Earlier this spring, I traveled to Tunisia to meet with some of our grantees there and to witness a country eight years into its hopeful democratic experiment.
The Fund for Global Human Rights has been investing in Tunisian grassroots groups since 2004. Prior to the 2011 popular revolution, Tunisia was the most repressive country in North Africa. During those initial seven years, Fund staff were under constant surveillance, as were all human rights activists. While the government bragged that its population was well-educated and middle class, that women’s rights were embraced, and that the country was home to thousands of civil society organizations, the truth was much harsher. The handful of activists who were independent spoke of torture in the prisons, repression in the streets, corruption, and disregard of impoverished communities outside the major urban centers.
The chasm between the government’s fantasy of Tunisia and the lived reality of Tunisians led to revolution in January 2011. Today, Tunisia is the only country rocked by the events of the Arab Spring that is still nurturing democracy.
Many frustrations remain in Tunisia—with the slow pace of change, the chaotic political environment, the government’s willingness to crack down on civil society as a response to terrorism—but where once there was silence and stagnation, there now is energy, optimism, and vision.
As I traveled through the country, I was struck by the emphatic message of locally-rooted activists—that tackling the country’s profound economic and social inequalities is critical for democracy to succeed. It dovetailed with the theme of the book that I’d packed, How Democracies Die, which applies the lessons of failed, failing, and successful democracies to the current political realities in the United States. From my reading and my encounters in Tunisia, it became clearer than ever that significant economic inequality feeds polarization, which in turn tears away at the soft tissue that holds democracies together.
The schoolteachers who founded Association Amal (Hope) in southwestern Tunisia understand this lesson well. They live six hours from the capital city of Tunis in a company town, where the phosphate mining company is the primary employer, owns all the property, and pollutes air, water, and land with little consequence. Unemployment hovers at nearly 30 percent. Amal’s volunteers are building popular support for change through organizing, advocacy, and education that targets the issues that affect people’s lives the most: a degraded environment and economic security.
The Fund is Amal’s only outside source of funding; other donors still resist their insistence on setting their own agenda with economic and social rights at the fore.
A leading human rights activist in Tunis told me, “This experiment has everything needed to succeed.” What is clear is that successful democracies and rights-respecting societies require more than just the right ingredients. They require actors ready to mix the ingredients together to create a shared sense of political purpose, which is achievable only if significant swaths of society aren’t excluded or marginalized from the benefits of citizenship.
This is why economic and social rights have emerged as a top priority in the countries where the Fund works. Given the global authoritarian moment in which we find ourselves, this work matters not only for Tunisia’s future but also for all of us developing tools and strategies to build freedom, peace, and prosperity in communities worldwide.