Why Tunisia needs a skills revolution

Ali Mnif
CEO, Mazam, Tunisia
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Tunisia’s biggest resource is its human capital. It’s a statement we keep repeating in schools, expecting to see our young people accept their fate as Tunisia’s only hope.

Oil-producing countries invest billions to build infrastructure to process their oil: pipelines, refineries, ports; increasing added value to increase their margins. The same practice could be applied to other resources: the more you invest, the higher your added value, and the better the chances of seeing a return on the investment.

Could we apply this practice to Tunisia’s human capital resource? Back in the day, this did happen. Soon after independence, an enormous 25% of the national budget went to education. The process was easy to implement: build schools, hire teachers, impose attendance and here we go: 100% of young Tunisians were attending schools. What happened next?

Nothing came next, actually. Our educational system is old; it matches neither our generation’s needs, nor market demand. And we as a nation haven’t reacted: we’ve wasted generations of educated Tunisians, with diplomas hanging on their walls, not knowing why the market doesn’t want them.

In reality, the market does need them. The mismatch is so huge it may seem hard to believe sometimes: in the same region where uprisings raged and jobless young people took to the streets, companies are struggling to find talented workers.

The responsibility rests primarily on the government, whose main task is to reform the system, especially in areas such as education, vocational training and employment policy. What is urgently needed now is practical curricula, soft-skills trainings at early ages, and incentives for employers to run internship programmes.

Additionally, Tunisia should move to a more meritocratic model, which takes into consideration the many different types of intelligence. Currently, a logical or mathematical way of thinking is prized above all others. It would be an improvement if the Tunisian education system evaluated students by, for example, the nine types of intelligence outlined in Howard Gardner’s book Frames of Mind: the Theory of Multiple Intelligences, rather than by their grades.

This would be more of a revolution than a reform, however, since it requires a change of mindset for teachers, parents, administration workers and students. It also requires preparation, testing and adaptation. Most importantly, it requires political courage.

But it’s not up to the government alone: civil-society groups, international organizations and donors must all play their part, as should the private sector. Great work has already been done by local organizations such as Union des Diplômés Chômeurs, through public advocacy and capacity building. International NGOs have helped bridge the education gap after decades of bad governance and wrongheaded policies, especially in the rural areas. Mercy Corps, Silatech, Education for Employment: they all played that role; they designed and delivered programmes aimed at developing skills, employability and entrepreneurship. The private sector, too, introduced initiatives that had a positive impact on the target population – Microsoft’s certification, employability and e-learning platform, Tounes Ta3mal (with Silatech), and Build Your Business training (with the International Youth Foundation).

We cannot expect concrete results overnight. First, there is important work to be done on communication in order to prepare for reforms, promote ongoing programmes and encourage active participation.

In conclusion, even though the process of reforming is slow and long, we should undertake it now, not only to create and save jobs or prevent massive social movements, but to valorize our human capital.

Shaping Davos is a series of live events hosted by the Global Shapers Community from 19 to 24 January. Forty cities around the world will be connected via two-way live-streaming and satellite broadcast technology to discuss 10 topics related to the theme of the World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting 2015 in Davos-Klosters. Join the conversation at

Author: Ali Mnif is Chief Executive Officer of Mazam, Tunisia, and a Global Shaper from the Tunis Hub.

Image: Tunisian Employees work at an underwear factory in Sfax, south of Tunisia March 22, 2012. REUTERS/Zoubeir Souissi 

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