Driving their own Destiny

A civil society program in Tunisia offers employment opportunities to the country’s youth

SIROCCO blog: The Mediterranean wind whipped up in the Sahara and blown across the Maghreb region. In North Africa, it is known by its Arabic name, qibli. ‘Sirocco’ provides a blow-by-blow account of events occurring in the Arabic-speaking countries west of Egypt.

cars on the bridge, connecting the northern and the southern parts of Tunis, in La Goulette near Tunis. FETHI BELAID/AFP/Getty Images

In Tunisia, where an estimated fifteen percent of the population live below the poverty line, a man named Abdallah applied for a chauffeur job. Although Abdallah was trained to drive, the company decided to employ him instead as a security guard—which pays more. They had twice previously refused his job application. This time however, Abdallah had completed a program subsidized by a non-profit organisation called Almadanya, and his driver’s license now signified that he was ‘self-disciplined’.

As Tunisia reconfigures its subsidy structure to better target the poor, civil society organizations, like Almadanya, offer their own type of social intervention in order to enable the country’s poorer youth to find work.

Tunisians, regardless of income, are entitled to receive subsidies for diesel, cooking oil, sugar, and bread as part of the government’s Social Safety Net (SSN). Tunisia highlights the macro-problem faced by many other countries in the Middle East & North Africa region—its widespread subsidy coverage shifts funds away from other social development programs. Consequently, both the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund have repeatedly advised Middle East & North African countries, like Tunisia, to scale back such subsidies, as the current system is not financially sustainable.

Regardless of the positive impact informal social safety networks provide, government subsidies in Tunisia, even if targeted directly at the poor, will not suffice for two reasons: Firstly, Tunisia’s budget deficit has grown by 12.6 percent since its 2011 revolution. Secondly, persistent unemployment requires programs that go beyond food assistance, a forthcoming IMF loan, and raising state-controlled prices (such as with milk, earlier this year).

Un-reformed SSN programs fail to provide enough for Tunisia’s poor; whereas NGOs may offer social interventions that consider long-term concerns, such as obtaining the skills and tools needed to find a job. Founded in 2011 by expatriate businessman, Lotfi Maktouf, Almadanya targets unemployed youth across four provinces in Tunisia by subsidizing their driver’s licenses through its program, Licence to Dream.

In Tunisia, one cannot obtain a license without attending a driving school, which adds to the financial burden of lower-income families.

Speaking to The Majalla, Maktouf recalls how he felt that a country-wide program was needed to target unemployed youth in both urban and rural areas. After reviewing eight citizen empowerment programs, Maktouf observed that there was a high demand for driving instruction in Tunisia. Even working in the agricultural sector in requires the ability to drive a tractor, and hence, a driver’s license. In Tunisia, one cannot obtain a license without attending a driving school, which adds to the financial burden of lower-income families. Maktouf addressed the financial burden by meeting with the driving schools and negotiating the fees from 850 dinars down to 390 dinars for lower-income students. Essentially, Licence to Dream funds the instruction fee.

After the participant qualifies, they are required to match the program’s effort by paying the government stamp fee of 50 dinars. The program then reimburses the student, but only upon completion of the program. This 50 dinar deposit operates as the incentive for the participants to commit to full attendance. “We step in after they take the first step…participants need to have skin in the game, or they will not take attendance seriously,” emphasizes Maktouf.

Maktouf believes that this mutual commitment explains why License to Dream has achieved a ninety-nine percent success rate, and why ninety-five percent of its participants have since found work. “Now they have an ID other than what is imposed by the state, which shows that they have earned it through their own efforts—an added value,” says Maktouf.

If anything, his social intervention may serve as the intermediary step for those in the lower socio-economic bracket trying to participate in the formal economy, which requires government issued identification. Almadanya is now set to expand into a fifth province, Jendouba, which represented the highest unemployment rate (24.5 percent) of Tunisia’s other nine governates.

Despite its successful track record, Almadanya, which has twenty-five staff members and twenty-five volunteers, still relies on the funding of its founder. Critics also argue that Licence to Dream does not address the persistent problem of employing youth who come from middle-income families. (Unemployment in Tunisia remains highest among 18 to 34-year-olds with university degrees.) However, Licence to Dream is a social intervention that mirrors the World Bank’s findings on the cash subsidy recommendation. After two years, the program’s results hint at what long-term impact means: funding social interventions that increase a young person’s employability by facilitating a driver’s license—not necessarily a university degree in engineering.

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