative environment for civil society; setting up consultations and partnerships between stakeholders, capitalising on best practices and supporting pilot projects, monitoring and advocacy.
What are the greatest achievements?
The programme has put into place a system that allows the key stakeholders to identify the priorities that need to be tackled along the different dialogue processes conducted simultaneously at local and national level. Translated in details, we set up a Steering Committee composed by an equal number of representatives from key ministries (Economy and Finance, Home Affairs and Cooperation and Development) and the main networks of CSOs in Tunisia (RANDET, LTDH, Coalition for Women) is in place. Its main mission consists on approving the programming documents and providing political guidance to the Management Unit and the Field Offices.
We also achieved to build a network of Field Offices in six cities (covering the whole country) that is providing first assistance and acting as helpdesk for the CSOs operating in the different regions, helping them to better understand the political organisation of the Tunisian State (especially after the new Constitution) and providing them with tips and contacts to approach the government agencies in charge of running the different policies that they seek to influence.
Under the program, we established a The Community of practice (CoP), a "learning by sharing” platform that provides a link between the physical space (field offices) and the virtual space (Internet). It is designed as a toolkit available to CSOs and public actors and is an open and participatory space allowing users to expand their knowledge through: thematic distance learning (e- learning); dialogue and networking; exchange of experiences and best practices; and a digital library continuously stocked by users.
Why this program should be extended ?
After two and a half years of activities, PASC has become a must for CSOs, local and regional actors, and central authorities. Five factors have given PASC credibility, today recognised by all stakeholders.
It is the only programme that covers the entire country; the bottom-up approach adopted by the team has allowed local organisations to feel involved and active in local affairs; the neutrality (non-political, non-religious and non-ethnic) in the field has allowed PASC to tackle most of local issues to moderate the discussions between stakeholders; the encouraging results in the regions, in terms of established trust, mutual respect between CSOs and public stakeholders, and the good practices carried out, have made PASC an ultimate mediator and facilitator for local debates. I also underscore the ability of PASC to bring together stakeholders occupying public space (CSOs, public, local media, university, local and national elected) that allows it to play a central role in local democracy and collaborative governance.
Could you provide information related to the NGO scope in Tunisia?
Tunisia is facing the problem of how to help civil society (respecting its autonomy as well as its “bottom-up” dynamic) raise its skill levels in order to accomplish its expected mission in a democratic society.
In this context, we noticed that the willingness of some CSOs to influence the course of public policies does not match their technical skills or their knowledge of the policy landscape.
Our experience tells us it is not always easy to measure to what extent a given CSO is representative, or to determine if it is driven by another group of interest.
In transitional contexts, the tendency of politics to influence policy is often exacerbated, which may entail the irruption of spoilers that aim at blocking the dialogue process from within.
It is crucial to identify and involve those officials “allies” that believe in the importance of opening policy to multi-stakeholder dialogue because they are the ones that can act as drivers of change within the State bureaucracy.
We also noticed that Tunis gathers the largest number of associations and the most representative ones are taking the form of federations. For more efficiency, PASC must approach these national level dialogue partners without neglecting the urgent needs of proximity associations, which are playing the role of service providers to deprived sections of society.
How many NGOs are there now? How many were there before the revolution?
There are currently 18,800 NGOs compared to 9,819 before the revolution.
After a few years from the revolution, how would you describe the social situation in your country?
Five years after 2011, the track record of Tunisia is mitigated by an outlook that is not reassuring at all. Certainly, a pluralist and democratic regime has been established in the country, leading to freedom of expression, political plurality and an overhaul of the civil society. Nevertheless, two important factors could undermine the gains of the revolution: The social situation and the threat of terrorism.
Socially, the challenges that Tunisia is facing are countless: unemployment (15.3%), inflation (7%), marginalised inland areas (40% unemployment in some governorates). Tunisia hardly creates more jobs and there is no compensation scheme for the unemployed.
Local development is non-existent in more than half of the governorates and the inequality gap is far from be filled. Faced with stagnant economic growth and the continuing deterioration of living standards, all sectors are threatened by strikes, and social unrest is at its peak. The attempts to establish a "social truce" for two years proposed by the government and timidly approved by the unions, has been slow to achieve because of the workers' resistance.
In security terms, things are more complicated. Tunisia has become the first manpower exporter to war zones such as Syria and Libya. According to the Homeland Security Studies and Analysis Institute, more than 6000 people have joined the ranks of Daesh. The return home of these terrorists concerns Tunisian people. The socio-political instability in Libya is also an on-going concern.
The risk for the Tunisian people today is to see some hard-won liberties confiscated in the name of security logic.
Cover photo: ODD ANDERSEN/AFP/Getty Images