Information and communication technologies (ICTs), which played a central role in the lead-up to the revolution as well as the revolution itself, have continued to influence rapid changes in the past year. This report charts the application of these technologies in everyday life, and identifies opportunities to capitalize on them. Specifically, the findings are targeted at providing insights on the following critical research questions:
- How can critical social, civic, and governmental institutions use ICTs to improve organizational efficiency, public engagement, service delivery, and overall accountability?
- How should policymakers and investors structure and prioritize technology initiatives to spur economic development and technological innovation?
- How can the use of ICTs among citizens, media, and civic institutions encourage social cohesion and build social resilience?
In order to answer these questions, the researchers took an applied ethnographic approach, creating a critical point-in-time snapshot of a wide swath of Tunisian society. In-depth, in-person interviews were a central tool of investigation. The research sample included over 100 Tunisians from nine cities and towns and dozens of institutions and companies. The investigation sought to understand how different citizens view their lives, limitations, and opportunities. The reader will find those citizens’ voices represented in these pages.
Over the course of these interviews, and in conjunction with survey data analysis and academic scholarship, five critically important issue areas within Tunisian society were identified for special focus:
Regional disparity remains a central challenge to social cohesion; absent a serious and sustained intervention from the government, unrest may continue.
Interior Tunisian provinces coastal areas are isolated from the coastal and urban hubs of economic activity by distance, infrastructure, and lack of public investment. The resulting widespread economic distress in the region was enough to serve as the spark for the country’s revolution. After decades of neglect by the previous regime, these citizens today seek access to economic opportunity, basic health care, and the tools for self-sustenance.
Small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) are poised for growth, so long as significant and systemic investments are made in business financing, electronic infrastructure, and workforce development.
SMEs have the potential to rapidly grow a newly opened Tunisian economy. To encourage economic expansion and job growth, particularly in technology related sectors, critical constraints must be lifted; these include an elevated cost of doing business, government control of critical markets, and some deficiencies in skills among the workforce.
Tunisia’s higher education system has a strong foundation, but requires a critical re-examination of pedagogy, investments in infrastructure, and a decoupling from macroeconomic manipulation to flourish.
While the Tunisian higher education system has been praised for its population coverage and regional sophistication, the Ben Ali government significantly overstated its strengths. Respondents from throughout the higher education system, as well as associated stakeholders (such as business leaders) noted significant gaps in curriculum. In addition, the research surfaced issues around quality of instruction and infrastructure that need to be addressed for Tunisia to become more competitive in advanced sectors.
The desire to participate politically is widespread. Citizens and political leaders alike are actively embracing a variety of new tools, platforms, and approaches to engage with one another. Yet despite these optimistic signs, challenges remain, particularly with regards to the caliber of public political intelligence.
The present period is one of immense political opportunity. Tunisians’ increasing engagement in their political system is being expressed through an explosion of political media, new political parties, and other forms of participation. National elections in October 2011, were widely celebrated as free and fair, and enjoyed an extraordinarily high turnout. Yet after generations of authoritarian rule, many people are struggling with the mechanics of political participation. The explosion of new information and media is confounding the efforts of new voters who are looking for reliable, easy-to-use sources of reliable political intelligence.
Online communities that grew under the authoritarian state provide the foundation for a new civil society. Equally important, many of these communities are full of would be entrepreneurs, drawn together by their skill and interest in advanced technologies.
ICTs have proven their capacity to extend the public square in contexts all over the world; analyses of the Tunisian experience frequently state that technology was central to the revolution. Before the revolution, the online communities that grew under the authoritarian state were a ready source of political organization and cooperation. Facebook served as a central hub for political dialogue and additional social media tools served to strengthen tight-knit community bonds that were already at the heart of political participation.