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An EU study group has recently filed its diagnostic report on Tunisian Civil Society (TCS), available here. This report will serve as basis for the next EU support program to TCS. A look back at the principal elements of this report and some proposals for future action.

Report summary

The report, numbering some fifty pages, contains four parts, in addition to an introduction and appendix.

In the first section, the report notes that the current state of TCS has been influenced by the publishing of a new law on associations, remarkable for its exclusion of privative sanctions on the freedom of association and the simplification of the procedures required for creating and managing an association.

The negatives raised in the text are of minor importance. From an institutional perspective, the report informs us of the existence of a new department for associations at the First Ministry, which will be added to IFEDA, created in 2000. But it also highlights the lack of measures which might allow for a more institutionalized involvement of TCS in local and national good governance as well as in development.

In the second section, the report reveals that the state of knowledge on TCS remains limited. The new dynamic surrounding associations after 14 January made possible the creation of 2000 new associations, to which have been added a further 700 since 23 October 2011. But, in both qualitative and quantitative terms, we still know little about a civil society in Tunisia which is, for the most part, young or still under construction. The same goes for institutional actors on a national and international level.

Nevertheless, we know that existing associations are operating on different levels and in several domains: certain themes are new and target short-term issues, linked to the democratic transition, while others are older and have mobilized as many people after January 14 as before, these being, in particular, culture, the environment, and women’s rights.

The third section of the report offers a functional description of TCS and its component parts. It is asserted that the relationship between TCS and the state is marked by mutual distrust and an obvious lack of consultation procedures. This form of consultation, that the associations themselves wish to see (84% of those questioned), should go towards the establishment of an equal partnership, but one which should not impact upon the independence of those associations which make up TCS.

The report points to the need for associations to form a networked grouping in order to put an end to the fragmentation of the association community, a fragmentation worsened by the divide between modernists and traditionalists. Moreover, TCS as a whole still lacks firm roots in a popular base and among the most disadvantaged sectors of society, thus restricting its social impact.

A large portion of the report is devoted to outlining the problems and weakness that have been identified. Around twenty themes are expounded upon, alongside some courses of action for the future Support Programme of Tunisian Civil Society, under the aegis of the European Union. The analysis carried out by the associations themselves on the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and problems related to TCS demonstrate that the associations see the willingness, activism and enthusiasm of their members as their main strength. As far as financial questions are concerned, they are shown to be the major problem faced by associations, which, as a result, are seeking opportunities to access further financial support.

The last part of the report is devoted to outlining different support missions for TCS, both national and international.

Some proposals for future action

A reading of the report by the EU mandated committee, as well as my own experience, leads me to propose the following approaches for action:

Strengthen the capabilities of associations

The concern here is to have a civil society capable of having more impact on political, economic and social life in the country. This line of approach has to do with the human element: developing management skills, entrepreneurship and leadership. The capacities which seem, to me, important to develop are:

–  The capacity effectively to run an association and develop a coherent outlook: in particular the ability to define the strategy of the association, to define its vision and its field of action, to come up with new ideas, to give them structure and turn them into projects, to mobilize active members…

–  The capacity to manage a project: in particular the ability to take a project from start to finish, overseeing the quality, cost and time-frame of the project, managing a team and internal and external communication…

–  The capacity to ensure effective management of finances: in particular the ability to be informed in time of requests for proposals on the part of backers, to understand what is required in order to procure financing and to respond to them in a timely manner, to ensure the transparent management of allotted funds (which also relies upon the capability to adapt the project according to the level of funding granted, and as such the necessity to to conceive of the project from the beginning in modular terms).

It falls to the State, international institutions and established associations to propose forms of action within the framework of this approach.

Strengthen the institutional role of associations

The concern here is to allow for the State’s pursuit of a more relevant and impactful policy, which also benefits from the expertise of representative partners of Tunisian society. This line of approach therefore falls within a legal and institutional framework: to further the progression of public laws and structures, in particular:

– Institutionalizing the relationship between the State and civil society on every level: the creation of consultative bodies in various sectors as well as on a national and regional level, the creation of a department/office of associations in every ministry, general management, public agency, regional management, local authorities…

–  Defining the rules and procedures which will allow for the equitable representation of associations, and which will allow them to remain independent of the State.

–  Involving civil society in large-scale projects, for which the expertise and intervention of the State alone are insufficient: development projects (town and country planning, projects which impact upon the environment), cultural projects (management of cultural centres, restoration of monuments)…

This field is one for which responsibility falls to political heads, essentially the ruling parties (or the parties likely to be in power).

Strengthen synergy between associations

The concern here is to consolidate national unity and solidarity and to reduce differences: ideological, regional, between social classes and generations… This line of approach relates primarily to the strategy of associations: this strategy must be oriented towards shared projects and partnerships.

–  Undertaking shared projects which will rally people from associations of divergent tendencies (in particular modernist and traditionalist tendencies): for example projects centred upon broad national causes (poverty, unemployment, regional development)…

–  Grouping into formal networks and federations, both locally and nationally, and looking for foreign partnerships: to benefit from the expertise of every association, to gain from experience of other countries, to engage in more ambitious projects.

It therefore falls to the associations themselves to work on this area, just as it falls to the State and financial backers to encourage any initiatives which arise.

Article translated from French to English by Christopher Barrie

Status report and perspectives on Tunisian civil society

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