February 9th, 2020 Implementing the law, one letter at a time.
Tunisian Municipalities and Association Funding.
In 2018, Tunisia democratically elected municipal councils for the first time. Upon assuming their council responsibilities, the elected members were tasked with implementing a brand new Local Government Code nearly overnight, with little to no support or guidance and after decades of instilled, undemocratic habits.
When I decided to run for mayor of Beni-Khalled municipality, I read the very long (and very boring) 400 articles of the Code. To be frank, I didn’t understand most of it, but I can say that I tried my best and I could honestly say that I had indeed read the Code during my election campaign. Some of the parts which I did understand though were music to my ears: investments, socio-economic development, support for entrepreneurship…the code made it sound like we could convert the municipality into a social enterprise, if only if I just make it!
When all the votes were tallied, I came in second place; so, while I didn’t quite become the mayor of Beni-Khalled, I was excited to be part of the municipal council and serve as chair of the finance committee.
Right after we took our council seats, we had to prepare the 2019 budget. This was a mountainous task, which included 20 deadlines and 10 council meetings. I felt like I was about to face one of the greatest challenges of my life, but with the assistance of the highly-experienced municipal administrative staff, the process ultimately boiled down to copy pasting the previous year’s budget and then adding a tiny percentage. And voila, we were done. Upon finishing, I almost felt that I should apologize to the designers of the ‘Local Government Code’ for all the transformational thinking that they put into it. It was my first few months, and I don’t want to talk much until I understand how things work.
In one of the many budget meetings, we had to determine how to allocate the 2019 funding for civil society in Beni Khalled. We had a total allocated budget to be distributed amongst local associations. It just looked like whoever has more power in the room gets more money for associations they are friends with. It felt surreal. Allocated funds were split in a nice ‘innocent’ list with pre-determined funding amount, related to no specific project or funding needs, and there is absolutely no selection criteria or specific priority sector.
Incredibly frustrated, I went back to the Local Government Code to find the article related to association funding. There I found Article 111: a beautiful number for a beautiful article. This Article 111 stipulates that that associations can only be funded by the municipality after participating in a competitive call. Then, based on these applications, the municipal council is responsible for selecting which proposals to fund, based on local needs and predefined priorities, described in the call. Then, once the associations are selected for funding, the projects should be implemented based on an MOU between the association and municipality, which follows on funded project execution.
With this knowledge, I became determined to implement Article 111 in practice; after all, not only did this seem fairer and more democratic, but my efforts were firmly backed by THE code itself!
But this has not been easy.
I think I have submitted over 10 formal letters requesting the implementation of Article 111. In council meetings, I have also tried to explain the implementation process, the rationale behind it, why applying Article 111 would be better for the city, the municipality and the associations.
Yet at every turn, I encountered extreme resistance to change. Some council members, for example, said that post-revolution funding process is unfair, because associations which had previously relied on the municipality, and come to expect a yearly budget without much question, would struggle. But wait, I responded. Why would a municipality funding associations’ operating costs, when we can’t even cover our own operating costs related to basic services, such as trash collection? Shouldn’t we fund associations which bring added value to the city? And shouldn’t associations also have members or supporters to help cover their own operating costs? Why should associations be dependent on municipalities for their operating costs? In fact, if they receive all of their funding from the municipality, at what point are they even independent and can we call them civil society?
I have also encountered resistance from the associations themselves. In attempt to explain and facilitate understand of these new funding procedures, I organized two meetings with all local associations. Associations with a long history, particularly those established before the revolution, perceive this funding as a municipal obligation. They do not think they should be forced to compete for funds, particularly with more recently founded associations (i.e. the new kids on the block). So when I suggested that these more established associations could use their experience to fundraise, and thus allow the municipality to support newly established youth associations, still getting on their feet, I was called names. No, they said: obviously, the municipality should be fundraising for these established organizations on their behalf.
The call for project proposals was released; I held meetings with interested associations to share participation requirements but every meeting also meant confronting very loud, threatening voices. In fact, seven local associations signed a nice long complaint, which they sent to the national corruption agency, to protest this new municipal funding process (despite it simply reflecting Article 111 of the Local Governance Code). In some ways, I was happy to see these associations come together and be united behind a cause that wasn’t COVID-19 or some other national threat, even if their unity was directed against me for simply trying to implement the Code and fulfil my responsibilities as an elected municipal council member.
However, despite this letter and other complaints, two local associations participated in the call and submitted project proposal. I feel that this stage itself is a major achievement for the implementation of the Code and as an important step for the participating organizations. One of the applying associations proposed a cultural project focused on digital youth inclusion and content development, and have received no municipal funding in the past. The second applicant is a more established association, which is well-known for its charity work and which has received yearly funding from the municipality since its founding after the revolution; they were also a signatory of the anti-corruption letter against implementing Article 111.
In the end, the city council decided to approve the charity association project but to not fund the digital youth inclusion proposal, because it was deemed to not exactly fall under the category of culture… but we will blame corona instead!
I think the council decision is unfair, especially that our youth suffer from a lot of nothingness in their lives. I would have loved that we support an association that approaches the municipality for the first time, and does everything according to the procedures that we have defined in the call for proposals.
Nevertheless, we have adapted the code; in a distorted way maybe, but it is work in progress!
In the process, I discovered carved in stone, written in blood believes. Cultural development is a festival with Facebook photos of a VIP podium and a big crowd of citizens, anything else is not culture. Sport development is football team expenses and taking care of the grass of the football field, anything else cannot be considered sports development. Social development is distributing school needs and food for the needy, anything else is not social development. Socioeconomic are two words that do not unite well. Charity is better than the long-term empowerment of people; anything long term cannot be demonstrated during the short municipal mandate, so there is no point!