Thursday, April 4, 2013

ST&I: Tunisia’s Lifeboat!


This modest contribution comes at a time when Tunisia is trying to find its way to a true democracy, equitable growth and dignity for its people. Youth joblessness in general and the unemployment of university degree holders in particular, were the main fuel of the Jasmine Revolution. Unless the true underlying causes are identified, all prescribed solutions, no matter how ingenious they are, won’t produce the collectively desired results. This short document, attempts to show that the key underlying cause, and thus Tunisia’s Achilles’ heel, is the poor structure of its industry. The analytic National Innovation System (NIS) framework is used to tackle this enduring and complex problem. Standard indicators, spanning the main components of the NIS, are used in an attempt to debunk the culprits, and initiate a collective curative process for our ailing society.


On the 14th January 2011 the free people of Tunisia forced their corrupt ruler from power, and collectively willed to build a modern peace loving democratic society. On the 23rd October 2012 they confirmed their historic choice and held their first successful democratic elections. The on going Jasmine Revolution, punctuated by these two key dates, was a spontaneous ideologiless, leaderless and peaceful awakening claiming social and economic justice. It was energised by people’s thirst for dignity, peace and democracy, the chains breaking words of our poets and prayers seeking divine blessings for our martyrs that either gave their blood for freedom or died awaiting a loaf of bread. These unprecedented events sparked the Arab Spring, and inspired the Occupy Movement.

Despite the success of the elections, the relatively democratic political process and the support of the international community, Tunisia is still struggling, among others, with high unemployment, significant regional inequalities, and increasing corruption. It goes without saying that this enduring state of affairs is the result of almost half century of autocratic leadership, exacerbated by an unduly erratic two years post revolution transition. In fact, as these words are being written, the head of the Troika government presented his resignation, after failing to constitute a small apolitical government staffed with technocrats, in the aftermath of a strongly condemned first and hopefully last political execution.

These successive government failures, attest to the incapability of the political leadership, in and out of the government, to apprehend the most urgent problems. They kept talking about several issues such as security, national and regional growth, and employment, without offering any viable actions or plans to gain the trust of the population, and start alleviating the social pressure. The last two years downward spiral, leading to a grotesque cold-blooded political assassination, was accelerated by a relentless struggle for power, futile populism, and an absence of willingness and/or competence to debunk the true underlying causes of the crises.  As a matter of fact, and at best, almost all deployed actions and programs were reminiscent of the pre-revolution government!

The youth joblessness crisis was the telltale of a lingering systemic failure, a persistently ticking time bomb that was consistently ignored, in favour of restricting freedoms, intimidating citizens, and looting the country, but theatrically tackled with make-believe policies. This unemployment state of affairs was characterised by a seemingly absurd but symptomatic high percentage of jobless university degree holders. As a mater of fact, and for the last decade or so, the more educated the job seeker was, the lesser chances she/he had to find a job! This counterintuitive situation will be referred to as the Tunisian Paradox.

A Post Revolution vision:

Post revolution Tunisia has a unique and a historic opportunity to intelligently leverage its competitive advantages and swiftly catch up with the developed world, while simultaneously taking the lead in becoming a Sustainable Knowledge Society (SNS). This long-term vision stipulates that Tunisia secures its place on the world stage as a Knowledge-based society where Innovation-led sustainable growth, creative and skilled entrepreneurial human capital, and democratic political system, pave the way towards economic and labour force competitiveness, equitable and inclusive national and regional sustainable growth, along with the betterment of local and global well being. It is interesting to note, that the underlying causes of the Jasmine Revolution, the Arab Spring and the Occupy Movement are symptomatic of the same social ills, making of Sustainable Knowledge Tunisia an experiment worthy of attention for the rest of the planet.

In order to achieve the above vision Tunisia has to espouse, more than ever, a systemic approach where the four pillars of the Knowledge Economy (KE) are harmoniously combined, in time and in space. To swiftly and robustly converge to the above stated vision, it is necessary to create a innovation friendly environment for the efficient creation, dissemination, and use of knowledge through a proactive Economic and Institutional Regime, to provide educated and skilled population that is able to effectively use knowledge through a high quality, flexible and responsive Education System, to facilitate effective communication, dissemination, and processing of information via a modern Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) infrastructure, to stoutly pursue the connection and assimilation of global knowledge, the adaptation and creation of local knowledge for the socioeconomic benefit via a viable National Innovation System (NIS).

While the above four pillars of the KE are necessary for the foundation of a successful knowledge-based economy, they remain insufficient as to the attainment of a sustainable society. In order to secure sustainability it is fundamental to further characterize the Knowledge Society (KS) we will be building in general and the type of innovations we will be producing in particular. In this framework, economic growth, social cohesion and environmental protection must go hand in hand making sustainable development an integral part of policymaking. The complementary KE and Sustainability dimensions integrated within a systemic framework require suitable governance and institutional cybernetic architecture capable of the required, steering, monitoring and coordination functions.

