Social and Solidarity Economy in Tunisia: When Local Need Meets International Encouragement

2021-05-10    |   

Social and Solidarity Economy in Tunisia: When Local Need Meets International Encouragement

The first session of the current parliament ended in a quantitatively and qualitatively poor legislative yield, an atmosphere rife with quarrels, accusations of treason and exclusionary rhetoric, and a public impression that Parliament’s performance is deteriorating daily. The approval of the Social and Solidarity Economy Law on 17 June 2020 via a consensus among the MPs present was virtually the only light amidst this darkness and an important legislative accomplishment that the MPs were quick to celebrate. The various parliamentary blocks had come together and deemed this law a cornerstone of the new development paradigm and an unprecedented opportunity to lower unemployment and poverty rates and reduce marginalization. The consensus on SSE’s importance transcended the political parties of various persuasions to include social partners, including the Tunisian General Labour Union (UGTT), the Tunisian Union of Industry, Commerce, and Handicrafts (UTICA), and the Tunisian Union of Agriculture and Fisheries. In fact, official recognition of SSE as a third sector – the first of its kind since the end of the cooperatives experiment in the 1960s – had appeared in the “social contract” signed by the government, the UGTT, and the UTICA in January 2013. This step paved the way for a unique legislative process that brought numerous local and foreign parties together and culminated in the law’s multi-partisan approval in Parliament.


A “New Lexicon” for All to Rally Behind


After many years of propaganda about the “Tunisian economic miracle”, the 2010-2011 revolution exposed the fragility of the existing development paradigm and the large regional disparity it had created. While public debate centered more on political and identity issues, there was a consensus that a fairer alternative development paradigm needed to be found. Meanwhile, the revolution had opened the door to the freedom to form associations, and Tunisia transformed into a hub for organizations and financiers of all categories. International actors, including international or nongovernmental organizations, financiers, and a number of European states’ international cooperation institutions, helped to gradually mainstream the use of the SSE lexicon and put the concept forward as an “inclusive” economic alternative.[1] Dozens of national and local associations specialized in the subject appeared,[2] networks emerged to connect existing social economy organizations and facilitate the exchange of experience among them, and prototype local initiatives were launched (particularly in the marginalized regions) and enjoyed support and coaching.


These experiments were also the starting point for studying the prospects for developing the third sector and the difficulties obstructing it. A 2017 World Bank report concluded that SSE is still lagging in Tunisia, even in comparison with nearby experiences such as Morocco, Egypt, and Kenya, and that it could help in the short and medium term to plug the gap in access to public utilities and integrate youth and women into the workforce.[3] The World Bank’s report was not the first of its kind. In 2014, the European Investment Bank – one of the most prominent financiers globally and in the Southern Mediterranean in particular – had issued a study on SSE in Morocco, Egypt, and Tunisia.[4] This study found that if the opportunities provided by the third sector are seized, it could become a principal component of development policy in these countries.


Because of SSE’s allure and because most political parties lacked clear and practical economic visions and programs, the idea was gradually adopted by the political factions on both the right (e.g. Ennahda and the Afek Tounes Party) and the left (where it was a theme of the Popular Front’s electoral platform).[5] Hence, SSE was virtually a consensus among the political class in both government and opposition before the bill’s drafting even commenced.


A Fixture of Governmental Plans and Strategies


Since 2016, this consensus has been reflected in the government’s economic plans and programs. The 2016-2020 Development Plan – the first development plan after the revolution – acknowledged the importance of the third sector. In a dedicated section, the plan stipulated “affording SSE a prominent place in the wealth creation and distribution system, social services, and environmental protection”. The plan added that this should occur via “the establishment of a stimulating legislative and institutional framework and the creation of mechanisms for marketing and financing, including almsgiving [zakat]”,[6] with the last term satisfying one of Ennahda’s slogans.


