The World Bank conducted an interview with Youssef Chahed, former Minister of Local Affairs, now Prime Minister of Tunisia’s new Government of National Unity.
How do you assess the value of the Urban Development and Local Governance Program?
The phase of democratic and political reforms underway in Tunisia since the January 2011 revolution has been taken to a new level following the adoption at the beginning of 2014 of a new constitution and the election of a new Government. While the central government exercised control over all decisions made by local authorities, which played only a relatively minor role in local development, under the new constitution the process of decentralization is the foundation on which the organization and distribution of local power is based. It is also an essential step for enhancing the responsiveness and accountability of local authorities.
In order to strengthen local governance and improve the functions, capacity, and financing of local authorities, the government has put in place an urban development and local governance program (PDUGL). This program introduces the reforms on a phased basis, building on existing systems while modifying the financial structure and regulatory framework, as mandated by the new constitution. The aim of the program is to improve the transparency and efficiency of the system for the allocation of investment subsidies, enhance the accountability of local authorities and introduce citizen participation. Furthermore, it can serve to strengthen the performance of local authorities, by providing them with the resources that they need to finance the modernization of marginalized zones, particularly within disadvantaged regions.
How important is it for citizens to be involved in local government?
The rollout of participatory governance structures in the decision-making process, and the implementation of the program, will help to considerably reduce the level of citizen dissatisfaction and involve them directly in public programs.
Indeed, an opinion survey conducted in 2014 in a municipality of the Greater Tunis region reveals that residents are not knowledgeable about municipal affairs. It does, however, show that the majority of citizens are willing to become involved in the life of their municipalities.
How has this aspect been incorporated into the design of the program?
While the municipalities want to apply the provisions of the new constitution and wish to have more effective exchanges with their residents, they lack the necessary experience. The PDUGL has reformed the way communities function. It provides advice and training, and promotes the adoption of a participatory approach that allows local authorities to share information on investment projects with the residents and obtain their endorsement of such projects at public meetings. This is the framework in which all local communities prepared their 2016 investment program, with the granting of investment subsidies being made conditional on the adoption of the participatory approach.
Have other innovations been introduced?
The reform of investment subsidies is the main strategic action undertaken by the government under this program. It aims to improve the effectiveness of state support for local investments, enhance the transparency of the process of authorization, and introduce on a phased basis a system of performance-based subsidies. This system is based on a distribution formula with objective and measurable criteria (population and fiscal capacity) and with provisions for affirmative action (regional development index). Access to investment subsidies is available only to the local authorities that satisfy the mandatory minimum requirements. Additional financing could then be disbursed to the local authorities that achieve a certain level of performance, as determined by independent annual evaluations using pre-defined criteria.
What are the program’s main achievements of the so far?
The program is in its first year of implementation, so it is too early to talk about findings or results, especially with regard to the quality of the services provided or improvement in performance. We will have to wait two years before we can discuss program evaluation or results. However, some concrete actions have been undertaken, namely:
- Capacity strengthening for local authorities through the training of staff and technical and financial advisors that play a role in developing the Commune Investment Plans and the Integration and Competitiveness Support Programs.
- Strengthening the capacity of civil society partnering with local authorities, by means of training programs to help them provide more effective support in developing and evaluating those plans and programs.
- The establishment of a technical assistance system for local authorities, with the support of, among others, the Loan and Support Fund for Local Authorities.
- The development of operational guides and manuals.
Ninety-two percent of local authorities have successfully fulfilled the mandatory minimum requirements for access to investment subsidies, whereas the program had targeted a success rate of 60% for its first year of implementation.
Finally, the program has helped to establish the new constitutional principle of free administration for local authorities, by allowing them to develop their PAICs on their own, define the level of financing, entrust the implementation of their projects to a third party, or implement them using their own means.