Tunisia: They have the tools, now what do they do with them? Thinking about what happens next.

Posted on January 20, 2011

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In the midst of all the self-congratulation in the tech community and elsewhere on the positive role that some of the tech gadgets—twitter and Facebook—may have played in the recent events in Tunisia, it may be wise to pause a bit and look at some of the more ominous, dust-covered canaries to be seen in the background to what has transpired.

Tunisia is among the most technologically developed of its near neighbours. Tunisia has in fact, looked to insert itself as a global ICT leader among its LDC peers in the development and use of ICTs particularly through its co-sponsorship of the World Summit on the Information Society and its active participation in a number of global institutional fora. And as well, Tunisia has committed significant resources both to the educational sector in general and to ICT training and education specifically; although of course, looking to keeping the “political lid on” even (or especially) among those who were benefiting and actively using that education and that training— through various forms of service blocking, censorship and even more devious types of cyber-repression.

It was perhaps inevitable, that the Ben Ali government’s investments to present a modern face to the outside world through the technical proficiency of its young people should come back to bite it through the use of that very proficiency as a significant means to challenge and ultimately undermine and remove the government which had chosen this as its priority. (As an aside it will be interesting to see how other countries with similarly repressive governments (but lacking the financial resources of a China) choose to handle the dilemma of, on the one hand, needing to educate and modernize technologically; while on the other, recognizing that that process of educating and technologically modernizing may let loose, at least in some cases, precisely those forces that those regimes are so concerned to control and repress.)

But of course, it was the 17% (officially reported) unemployment in the country, with an even higher proportion concentrated among the educated recent college and university graduates which was the cause of the unhappiness among the young (and others) in Tunisia and which found a means for its expression and mobilization in on-line social networking tools.

One possible explanation for the continuing high unemployment among the educated and technically aware is that in a society and economy so evidently corrupt as Tunisia there has been resistance by outside investors (and internal entrepreneurs) to invest and develop the kinds of enterprises that might be possible with an educated population.  Particularly for the sake of the young people of Tunisia one sincerely hopes that this is the cause and that the emergence (hopefully) of a democratic regime in Tunisia will open the floodgates to investment and locally based entrepreneurship sufficient to build on the technical and tech savvy among Tunisia’s young.  In this way perhaps it can turn around the misery and hopelessness that un and under employment has caused and which resulted in the ultimate sacrifice by Mohammed Bouazizi followed by the subsequent street protests and overthrow of the Ben Ali dictatorship.

However, it isn’t clear that this will result.  Experience next door in Southern Europe—Portugal, Spain, Italy, Greece—is that overall there is insufficient demand in the local advanced sector economy to absorb the number of graduates including tech graduates who are entering it year after year. Cost sensitive outsourcing has led to the transfer of tech and tech enabled employment to very low cost regions such as India and China and while the Mahgreb is lower cost than Europe it is not absolutely lowest cost even for the French language where Vietnam is a very low cost centre.

The reality is that the liberalized economy of Tunisia may not be able to compete effectively in the global technology production or service marketplace sufficient to make a dent in its youth unemployment.  The global tech marketplace is one where there can only be a limited number of winners and only a limited number of very low priced outsourcing destinations and a rather larger number of those in the middle who can be successful in the global market place in neither. How many Facebooks or Twitters can the world support (maybe just one if the experience with MySpace gives any lessons) and then apart from the (more or less non-existent for those companies) tech support how many jobs are there in associated enterprises.

Perhaps it would be advisable for the new government of Tunisia to be looking to respond to the youth unemployment crisis and the related political crisis by looking inwards, towards opportunities for the local and intensified use of the technology and the technology skills to support local and community based ICT development. For example, Tunisia while having a high rate of literacy (65%) compared to its neighbours in the Mahgreb and Africa, still has damagingly low literacy levels from a European or Developed Country perspective. Using ICTs combined with human intermediaries in such areas as public and community based health interventions, tutoring of young people and adults (for literacy), facilitation in the use of e-government services, support for environmental management and remediation and so on would not only use the technology awareness of young people but engage their enthusiasm and civic mindedness while the design, development and implementation of programs of this kind would provide employment for many with technical and related skills and knowledge.

The creation of local technology hubs (telecentres) as community access points, service delivery centres, community and particularly youth recreational and creativity hubs (for music, game development and other forms of cultural expression); as small business development hubs integrating ICT capabilities for local logistics, bookkeeping and marketing and training local young people and others in how to develop small local businesses serving local needs; the development of technologically enabled centres for social and enterprise collaboration and development through multi-video and tele conferencing and so on could go some way both to making a dent in youth unemployment and in raising service levels in lower income and rural parts of the country.

Developing along the lines of technology and service intensification at the local level could also lead to the development of technologies, services and overall approaches which would have considerable interest elsewhere in the region where similar circumstances can be found of quite poor levels of educational and health service among the urban poor and the rural and peri-urban populations and underdeveloped physical, social and economic infrastructures apart from those serving the upper middle class and the rich. Thus for example, there are opportunities for working through towards designing methods for using mobile and Internet resources to promote general and particularly maternal health, designing processes for literacy and other skill development using a combination of online and off-line resources, figuring out ways of using social networking functionality to motivate and direct energies towards environmental management and remediation. All of these could begin a process of absorbing and usefully directing the energies and skills of currently unemployed young people

An educated youth population and a good technology infrastructure, could, with the appropriate planning and programme design, make significant inroads in these areas by refocusing attention on the use of local resources to respond to local needs.

There would even be a role for social networking facilities as a way of coordinating these initiatives, motivating and mobilizing young people and ensuring that even if they are spending their working days with folks who aren’t themselves users of social networking that they can and will still be connected to their peers and to the larger online world of which they have now irrevocably become a part.