The expertly crafted Tunisian mirage

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A censored World Bank report

During a visit to Tunisia in 2008, IMF Managing Director Dominique Strauss-Kahn received a civil decoration from the hands of Ben Ali of "Grand Officer" of the Tunisian Republic. In this video showing a Tunisian television report (in French) of his visit, Straus-Kahn says Tunisia's "economic policies are healthy and I think it is a good example to follow for many emerging countries," before concluding: "The judgment of the IMF towards Tunisian policies is very positive [...] and in Tunisia, things will continue to function correctly."

Not a word was uttered by the IMF chief about the clan-like structure of a corrupt economy placed at the service of Ben Ali's close entourage, nor about the vast social inequalities between the population of its coastal region and those inland.

Indeed, the country's capital Tunis, lying on its northern coastline, was ranked 55th best place to invest in the world by the World Bank. That made it one of the top investment attractions among African countries, along with the Mauritious Islands, thanks notably to its fiscal policies towards businesses (see Doing Business, 2011)

In the World Economic Forum's Global Competitiveness Report 2010-11, Tunisia climbed eight places on the 2009-10 edition to reach 32nd position. The report gives countries an overall score, averaged from individual scores against a wide list of criteria, including ‘Transparency of government policymaking' (here Tunisia ranked 20th worldwide), ‘Public trust of politicians (15th worldwide) and ‘Ethics and corruption' (18th).

In a good governance in Africa index compiled by the highly reputed Mo Ibrahim Foundation, often cited by The Economist magazine, Tunisia figured in 8th position, just behind Ghana. That put it ahead of all its North African neighbours, with Egypt in 11th position, Algeria at 14th, Morocco at 16th and Libya 23rd.

The Tunisian revolution raises a very significant question for international institutions; how could they have ignored to such a degree the clear cracks in an economy incapable of sufficient re-distribution of the fruits of its growth, and this to the point of implosion? Why was there no trace of criticism of the nepotism that ravaged the country?

"While there is no shortage of economic indicators, those about social issues were the object of a complete black-out by the authorities," said Mohammed-Ali Marouani, an economics professor with the Paris-1 University. "That is how one of the decisive trends of the period was passed over, namely the explosion in unemployment among the young, in the most underprivileged regions far from the coast."

Karim Bitar, of IRIS, believes "one of the lessons of this crisis is that the indicators systematically placed at the fore are partial, even completely misleading."

Indeed, the sacrosanct indicator that is the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) has been, in Tunisia's case, impressive. It progressed by 3.1% in 2009, despite the international economic crisis, and by 3.8% in 2010. The IMF even predicted, before the fall of Ben Ali, a growth of 4.8% in 2011. The deficit slightly worsened by around 3% due the effects of the downturn, but the national debt fell in 2009, to 42.8%. Inflation in 2010 was 4.5%, compared with 5.5% in Jordan, and 10.9% in Egypt. Such figures were, for the experts, the illustration of a very solid situation.

"Tunisian economic growth is strong, but it could be a lot better still," said Moncef Cheikh-Rouhou, professor of managerial economics and international finance studies with the Paris-based HEC management school, a Tunisian national with close links to the opposition movement. "In a report by the World Bank, it is said that, without the corruption of the regime, the growth rate would be higher by at least two points. But this report was not published due to pressure from the authorities."

Cheikh-Rouhou is tipped by some as a potential future finance minister in the next, freely-elected Tunisian government. He has lived in exile after being forced to sell up his shares in his family's Tunisian press group members of Ben Ali's entourage. "In the same way, for fifteen years we were prohibited from saying and writing that the unemployment rate exceeded 14%, while it reached 30% in some regions."
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