Obviously, it is far from enough to have a vision, a strong willpower to pursue it and even a unique window of opportunity to launch it, if the minimal socio-political, institutional and material substrates are not available! In fact, Tunisia is a country with scarce natural resources, limited ST&I policy making and R&D management experiences, and almost inexistent and at best inoperative ST&I coordinating and monitoring institutions. Therefore, for Tunisia to swiftly and progressively converge to this vision, it has to secure the adherence of all stakeholders, clearly seek and devise polarizing strategic growth sectors with a portfolio of growth flag ship initiatives within a global and coherent long-term development action plan.

Strong economies have usually relied on three polarizing major sectors, i.e., armament, space and health. However,  small countries, such as Tunisia, with scarce natural resources, small market, slowly receding cheap labour, and a relatively strong highly skilled base, has the potential to successfully engage in high vale added sectors and technologies, while investing viably in areas for its strategic security, e.g., agriculture, energy, and water.

In order for the above vision to succeed and thus lead to sustainability, it is necessary to work towards the establishment of a sustainable consumption and production society whose sustainable performance is measured by appropriate indicators such as its footprint.  Simultaneously, Tunisia has to zoom initially into eco-efficient technologies and move progressively but surely to green-innovation with a strong and dynamic entrepreneurial engagement consolidated with aggressive public investment. To do so, and build resilience against disturbances, Tunisia needs to urgently build capacity and acquire the proper know-how, methodologies and tools especially evidence-based policy analysis and design, strategic planning and management, foresighting for development, NIS reorientation and priorities setting, and roadmapping for technology and innovation.

Invigorated with this vision and the needed viable strategies and action plans to attain it, the Tunisian people will be able to regain hope, trust their leadership and work hard while looking forward to better future for themselves and their children. Nevertheless, this is only possible if the political context is ripe for such an undertaking. While preparing the necessary foundations to launch this vision, and gain as much grounds for the successful implementation of this few decades’ long complex process. The present government, with the support of the opposition and all concerned institutions should agree on an inclusive post revolution compact, abstain from political power games, and guarantee the following three necessities: (i) security, (ii) jobs for the youth and (iii) rebooting the economy. An attempt to implement a similar project, was initiated by the previous head of the government, and immediately aborted by the main political party, whose General Secretary is nothing but the initiator!

An Innovation System in the Making:

A Three Millennia Innovation Legacy:

During the last three millennia, Tunisia has been an exceptional place for blending, disseminating and flourishing of several civilisations such as the Carthaginian, the Roman and the Hafsids. The openness of the country to other cultures, its ethnic and religious tolerance, coincided with its prosperity as attested by the diversification of its markets and trade, as well as its mastery of science and innovation.

Tunisia saw knowledge thrive during its Carthage era. Architecture, shipbuilding, irrigation and agriculture were among many successful sectors as attested, entre autres, by the 4th Century BC, 28 volumes Magon Treaty.

As early as the 7th Century, Tunisia played a key role, and saw its capital Kairouan become a hub of learning and intellectual pursuits in the Arab-Islamic world. The Great Mosque of Kairouan, founded in 670, along with its teaching arm was a centre of education both in Islamic thought and secular sciences. Among its old pupils and scholars Ibn Al Jazzar an influential 10th Century Muslim physician, well known for his “Zad Al-Musaffir” (The Viaticum) book. During the 13th Century Tunis was made the capital of Ifriqiya. This shift of power helped the Al-Zaytouna Mosque, host of the first and greatest university in the history of Islam, to flourish as major Islamic learning and scholarly centre. Ibn Khaldun, a Tunisian scholar, is the most famous among its many alumni. He is most known for his Al-muqaddimah (Prolegomena) and viewed as one of the fathers of modern historiography.

The 19th Century Beylical Tunisia, witnessed the creation, by Ahmed Bey, of the Technical School in 1840, and the Military College of Bardo in 1855. This effort of modernisation was carried further by Mohamed Sadok Bey, under the influence of his Minister Kheireddine Pacha, by the creation among others of the Sadiki College in 1875, partly inspired from the European educational system. Ex-President Habib Bourguiba is among his former students.

The French protectorate era, witnessed the creation of a number of needs-driven research instructions, among them, withy their present designations, the Pasteur Institute of Tunis in 1893, the National School of Agriculture in 1898, and the National Institute of Marine Science and Technology in 1924. After WWII, the above research institutions were augmented by the Institute of Higher Education in 1945 within the University of Paris. Among its students, 300 Tunisians were enrolled.