The SSE focus also appeared in a series of strategies overseen by various ministries,[7] such as the National Plan for Developing Handicrafts (2017-2020), the National Strategy for Socioeconomic Empowerment of Women and Girls in Rural Areas (2017-2020), the National Strategy for Social Inclusion and Combating Poverty, and the National Employment Strategy. SSE was also one of the five themes of the National Strategy for Financial Inclusion (2018-2022),[8] and the Ministry of Agriculture prepared a strategy to push SSE in the agriculture sector. Hence, it was clear that the state, in all its bodies, was beginning to count on SSE as a solution to socioeconomic dilemmas. Meanwhile, from 2012 the concept began to appear in some legal texts,[9] and it was eventually enshrined in the Local Authorities Code.


Moreover, as additional evidence for the domestic and foreign audiences of the importance that the government assigns to the third sector, former prime minister Youssef Chahed appointed a minister for SSE in the ministerial shuffle he conducted in November 2018.


UGTT-Government Partnership Under International Auspices


Work on the bill began after a conference on “SSE as a driver of development and employment” in May 2015, which brought the government together with the two social partners representing workers and employers under the auspices of the Internal Labour Office,[10] the permanent secretariat of the International Labour Organization. This conference identified a series of issues obstructing the development of the SSE sector, particularly the fact that the existing legal texts were scattered, limited to regulating individual organizations, and had not kept pace with socioeconomic changes, as well as the obscurity of the privileges for these organizations and the absence of mechanisms to finance them and an institution to oversee the sector.[11] Thus emerged the need for a new, unified legislative framework to overcome all these obstacles.


The tripartite conference entrusted the task of drafting the bill to the UGTT. The UGTT had played a historical role in national affairs in general, and the cooperatives experiment of the 1960s had emanated from its socioeconomic program. Nevertheless, commissioning the central union organization, with the government’s approval, to draft a bill was an unusual step induced mostly by the International Labour Office’s auspices over this process.


Before the UGTT submitted the bill to the government in November 2016, the Ministry of Development and International Cooperation launched a strategic study of SSE supported by the United Nations Development Program to fully diagnose the sector and develop a strategy to improve it with a clear action plan. The government waited for the study’s completion in July 2017 before beginning to draft its own bill based on its outcomes. A leadership committee containing representatives of the various ministries concerned and the three social partners was established. Its function was “to pursue the implementation of the project to develop SSE organizations and mechanisms… in cooperation with the International Labour Office”, according to Article 1 of the decision creating it.[12]


Although the strategic study acknowledged that the approach of the UGTT initiative was backward because such a bill should typically stem from a comprehensive national strategy,[13] it adopted most of the content of the UGTT’s bill after comparing it to alternatives derived from comparative laws. The leadership committee depended much on this study and the UGTT’s bill while also drawing upon comparable laws in France, Portugal, Spain, and Luxembourg.[14] The committee also sought help from an international expert “who has contributed to the drafting of 18 bills related to SSE around the world”.[15] The same approach – i.e. employing an international expert in law – was again employed when the crowdfunding bill was drafted[16] via another foreign-funded legislative process.[17]


In summer 2019, after two years of work and consultations, the leadership committee culminated in a bill enshrining the view of the administration’s representatives in some of the contentious points. The bill was submitted to the Council of Ministers with the reservations of the parties involved, particularly the UGTT, enclosed.


A Brief Debate in Parliament and Accusations of Government Obstruction


Youssef Chahed’s government waited numerous months, during which legislative and presidential elections occurred and negotiations over the formation of the new government began, before approving the bill and referring it to Parliament. The Committee on Agriculture, Commerce, and Related Services, presided over by Ennahda MP Moez Belhaj Rhouma, examined the bill and needed only four hearings and two sessions for debating and voting (May 21 and 22) to finish working on it. This unusual speed prompted a number of MPs from both the governing coalition and the opposition to ask for the bill to be returned to the committee. Elyes Fakhfakh’s government also sought to withdraw the bill pending further study of it. However, the government, which had not expected the committee to finish its work so quickly, made its request too late. The agriculture committee and Parliament’s bureau, and behind them the Ennahda block, insisted on putting the law to a General Assembly vote, citing the statute’s prohibition on withdrawing bills once they have been referred to the General Assembly. The committee’s president even accused the government of trying to “thwart the bill” by pressuring a number of MPs. Amidst a falling out between the government and its largest party that by then was no secret, he threatened to hold a press conference and escalate his tone if the bill was obstructed.


