Written by: Leila Ben-Gacem – Originally published on Medium.
After graduating abroad from University, I was young, and very determined to return and work in my country, Tunisia. I graduated as a Biomedical Engineer, But I needed to get my degree validated by the Ministry of high Education, to get a job as a Biomedical Engineer. That process lasted 8 months, and they were the longest 8 months of my life, as I had to confront the Tsunami of ‘why did you come back?’ question from surprised relatives and friends. When my degree finally got credited, I was downgraded to a ‘technician’. Depressing yes, but I was still motivation to start with a much lower salary, that I thought I deserved.
When I was young, I was active in my hometown Beni-Khalled, and always volunteered at Youth center. This got me noticed, and my name was put on the city board list, for a municipal election. First, I have no idea what that meant, second, I realized that you can’t say ‘no’, in pre-revolution Tunisia, finally I decided I wanted to change the world, and maybe this was my chance.
We were the only running list, of the one and only political party, and surprise surprise, we won the elections!
So, now I sit on the city board, with 100 ideas for our little city; but all were met with a tap on the back. I realized that I was good for the campaign photos, I was also good to have in the city board meeting, as I tick the box: young, women, educated, and had the right family name for my city. That’s when I realized, maybe I will not change the world in this station of my life, but I promised myself, I will never give a young person a degrading tap on the back when I am older.
Today, it is 25 years later, I am elected again, at the same municipality. But this time, in post-revolution Tunisia, there was fierce competition between 7 electoral lists, and I missed the mayor seat by 2 votes out of 24 city counselors votes.
I hate to admit that the tap on the back attitude is still there, youth are still kind of good for photos! I am deeply empathetic to youth participation in local governments and civic engagement. This lead me to organizing youth camps whenever possible during school vacations, to make teenagers grow up to be citizens not inhabitants, understand conflict of interest when they see it, and understand that they can change their community to the better. I decided to equip youth, so no one dares stop them from changing their world to the better, with a tap on the back.
Today I am a business owner, more than half of our team, are high school dropouts, and we are supporting some of them who decided to go back to school, which inspires youth in their community.
Hiring young high school dropouts, is a business risk, but an important investment in humans, and a puzzle that leaves you wondering who actually failed, the school or the student? Because when humans that want and can flourish, fail in school, it is hard not to question what is happening in schools.
Tunisia’s educational reform is a never-ending story; often reform results in content change, but not a change in methodology. Education delivery process remained a funnel of volumes of knowledge, that needs to find its way into students’ brains, and if the funnel does not deliver, the brain is the problem… of course!
At the city of Beni-Khalled, where I am elected, we made a survey, to find that about half of students in primary, reach last year of high school; and this seems to be the yearly average since the revolution, 10 years ago. That means, in another 10 years, 50% of citizens, will not have the skills needed to live a decent life, and probably city poverty and security will degrade over time. I personally feel that this should be city priority. BUT I have realized, that political mindset is from election to next election, anything with long-term impact, will not serve next elections, so why bother; besides we are talking about target group that don’t even vote!
The need for alternative education or vocational education, has never been more urgent, and looking at the numbers, I imagined vocational institutes in Tunisia, would have a waiting list, piles of requests to join. Surprisingly, vocational institutes are closing due to low demand, and when I visit some, I find them very clean, quiet and empty. What is happening? why are teenagers who are not in school, out on the streets doing nothing?
The problem might be because Ministries don’t talk to each other! There are 3 ministries dealing with teenagers, the ministry of education takes care of schools, and if you are not under a school roof, they don’t know you, and they are done with you. Then the ministry of vocational training, which manages vocational school, but they need information about those that stopped attending school. The information between ministries, is the responsibility of the parents, who will have to choose between working to feed their children, or run between ministries with administrative paperwork, to get their child registered at a vocational institute. Finally, there is the ministry of sports and youth, that manages public youth centers, with amazing youth activities, but no youth. Youth centers, cannot take their activities to schools, unless the 2 ministries sign an MOU. For 2 ministries to sign an MOU, they will need to discuss and discuss and discuss until a ministerial change takes place, and then the process will need to restart all over.
Until the 3 ministers make peace with each other, youth will dropout, have nothing to do, and the only remaining dream is a Mediterranean crossing little boat.
In Tunisia, often entrepreneurship is promoted as a solution to unemployment. There are many youth entrepreneurship empowerment initiatives. Funding is there for incubators, accelerators, coaching, training… you name it… There is money for youth entrepreneurial support, but no money for young people to start their business. At entrepreneurship trainings, some young people participate to get the training certificate and add a line on their poor CV, to improve job seeking chances; some are there for the good food, and some to get noticed by the funding organization, which might help them travel formally and never come back, and then very few, are actually attending with business ideas.
Entrepreneurship trainers are often university professors, some with little risk-taking experience on their CV’s, but for sure read a lot about entrepreneurship, and for sure can help you write a 20-page business plan for a hairdresser shop. As a business owner since 2006, I have never written a business plan, but if I had met a banker that believes in entrepreneurship, I would have definitely written one for them. From my experience, bankers only loan those that have a villa to put as guarantee or have a relative with a nice bank account.
In my business, part of what we do is help artisans export their products… But try to export an innocent rug, and it will cost you an arm and a leg, and the probability of getting into an investigation by central bank, when 100 euro show up at your modest bank account. The export of small items and service, is made in way that make you want to abandon export after the first attempt. Small exports in Tunisia only support the banking system, and the central bank treats every small exporter as a potential money launderer.
Tunisia is only successful at exporting people; our government proudly shares numbers of Tunisian diaspora contribution to the economy, on the other hand the banking and fiscal system treat everyone inside the country, as a potential money launderer.
Today, I see the immense opportunities for our government, if it were to partner with startups of all types, to accelerate implementations of e-gov to improve services, or just to make ministries talk to each other… there are also immense opportunities to improve climate justice through circular economy solutions and upcycling innovations lead by our youth, or renewable energy.
On the other hand, public purchasing process, is made as complex as possible, to stop corruption. The result is a system that creates sharks that master the process and win all public tenders, blocking out the young and motivated with innovative solutions; keeping public administration hostage of their own process and their sharks.
When I was young, I wanted to change the world, today I am a lot more modest, taking into account the complexity of our reality, so I decided that giving hope and love of our roots, to few young people around me, could count as changing the world.
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Leila Ben-Gacem is a social entrepreneur, Ashoka Fellow; founder of Blue Fish, a consultancy that works on improving the economic dynamics and social inclusion, of heritage and culture to improve its preservation. Leila also founded Dar el Harka, a creative industry hub; Dar Ben Gacem, a Boutique Hotel and cultural catalyst in the medina of Tunis. Leila is also a founder and president of M’dinti, Medina’s first economic interest group. Leila is an elected city council member at her native town of Beni-Khalled. Before switching careers, Leila held various positions at multinational corporations and has a BS in Biomedical Engineering.