The 7th of November is a date of significant importance to Tunisians. It was on this day, 13 years ago, that President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali took power and ushered in the era of The Change. It is a day of celebration, ceremony and feasting throughout this North African nation of nine million people.
It is also a day of reflection to review the momentous events that have led to such radical changes in their individual lives. Over this short period, Tunisia has been transformed from a struggling, conflict-ridden Third World country into a thriving, middle class economic dynamo. By 2006, the transformation will be complete and Tunisia will take its proud place among the developed nations of the world.
But as Tunisians enjoy their holiday, there will be constant reminders, on posters, television program and ceremonies, that not all their citizens share in good life. There are those who are poor, marginalised and despondent. But they are not forgotten. On every December 8 - National Solidarity Day-delegations, laden with gifts, scour the country to bring a little sunshine to gloomy lives and assure them that their plight is the concern of all.
Every year, the pool of the poor and marginalised shrinks. Every year the number of people, including children, who can afford to give is on the increase; while the total number of people in need of assistance decreases. Over the past decade, the number of those living in poverty has been beaten back from over 22% of the population to just around 6%. The aim, over the next five to six years, is to wipe the scourge of poverty off the face of Tunisia.
This is in sharp contrast to the global situation today. Poverty is increasing alarmingly. A quarter of the world's population lives on less than one dollar a day. While globalisation is bringing unprecedented wealth to the few, it is pushing ever larger numbers deeper into poverty. Efforts by international organisations to alleviate poverty have not only failed, they have created even greater poverty.
So why is Tunisia succeeding in its battle against poverty while the rest of the world is failing? "Vision and commitment," says Malta's President, Professor Guido de Marco during a seminar on international solidarity held in Tunis in November. "Ben Ali is truly a man of vision. He declared war on poverty in his country and then planned and executed the campaign with single-minded determination. "He and Tunisia have demonstrated that if the will is there, poverty can be rolled back remarkably quickly."
President Ben Ali's chief weapon against poverty is the National Solidarity Fund. He set it up in 1992 when, after touring the country extensively, he was appalled at the level of poverty and marginalisation he saw in pockets of the nation. He instituted the 2626 fund and encouraged civil society to contribute to it. His master stoke was to involve all members of society in the battle. Alleviation of poverty was no longer the sole preserve of the government or of international organisations-it was something everybody could participate in. The response has been overwhelming. (see following story).
There was scepticism, both inside Tunisia and outside, when the programme was first launched. It seemed another of those fine sounding gestures that in the end would deliver little or nothing. But this time the sceptics got it wrong. Eight years later, National Solidarity in Tunisia has not only proved a resounding success it has become an essential segment of Tunisian culture.
Its reputation began to grow outside the country. A number of delegations from various African and Arab states began arriving to study how the programme worked and if they could implement it in their own countries.
New global dynamics
In the meanwhile, the ramifications of the end of the Cold War were beginning to be felt in the developing world. The technologically endowed nations began an unprecedented era of prosperity but the poorer nations became poorer still. A downward spiral of poverty leading to internal conflicts leading to even greater poverty seized scores of developing nations. International organisations, such as the World Bank and the International...