Tunisia celebrates 45 years of independence on March 20. This is a brief span of time in terms of the age of a 3,000 year old civilisation; but in terms of achievement, those 45 years have surely been the most dynamic of any century. Over the last 45 years, Tunisia has transformed itself from the French colonial backwater it had been reduced to, into the most modern state in Africa. The Africa Competitiveness Report, published recently by the World Economic Forum, puts Tunisia at the top of the competitive league table, above Mauritius, Botswana and 21 other African countries. (See story on page 3 of supplement).
This is a remarkable achievement for a country which has no oil or, for that matter, significant natural resources. Half the country is desert and the population is only nine million strong.
So, why has Tunisia succeeded where so many others, on the continent and in the rest of the developing world, failed? The secret of Tunisia's success, according to President Zine El Abiddine Ben Ali, is that it placed its trust entirely on the resourcefulness of its people. "Our greatest natural asset," he says, "is our people." It is hardly surprising therefore that the World Economic Forum report also places Tunisia at the top of the human development league table.
Tunisia's success has made nonsense of the theory that emerging economies cannot make a go of it unless they have vital natural resources like oil, minerals or gemstones. In fact, there are several countries all over the continent which are richly endowed with natural resources but which still languish in poverty.
"Since we rely so heavily on human resources for our livelihood and prosperity as a nation," says Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi, "it is natural that we should take good care of our people and develop their potential to the full."
Taking good care of the people has translated into a dramatic rise in living standards. Some 80% of the population today are middle class home owners. Income per head has soared from US$30 in 1956 to US$2,138. All citizens, regardless of income, are eligible for healthcare cover. Life expectancy has increased from 50 years in 1956 to 72.4 years today - the highest in Africa. Poverty levels have been slashed down to a meagre 5%, lower than in many developed nations.
Development of human resources begins very early in life. Infant mortality, at less than 24 per 1,000 births is the lowest in Africa. There are 1,957 primary health centres to ensure that new horns and their mothers get all the attention they require.
Tunisia's allocation of 20% of the GDP to education is one of the highest in the world, let alone Africa. Education is free for all children and primary school enrollment now covers 95% of children. At independence in 1956, less than 5% of children attended school. Secondary school enrollment is today around 75%. According to the World Economic Forum report, the quality of education at both levels is the highest in Africa.
Tunisia's six universities produce around 208,000 graduates every year. A network of vocational training centres caters for around 60,000 trainees. There are numerous retraining and upgrading programmes for those in employment. In addition, several schemes, including unsecured loans from the Tunisian Solidarity Bank, give aspiring entrepreneurs that all important first start in business.
Tunisia also ranks very high in the number of internet users - with very cheap access available in schools, libraries and cyber-cafes. Computers have become part of everyday life - with a growing number of households owning their own equipment. Micro credit loans are available to people who want to purchase their own computers.
This is the bed-rock on which Tunisia has built its economic and social house. But all good intentions might have come to nothing without the sort of enlightened leadership the country...