Jobs and skills to cement democracy in post-Arab Spring Tunisia

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV.COM Ltd.

Demonstrators in Tunisia during the 2011 revolution. [Chris Belsten/Flickr]

Opportunity is the bedrock of a stable democracy. EU support for innovation and education in Tunisia will benefit the whole of North Africa, as well as the EU itself, write Imed Hammami and Pier Antonio Panzeri.

Imed Hammami is the Tunisian minister of employment and vocational training. Pier Antonio Panzeri is an Italian Democratic Party MEP (S&D) and chair of the European Parliament’s delegation for relations with the Maghreb Countries and the Arab Maghreb Union.

A driving factor for many during the Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia that toppled the Ben Ali regime was an increasing lack of opportunity, not just between regions but between people and generations. In a post-Arab Spring world, hope for personal and professional growth and prosperity are not only important, they are vital for democracy, stability and security.

We live in an interconnected universe where the domestic and international often intertwine, both the European Union and and Tunisia recognise that a safe and stable region begins with a healthy society at home.

It is exactly these challenges that the new Tunisian government must strive to address. The work done to tackle these issues must be supported by the international community in the same way that the EU has stepped up its collaboration through cooperative programmes, financial support and deeper ties.

There is also an important role for the business community to play; building strong, responsible public-private partnerships has proven a powerful tool in unlocking economic potential.

At the heart of this in Tunisia will be the Ministry of Employment and Vocational Training, whose policies will be fundamental to making the democratic transition sustainable and resilient by bringing it to the individual.

The Ministry has been active in developing a number of policy initiatives, such as the new “dignity contract” and “vocational diploma”. These proposals aim to offer training and skills development for graduates and to match individuals to companies in high-demand fields. The initiatives will see new levels of public-private cooperation to open new jobs, connect workers to opportunities and open up access to higher education.

Another major project is the Reform of National Vocational Training Systems, a package of 14 reforms that aims to promote an overhauled education system. The idea is to change vocational training from the ground up, addressing not only how skills are taught but how training is perceived throughout society.

The European Vocational Skills Week, organised by the European Commission (5-9 December), underscores a similar vision of a modern workforce rooted in continuing education and hands-on experience as pathways to opportunity.

Education also features prominently in regional security discussions in Tunisia. Inequality and a perceived lack of opportunities are often identified as major contributing factors to radicalisation, especially among young people, who are most likely to feel angry and left out of society. We want to offer them an opportunity that combines a structured path with a clear vision of a place in a changing economy.

Facilitating reintegration into the employment market and using jobs to help break down barriers in society, create opportunities, encourage social mobility and reduce feelings of marginalisation is key to sustainable economic growth. These reforms need to take place in the Maghreb region as a whole in order to successfully promote stability in the wider neighbourhood. Partners in Europe and across North Africa have the opportunity to benefit from the security dividends success would bring.

Underpinning these programmes is a common long-term vision for Tunisian society to embrace innovation and a spirit of entrepreneurship that will enhance Tunisia’s ambition to be a dynamic and interconnected hub for the region.

These priorities were reflected in the international Investment Conference held in Tunis in the past fortnight, featuring digital, education and the knowledge economy as thematic pillars equal to traditional industries and investment opportunities.

It is easy to see how closely promoting growth and education are linked, and the fact that both Tunisia and the EU have decided to focus attention on vocational training, skills development and strategic investment should be seen as a positive opportunity for cooperative programmes in the future.

This will be especially true as negotiations with the EU on the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement progress. Not only will a more dynamic economy make Tunisia more attractive for trade and investment, it would insulate the economy against the shocks some fear could result from deeper trading ties. Additionally, the EU’s support in promoting mobility in the region through visa facilitation will be essential in helping EU-Tunisia relations evolve from mere development assistance into cooperation with the private sector.

Opportunity is the lifeblood of a democracy. Europe is an instrumental partner in helping Tunisia’s fledgling democracy create jobs, and consequentially, opportunity and hope for its citizens as it recovers from a brutal dictatorship. The task, however, is far from finished. Every step taken to expand and diversify the country’s employment market is a step closer to cementing a fair, equal and democratic society.

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