This climate did not prevent agreement on numerous amendments to the bill, some in response to the UGTT’s demands, while the major choices were preserved. Ultimately, Parliament approved the bill via a consensus among those present (131 votes).[18] Rhouma described the approval as “the best gift Parliament has given to Tunisians since the revolution”. This statement reflected a desire to exploit a legislative accomplishment for political purposes. However, it also showed, in particular, the broad hopes attached to this law and SSE as a magic bullet to solve the biggest socioeconomic dilemmas and a gateway to prosperity and social justice, notwithstanding the obstacles and lessons reality and the process of implementing the law may bear.


This article is an edited translation from Arabic.




[1] Ester Sigillò & Damiano De Facci, “L’économie sociale et solidaire : une nouvelle économie morale pour la Tunisie ?”, in L’Année du Maghreb, 18/2018, p. 51-68.

[2] According to data from the IFEDA Center for Associations, after the revolution more than 30 associations mentioning SSE as part of their goals, their work methods, or sometimes even their names, appeared. Most are in the underdeveloped interior governorates, such as those in the south, north-west, and mid-west. This figure does not include microfinance associations and mutual associations.

[3] World Bank Group, “Social Entrepreneurship in Tunisia: Achievements and Ways Forward”, 2017, p. 23.

[4] European Investment Bank (FEMIP), “L’économie sociale et solidaire : vecteur d’inclusivité et de création d’emplois dans les pays partenaires méditerranéens ?”, 2014.

[5] “Programme économique et social du Front populaire : L’économie sociale et solidaire, un des axes majeurs”, L’économiste maghrébin, 17 September 2014.

[6] Tunisian Republic, “Mukhattat al-Tanmiya 2016-2020, al-Mujallad al-Awwal: al-Muhtawa al-Jumliyy”, p. 57.

[7] International Labour Organization, “Les politiques publiques de l’économie sociale et solidaire et leur rôle dans l’avenir du travail : le cas de la Tunisie”, 2019, p. 22 and beyond.

[8] Ministry of Finance, “2018-2022, Stratégie nationale d’inclusion financière”, p. 40 and beyond.

[9] Order no. 2369 of 2012, dated 16 October 2012, on Regulating the National Employment Fund’s Programs and the Conditions and Modes of Benefiting from Them.

[10] International Labour Organization, “Les politiques publiques”, op. cit., p. 18.

[11] Parliament, Committee on Agriculture, Commerce, and Related Services, report on Bill no. 79/2019 on Social and Solidarity Economy, 21 May 2020.

[12] Minister of Vocational Training and Employment Decision, dated 26 September 2017, on Creating a Leadership Committee and Regional Follow-up Subcommittees to Pursue the Project to Develop Social and Solidarity Economy Organizations and Mechanisms and Regulating Their Functions, Composition, and Methods.

[13] Ministry of Development, Investment, and International Cooperation, “Etude stratégique sur l’économie sociale et solidaire en Tunisie”, May 2017, p. 137.

[14] Parliament, Committee on Agriculture, Commerce, and Related Services, SSE bill report, op. cit.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Parliament, Committee on Finance, Planning, and Development, report on Bill no. 26/2020 on Crowdfunding, July 2020.

[17] The crowdfunding bill, approved by Parliament on 21 July 2020, was supported by the European Union via the Enhancement of the Business Environment in the Southern Mediterranean (EBESM) project.

[18] Only the Dignity Coalition abstained from voting. It had boycotted the session after controversy arose when one of its MPs raised a picture of former Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi.

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