Going digital is the way for stability, prosperity: Tunisian minister

Tunisia needs firm commitment by citizenry to far-reaching digital transformation that would encompass society and economy, as well as educational system.

Communication Technologies and Digital Economy Minister Anouar Maarouf.

2017/02/19 Issue: 94 Page: 18

The Arab Weekly
Lamine Ghanmi

Tunis - Tunisia has a plan to expand digital technologies to bolster border security, foster economic and social transforma­tion in disadvan­taged areas and drive the coun­try’s economy towards higher rates of growth and prosperity.

“We have a programme to bring about broader transformation in the way the government’s bu­reaucracy deals with business and uses digital technologies to boost competitiveness and higher eco­nomic growth,” Anouar Maarouf, Communication Technologies and Digital Economy minister, told The Arab Weekly in an interview.

Tunisia, he said, needs a firm commitment by the citizenry to a far-reaching digital transformation that would encompass society and the economy, as well as the educational system and the way business is conducted.

“We should believe strongly in that digital pathway to suc­ceed. We need determination and widespread belief to make breakthroughs in this field and give the country a new identity on the world stage,” said Maarouf, 48 and who holds a doctorate in mathematics.

The country has adopted a four-point plan called Digital Tunisia 2020 with a government budget of $867 million. The plan is aimed at promoting foreign investment in Tunisian digital business ventures.

The country plans to upgrade its digital infrastructure by broaden­ing the connection of businesses, homes and public service admin­istration with high-speed broad­band internet connections. It projects the creation of more than 100,000 jobs by 2020.

“Telecoms and information technologies, as well as the digital economic sector in general, are the only segment of the economy that has continued to grow for so many years now. It was not affected by the current climate,” Maarouf said in reference to the country’s social and political upheavals after the uprising of 2011.

“This is a key factor that shows if we expand investment and increase output and the added-value in this sector, we can tap a huge potential of growth for the economy more than in other sectors, even if we do not change the main economic parameters,” he added about the country’s economic model.

Maarouf said the potential growth of 1-2% by businesses in “digitisation capability” would yield $8.7 billion for the economy.

Such an amount is the equiva­lent of the combined budgets of the Education, Health, Defence and Interior ministries for 2017.

“The digital segment of the economy accounts for 7% as part of the country’s gross domestic product,” he said. “Imagine the huge potential of growth that lies ahead and added value when you unlock the country’s full digital potential.”

Tunisian experts, including top government economic advis­ers, argue that it is unlikely the country could resolve the massive joblessness among its young peo­ple if it does not base its economic activities on sectors that make greater use of sciences and tech­nologies and tap into the digital potential.

Tunisia has about 700,000 unemployed young people — most of them university graduates. Its overall joblessness rate is 15.9%, including 30.2% of university graduates. The problem of jobless­ness is less acute among primary school dropouts.

More than 57% of the country`s workforce of 3.9 million have high school or university degrees.

The economy is essentially labour-intensive. Farming, manu­facturing and tourism are the main sources of employment alongside a bloated government bureaucracy that employs 850,000 people.

Young people 15-35 years old account for more than 75% of the population. Economists said this demographic feature is an oppor­tunity to enhance entrepreneur­ship and create employment in the private sector.

Finding jobs for young people is a problem for both families and government, fretting about the radicalisation and illegal migration risks for unemployed youth.

“If you build and upgrade the adequate infrastructure of tel­ecommunications and digital tech­nologies across the whole country including in areas which are less advantaged in development now you will provide Internet access for all young people,” Maarouf said.

“All young people will have then the chances and opportuni­ties to succeed and compete for jobs and successful projects. They have a chance to turn their ideas and dreams into bold projects,” he added.

Disparities among regions and social groups are challenges facing government as it tries to develop a fully digitised economy.

Official figures show that 25.2% of Tunisian families own comput­ers and 23.5% have fixed phones mainly because the infrastructure is concentrated on relatively rich coastal regions and big cities.

Mobile phone technology at­tenuates that gap as official data from 2016 show that Tunisia’s in­ternet users constitute 52.1% of the population — similar to Jordan and China and higher than countries like Mexico and Vietnam.

The government seeks to change that.

Maarouf said authorities plan to grant licences to companies to expand telecommunications and digital capabilities to regions on the borders with Libya and Algeria and remote areas to plug the gap between the “have-not” and “have-more” areas.

“This is to protect our borders as part of a national security policy and also to help these regions catch up in social and economic development,” he said.

The government is allocating $22 million to fund incentives as part of this plan.

Areas in the interior are less profitable than more developed regions on the coast and big cities. Companies are usually reluctant to move on their own into such places.

Lamine Ghanmi is a veteran Reuters journalist. He has covered North Africa for decades and is based in Tunis.

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