Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, April 2005, pages 39-41

Special Report

Tunisia’s President Ben Ali Seeks Solidarity In Fight To End Poverty

By Delinda C. Hanley

Tunisian President Ben Ali enjoys working on computers himself and is committed to providing information technology to his fellow citizens (photo courtesy Tunisian External Communications Agency).

IN AN EXCLUSIVE interview with the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, on Jan. 4, 2005, Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali described his groundbreaking plan for the World Solidarity Fund for the Eradication of Poverty. He met with this reporter in his office in the presidential palace, perched on a hill outside Tunis overlooking the Mediterranean, on the site of the ancient city of Carthage. In stark contrast to the checkpoints, barricades, metal detectors, and searches now part of everyday life in a jumpy post-9/11 Washington, DC, our car passed through only one gate, next to a Tunisian high school. Clearance procedures were quick and simple.

As was the case around the world that week in early January, the subject quickly turned to the Dec. 26 tsunami disaster. As donations poured in for victims who had lost relatives, homes and livelihoods, Ben Ali shared his vision for a World Solidarity Fund, which could provide not just a temporary Band-Aid for a tragedy such as that, but a real cure for the grinding chronic poverty that afflicts 300 million to 420 million human beings in the world today.

“It is imperative to create new recipes and mechanisms to inspire the spirit of solidarity between the various peoples of the world in order to address the problem of the existing imbalances between rich and poor nations,” Ben Ali said. The world pays little attention to conflicts, famines, and illnesses in sub-Sahara Africa or South Asian countries, he pointed out. It’s only when the media spotlights a particular tragedy that people open their wallets. Then, when the press leaves, donors often forget, and the poor stay poor for generations.

Tunisia launched its own National Solidarity Fund in 1993, after President Ben Ali toured poor rural areas of his country that had been left behind in Tunisia’s rush to prosperity (see April/May 1999 Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, pp. 30-32). With limited government resources, Ben Ali asked for private donations from Tunisian citizens—and they’ve been giving generously ever since.

Every year on Dec. 8, schoolchildren, laborers, professionals, businesses—in fact, everyone who can spare some change—contribute to the fund. More money and goods are collected during the holy month of Ramadan, and concerts and fund-raising events are held throughout the year. Tax-deductible donations from private citizens can be deposited into account number 26-26 at any post office or bank in the country.

Funds raised by Tunisians are used to build new homes, libraries, community centers and clinics, as well as fund water and electricity projects. Banks give special loans to the poor, who start up small businesses. Tunisia’s poor are no longer forgotten: every citizen works hard to help others join Tunisia’s success story.

“In 10 years 1.5 million Tunisians have been spared deprivation and exclusion, and are now leading productive lives,” Ben Ali told the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs. “We were able to provide them with the basics of a decent livelihood and reduce the country’s poverty rate to 4.2 percent. In fact, Tunisia ranks among the first 10 countries that have managed to improve overall development indicators during the period 1990-2002, thanks to the evolution of economic indicators as well as those related to education, training, social security and health care.”

Tunisia’s pioneering initiative can be translated to a world-wide effort today, Ben Ali maintained. Not only do most people agree that it’s time for the world to pay attention to its poor, the Tunisian president observed—but it’s also in society’s best interest to do so. “This Solidarity Fund is based on our conviction that no development effort can enjoy continuity if its fruits are not distributed over all regions and social categories,” he explained, “and no stability can be ensured for a society where the phenomena of poverty and destitution still persist.”

Based on the success of the Tunisian experience, a worldwide effort could be highly effective both in saving lives and resolving conflicts. “When poverty and hunger are eliminated it can eliminate the primary factor which causes terrorism,” Ben Ali added. “When people are in dire need they are more susceptible to joining with extremists who feed them and motivate and exploit them.”

Tunisia’s anti-poverty drive—along with such other factors as educational reform, democratization, promotion of the rights of women and the separation of religion from politics—was instrumental in defeating a radical fundamentalist movement in the early 1990s.

