Tunisian civil society groups need help from Europe

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

The European support to Tunisia should not turn into empowering the very people and groups against whom Tunisians revolted in 2011, writes Mourad Teyeb.

Mourad Teyeb is the founder and president of the Maghreb Media Forum, a Tunisian NGO supporting free, ethical and sustainable media in Tunisia and the Maghreb.

“The European Union is Tunisia’s largest trading partner, buying €9.9bn out of Tunisia’s total €11.8bn exports in 2011; two-thirds of Tunisia’s direct foreign investment comes from the EU and Tunisia was the first Mediterranean country to sign an Association Agreement with the EU, in July 1995. 

Europe generates nearly two-thirds of the number of tourists visiting the country every year.

With the political and financial support of the EU, the project “EU-Tunisia Migration Cooperation Agenda” (ETMA) is being implemented in partnership with the Tunisian government.

The EU has welcomed the 2011 Revolution in Tunisia very early in 2011 and announced support to the country’s political transition. Through its embassy in Tunis, the EU’s contribution to the democratic process has been remarkable. It covered the economic, the political, the cultural and the social sectors.

Besides the economy and the pure political process, funding the civil society in countries moving towards democracy is of extreme importance. To everybody.

Civil society development engages people, organisations, and government bodies to improve their communities and foster good governance.

This is why pan-European donors (governments, foundations, institutes, NGOs need to support Tunisia’s ambitious democratic projects and serious initiatives mainly in the fields of human rights, culture, media and job creation. Direct funding, training and partnership, Tunisian start-ups and young activists can learn about advocacy and leadership and contribute to the implementation of Human Rights and democracy.

Tunisian Civil Society can also play a role in the job creation effort and the eradication of poverty and regional discrepancies.

Combating poverty and developing democracy are vital for the sustainability of Tunisia’s economy and the success of the democratic process. They constitute a key element in achieving security and stability and thus a means to limit, if not stop, organised crime and transnational terrorism.

In fact, tackling poverty, human rights issues and freedom of information through advocacy and civil society are vital in facing all sorts of extremism.

A lot of support, mainly financial, has also been provided by the private sector and the civil society in Europe.

It is today important that all this money, and other sorts of funding, goes to the right people and into the right programmes and activities.

Recent events in Egypt showed how dangerous financial and logistic assistance could be if it is misused or if it goes to un-identified, sometimes suspicious, entities and persons.

Yet, the biggest threat to the democratic experience in Tunisia, and elsewhere, are the corrupt business and political lobbies that survived the pre-2011 dictatorship era. Most of these lobbies are still very influential and continue to defend their interests by all means possible. They still control the country’s media and most of them are very active in the civil society. And they continue to receive huge funding, from Europe and from other countries.

This means that they are still benefiting from the European money which is theoretically aimed at empowering the Civil Society, the media and the political parties.

Political and ideological orientations are often taken into consideration when funding NGOs and other initiatives, often despite their (corrupt) background and despite their past and present failure.

It is high time to understand that financing these corrupt and suspicious people and organisations by any means and under any platform can be very dangerous. Not only for the young, fragile democracy in Tunisia but also for its historic partners and neighbours.  

Good intentions are not enough when dealing with security and the future of young generations in the Mediterranean region. When funding the civil society and laying down partnership policies, it is today important to identify who’s who and to determine everybody’s real agendas.  

Past and recent experiences have shown that wrong calculations often finish by restoring dictatorships. The same dictatorships that gave birth to different kinds of extremism in the region.

Prior to 2011, only a handful of Tunisian civil society organisations (CSOs) were active and independent. Today, the number of CSOs reached 15,000, according to government sources. Very few of these are active and even less report their funding sources and information about their budget.

Articles 35 to 44 of the Law 88-2011 organising associations in Tunisia offer an exhaustive accounting procedure and require from CSOs to present a strict financial plan.

Very few associations respond to these rules and many civil society actions and activities are today seen as suspicious in Tunisia.

Their funding policies are criticised for lacking transparency and many NGOs receive a lot of funding but they have no activities on the ground.”

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