Development assistance has never been such an important topic of conversation among Tunisians as it is today. The international support that Tunisia may or may not enjoy is seen as ever more essential to the political stability of the country and to the success or failure of the political transition. Despite the many achievements made by international actors in the country, foreign aid faces obstacles that may stand between it and achievement of its goals.
Lack of Coordination
The foreign assistance community may seem like a small club where everyone knows everyone else, but this is actually far from the case. A researcher conducting a study on technical assistance in Tunisia noticed that almost none of the organisations or agencies interviewed could name all the others working in the same area of expertise. This could have unpleasant consequences, such organizations conducting the same projects in the same regions at the same time, or having to start from scratch when part of the work has actually already been done by someone else.
Lack of coordination is detrimental to efficiency, and everyone agrees something must be done about it. However, there is no consensus on what to do.
Two main streams of thought exist about how to coordinate international aid. The first suggests that the government of the recipient country should do it, bringing together internationals, deciding what kind of aid it needs, and determining when and to where this aid should be delivered. International actors may expect relevant ministries to draw strategic development plans, according to which these actors would define their own individual action plan. Attempts have been made to implement a similar coordination structure in Tunisia. However, the bureaucratic heritage of Tunisian administration, characterized by centralization and lack of communication, has made it nearly impossible.
The second stream of thought suggests that international actors should be in charge of coordination. An initiative in this vein has been implemented in Tunisia regarding media reform. The group of technical assistance and financial partners in support of the Tunisian media sector created in 2011 by the Belgian-Walloon Aid Agency aims to coordinating international efforts deployed to reform the media sector. The group is generally appreciated, although it has witnessed some setbacks, and some respected professionals have voiced some criticism of it.
Program Design and Implementation
The way assistance programs are implemented in Tunisia suffers two major drawbacks: regional distribution and program design.
International assistance is very present in specific areas, particularly the capital and to a lesser extent Sidi Bouzid, Kasserine, and Gafsa, whilst many other regions including the northwest and the far south remain relatively neglected. As a rule of thumb, the governorates and towns usually associated in the media with the 2011 uprising are more attractive to internationals. Another area largely neglected by internationals is the suburban region of the capital. Although Tunis contains the most important concentration of donors, agencies and organizations, there is no more international aid channelled to Ettadhamen, Sidi Hsin or Mohamedia, for instance, than to the interior regions.
Reports and studies assessing international assistance in Tunisia have revealed that aid programs are not always tailored to the national context. Some organizations and agencies may simply replicate what they have done elsewhere. They may sometimes lack full knowledge of the context. One report quotes a Tunisian aid agent who said that an international workshop organiser asked during the event if Tunisia had any active labour union. This cannot happen, as one must be aware of all socio-political and cultural factors in order to be able to design effective programs.
Some Tunisians have also complained about internationals inaccurately comparing the Tunisian context to others, or setting as priorities issues that are of minor interest to the population. The needs and situation of the country may change very quickly, so that programs may suddenly become moot or incongruous.
In addition, the Tunisian way of doing things may seem daunting to internationals. For example, the business attitude of some contractors has completely foiled a project of road construction funded by a major foreign donor in Jendouba.
The Tunisian Context
One of the most important obstacles is the scarcity of competent local staff. Many agencies and organizations have a hard time finding qualified Tunisian workers. Tunisia is characterized by a high level of unemployed graduates, yet many of them do not have a working knowledge of French, English, and sometimes even standard Arabic. Their academic training does not prepare them to fit into the third sector. With few Tunisians among their local staff, some aid organizations may find it more difficult to operate effectively in Tunisia. It is also important to mention that some international organizations and cooperation agencies have a policy of hiring nationals of their own original countries, instead of locals.
The recent events in Tunisia form another delicate situation for aid actors. The Tunisian transition is now generally seen at a stalemate, and characterized by uncertainty. The longer it takes for political actors to solve the present crisis, the more sceptical internationals become. Aid actors could then suspend their activities. Some may willingly choose to do this to pressure national actors, while others may do so because they do not trust what may happen in the near future.
A project for a mining facility in the governorate of El Kef, for example, is on standby because the foreign investors are afraid of “what may happen to their expensive equipment.”
Aid actors working on the political transition are also limited by the very nature of the present crisis. For instance, as long as there is no idea about when the next elections will take place, no organizations specializing in the elections are able to launch any major initiatives.
Some obstacles pertain to the machinery of the foreign aid sector itself. This ‘third sector’ has seen many changes since emerging in the mid-20th century. Although it has proven helpful in many countries, experts have noticed the appearance of some negative trends.
Most important is an issue referred to as “phantom aid ” a term coined by Action Aid, an African NGO. This refers to aid that “is not genuinely available to poor countries to fight poverty.” Action Aid estimated that roughly half of development aid is phantom. “It is either poorly targeted, double-counted as debt relief, tied to donor good and services, or badly coordinated and highly conditional,” they state. While the extent of this phenomenon varies from country to country, this is the most serious problem currently affecting international aid.
There is also the matter of what can actually be considered aid. The definition has evolved throughout the years and has come to include some categories, such as debt relief, that do not necessarily help achieve the goal of international aid for development assistance. Aid is about organizing and planning in the field, and also includes both the financial means and the technical expertise to achieve sustainable projects that can lead to viable solutions. This definition excludes initiatives such as debt relief, which may seem appealing to people in developing countries but, does not solve any long-term problems. If recurrent, debt relief may even become part of the problem.
Another example of this problem of definition involves refugees. Donor countries can include any funds they spend on refugees arriving in their own territories as ‘foreign aid.’ Hence, this is money within donor countries, yet it is still considered foreign aid for development assistance. It must, however, be noted that some countries like Japan, the UK, and Italy do not include such expenses under foreign aid. Another category of expenses included under aid is administration costs, which includes housing and transport of international workers deployed in the field. Although necessary, this kind of expense is sometimes too high.
In Tunisia, this is one of the complaints whispered by locals. A researcher has reported that some Tunisians believe that employees of international organizations usually lead comfortable lives in the wealthy suburbs of La Marsa or Lac, far from the daily austerity most Tunisians experience.
‘Tied aid’ is another issue that can be very problematic. It refers to one country donating money to another, but on the condition of using that money to buy commodities and services from the donor country itself. Beside the financial inconvenience of getting goods at expensive rates, tied aid is usually not very well perceived by local experts and intellectuals. They decry the paradoxical nature of this aid being provided by countries that encourage free markets, but who force aid recipients to be customers of their own national industries.
The strategic priorities of donor countries are also an important part of where aid goes and what form it takes. Aid can thus become an instrument of foreign policy. Governments of recipient countries may be pressured to follow or avoid a particular policy, and it gives the donor an undeniable degree of leverage over the recipient. There are numerous conflicting points of view on this topic. There is the opinion that developed countries have the right, and even the obligation, to use this leverage to put pressure on some governments, especially in cases where human rights and democracy are involved. Another opinion is that this instrument grants foreign countries considerable influence over national governments, usually to the benefit of the donor’s interests and perhaps against the will of those who voted for the recipient state’s government. This issue is a real one, but in practice it is far less common than many believe.
Foreign aid has already been achieved many things in Tunisia. The intervention of government agencies or private organizations has made considerable contributions across a variety of sectors. Their work is not always easy, especially in a context where change happens very quickly whilst everything needs to be planned in advance. However, it remains possible to achieve even better results with the means already available.
Hosni Mouelhi currently works in the Tunisia office of an international organization promoting sociopolitical development. He has an MA in English Literature. This post reflects the opinion of the author and not of Tunisia Live as a publication.