As part of the Decade for the Eradication of Poverty (1997-2006), the United Nation’s General Assembly on Dec. 20, 2002 adopted U.N. Resolution A/57/265, which called for the establishment of the World Solidarity Fund. On Dec. 11, 2004, Ben Ali announced that one-tenth of the donations collected by Tunisia’s National Solidarity Fund this year will go to the World Fund in order to “launch its interventions and services as soon as possible.”

If the World Solidarity Fund succeeds in capturing the hearts of citizens of the world the way its Tunisian prototype has increased the spirit of national giving, the planet could be in for some big changes.

Had the fund been in place at the time of the tsunami, Ben Ali said, “it would have provided food and medical relief as well as reconstruction efforts in the disaster-stricken areas.” He went on to explain, “The World Solidarity Fund would make its contribution along with that of other existing funds and programs. It would not try to replace them.”

Turning to the most urgent political problem facing his region, Ben Ali described the “tragic and dangerous conditions that the brotherly Palestinian people are going through today.” He warned, “The Middle East peace process is going through a critical stage.”

Tunisia has always supported the establishment of an independent Palestinian State, its president noted. In fact, after Israel expelled Palestinians from Lebanon in 1982, Chairman Yasser Arafat and the Palestine Liberation Organization were headquartered in Tunis until 1994. “Tunisia has taken part in all stages of the peace process,” Ben Ali told the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, “because it considers peace a strategic choice.

“The international community, particularly the United States of America, should ensure the most favorable conditions for the resumption of peace negotiations, on the basis of the U.N. resolutions and the principle of ”˜land for peace,’” he continued.

“We are hopeful that the Quartet will intensify its efforts toward implementing the ”˜road map,’” Ben Ali said, “which will make the creation of an independent Palestinian state possible, and guarantee peace and security for all the peoples of the region. We will always remain committed to international legality as the basic reference for all peace plans.

“We should not lose hope,” Ben Ali insisted. “The Palestinians and Israelis are bound to live together. If there is political will, peace is possible. On our part, we will spare no effort to promote peace initiatives.”

Turning to another hot spot in the region, Ben Ali discussed re-establishing security in Iraq. “We have constantly insisted that both the international community and the United Nations make every effort to help Iraq regain its security and stability. We support Iraqi efforts to rebuild their institutions and reconstruct their country, while preserving their territorial unity and integrity.”

Preservation of Global Security

As for his thoughts on the global war against terrorism: “We are conscious that the deep changes that are transforming today’s world have also caused serious problems,” Ben Ali noted. “The international community is now reviewing methods we use to preserve international peace and security. Every nation must adopt a more global approach which takes into consideration the need for reinforcement of solidarity and mutual aid between the peoples of the world, as well as the close link between security, peace and development. We are convinced that dialogue and negotiation are the best means to solve conflicts, regardless of their magnitude and complexity.

“The elimination of hotbeds of tension in the world and the focus of nations on efforts aimed at fostering their development are the foundations on which the world order must rest,” Ben Ali maintained. “Peace, security, partnership and overall development can be carried out only at that price. Our vision is based on the idea of a partnership between peoples and states, based on solidarity and mutual security. Within this perspective, the United Nations represents, in our view, the best framework for the setting up of a dialogue among nations as well as for preserving peace, security and stability in the world.”

According to Ben Ali, the world must work harder to live together, using “principles of mutual understanding and positive interaction between religions, civilizations and cultures, the enshrinement of the values of tolerance and solidarity between individuals, groups and peoples in order to make possible the advent of a more peaceful future for humanity.”

It is important to note, he said, that the threat posed by terrorism and extremism in today’s world requires a real, appropriate commitment on the part of the international community to find common solutions to counter this scourge. “In this respect,” Ben Ali continued, “we have called for the urgent convening of an international conference, under the aegis of the United Nations, in order to set up an ethics charter to be implemented by the nations of the world in the fight against terrorism.

“One of the main factors that can help eradicate terrorism and ensure security in the world is the adoption of just policies toward peoples and nations,” stated the Tunisian president. “This means putting an end to double standards in dealing with pressing issues and problems.” Indeed, he pointed out, “beside its negative impact on peace and stability in the world, such double standards lead to feelings of humiliation and frustration among some of the peoples of the world—feelings on which terrorism feeds and breeds.

“The richness of the world is based on the diversity of its various ethnic groups and civilizations,” President Ben Ali concluded. “Building bridges between cultures, civilizations and religions is, in our view, the best means to thwart the dangers of extremism, terrorism, and confrontation.

“Tunisia,” its president said, “is committed to working toward a better future based on cooperation and solidarity.”

Delinda C. Hanley is news editor of the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, on Middle East Affairs.

SIDEBAR

Tunisia’s Future: Democratic and Cutting Edge

Tunisian youths are comfortable with information technology thanks to Internet clubs located in cultural centers and schools, like this one in La Marsa outside Tunis (photo by Michael Keating).

When asked what steps his country is taking to reinforce the democratic process, Ben Ali replied, “Tunisia has, in fact, made large strides on the path to democracy and pluralism. In our view, change and reform are a continuous gradual action. We use the same approach that has ensured Tunisia’s stability, prosperity and security over the years; that is, a prudent approach, which avoids any leaps into the unknown. This gradualist approach provides a safety net, which protects our country against all shocks or setbacks.”

Tunisia defended pro-reform stands during the last Arab Summit, held in Tunis on May 22, 2004 and chaired by President Ben Ali. His country held transparent presidential and legislative elections in October 2004, Ben Ali reminded this reporter, elections which were witnessed by international observers.

“In 2005,” he added, “the democratic process and pluralism will continue, when we hold elections for the Chamber of Advisers and of municipal councils. These elections reflect our strong will to enlarge the scope of representation, promote local democracy, reinforce freedom of opinion and expression, further enrich the media landscape, and guarantee human rights, whether in the legal text, in practice, or as a culture. In Tunisia, political reform is a firm choice and an ever-continuing process. We will continue to enhance the role of the various components of civil society, including political parties, organizations and associations, and increase dialogue in the national media.”

Tunisia has eight political parties, six of which are represented in parliament. As of next June, Tunisia will establish a second legislative chamber. The country’s five opposition parties publish their own newspapers and take part in public debates.

When asked what he thought the future might hold for Tunisia, President Ben Ali’s eyes shone. “Tomorrow’s Tunisia is a creative and innovative country boasting a shining civilization,” he responded. “It is a country capable of meeting the challenges of the new century; a country with a free, advanced and tolerant society. It is also a country that offers a better quality of life, a higher income for its citizens, and more protection for consumers. It’s a country in which great effort is devoted to the creation of more job opportunities; a country achieving faster growth and a greater integration within the global economy.”

Boasting a middle class which spans three-quarters of society, Tunisia has enjoyed an average economic growth of more than 5 percent for the last 15 years.

As Ben Ali sees it, the digital divide between countries is essentially a development and technological gap. “To begin to close this gap,” he said, “we proposed holding a world summit, under the auspices of the United Nations. Tunis will host the second phase of the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) in November 2005.” The convening of such a summit is based on a Tunisian proposal later adopted by the United Nations. It testifies to the increasing international recognition of the pioneering status of Tunisia in the promotion of new information technologies in the Arab world and Africa. Nearly one million Tunisians regularly use the Internet. Private radio and television stations were launched in 2003.

“The Information Society to which we aspire,” Ben Ali explained, “is one that provides equal opportunities to benefit from this technology; a society that offers all peoples and nations, without discrimination or exclusion, access to sources of knowledge, information, and services in all fields.”

Disseminating the digital culture has become a top priority in Tunisia, Ben Ali declared. “We’ve built computer and Internet clubs in cultural centers across the country. We’ve connected educational institutions, from primary schools to universities, to the Internet. We even offer low- or middle-income Tunisian families opportunities and incentives to purchase ”˜family computers.’”

The society of the future will be based on information technology, President Ali concluded—and if he has his way, Tunisia surely will be at the cutting edge.—D.C.H.