The Precursor to the Innovation System:

Independent Tunisia, realised very early its national pressing and urgent educational and research needs among several socio-economic ones, and swiftly responded to these challenges by the creation of the Ecole Normale Supérieure, in 1956, and the National Institute of Agronomy of Tunis, previously designated as Ecole Supérieure d’Agriculture of Tunis, in 1959. These creations were followed by the creation of the University of Tunis in 1960. The university included the Faculty of Science, the Faculty of Letters and Human Sciences, the Faculty of Law, Political Sciences and Economics, The Faculty of Medicine and Pharmacy, and the Faculty of Theology, the former Zitouna. Almost simultaneously, the Arid Region Problems Research Centre, and the Economics and Social Research Study Centre (CERES), were established in 1961 and 1962, respectively. The National Engineering School of Tunis (ENIT) was created in 1969.

It is important to note, that almost a decade after the creation of the first university in Tunisia, it was decided in 1968, to abandon the university system, and place all higher education institutions and national research centres under the control of the newly created Directorate General of Higher Education and Scientific Research (DGESES) of the Ministry of National Education. Shortly after this peculiar and significant restructuring, it was decided, in 1972, to establish advanced academic degrees equivalent to the master’s level, launching accordingly the Graduate Studies in Tunisia.

The latter restructuring and creation dynamics, along with the increasing numbers of the academic staff, allowed the creation of some research laboratories and several master’s degrees programs in several academic fields. As a consequence, the number of students grew, and prompted the creation of several higher education institutions first in Sousse and Sfax, in 1974, and Monastir and Gabes in 1975.

These accelerated development, led to the creation, in 1978, and for the first time of a dedicated scientific research ministry, dubbed the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research (MHESR). Not only did this ministry inherit and expand the mission of the DGESRS, but did also acknowledge the nature of the development phase of the research system and the need to build capacity and thus keep higher education and academic research closely connected.

Tunisia’s Innovation System Today:

The landmark event that launched the Tunisian scientific Research System was the promulgation, in the 31st of January 1996, of the Orientation Law concerning Scientific Research and Technological Development. This founding legislation was the result of the creation, in February 17, 1991 within the Prime Ministry of the Secretariat of state for Scientific Research upgraded in February 17, 1992 to the Secretariat of State for Scientific Research and Technology (SERST). The focus of SERST was research activities oriented towards socio-economic development, while basic research and graduate education remained with the Ministry of Education and Science.

Formulated within the NIS framework, the Orientation Law’s main objectives were:

  • Reinforcing coordination between the different components of the NIS in order to create the necessary synergy, to build enduring competencies, and to ensure a sustained financial support,
  • Promoting capacity building as the key pillar of the NIS, as well as technological innovation,
  • Increasing progressively R&D expenditure, while ensuring diversity of financial resources and reinforcing private and international contributions,
  • Promoting innovation and technological development through the support of innovative companies, the valorisation of research results, the reinforcement of partnership between research an industry, as well as the creation of techno-parks and incubators,
  • Reinforcing follow up and evaluation of research activities and structures,
  • Developing international cooperation in order to facilitate the exchange of best practices, to access international scientific excellence networks, to benefit from international financing, and to be an active contributor to human knowledge,

Shortly after, a number of institutions reminiscent of modern National Innovation Systems were created and/or added to the existing ones, within and/or under the tutelage of the Ministry of Higher education and Scientific Research (MHESR), and the Ministry of Industry and Technology (MIT). As stated in the above objectives, these institutions were to insure the execution, the monitoring and evaluation of the activities stipulated in the Orientation Law and its subsequent implementation decrees.

The current NIS is made of the following main components, grouped in the standard four different levels:

Level 1: High level policy

  1. The Higher Council of Scientific Research and Technology,
  2. The High Level Committee for Science and Technology,
  3. The National Consultative Council of Scientific Research and Technology,

Level 2: Ministry

  1. Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research, (the Directorate General of Scientific Research (DGRS), is the main funding body for scientific research),
  2. Ministry of Industry and Technology.

Level 3: Agency

  1. The National Evaluation Committee of Scientific Research Activities (CNEARS),
  2. The National Observatory of Science and Technology (NOST),
  3. The National Agency for the Promotion of Research (ANPR),
  4. The National Institute for Standardisation and Industrial Property (INNORPI),
  5. The Agency for the Promotion of Industry and Innovation (APII).

Level 4: Research and Innovation Performers

  1. The Universities and Public Research Centres (Tunisia’s R&D system is composed of about 140 research laboratories, 500 research unit, evolving in 13 Universities, as well as 33 public research centres, 8 technical centres, and 10 technoparks.)
  2. Business enterprises and private research institutions (The industry in Tunisia is made of almost 6000 SMEs having 10 or more employees, of which 2 800 are totally exporting ones, 1975 with foreign participation, 1221 are 100% foreign owned, and 1679 are totally exporting SMEs.)

In order to energise the NIS and facilitate the emergence of synergies among its different subsystems, a number of R&D programs and financial instruments were deployed since 1992. Among these the Federated Research Program (PRF), the National Research and Innovation Program (PNRI), the Valorisation of Research Results Program (VRR), and the R&D Investment Premium (PIRD). The capital-risk mechanisms, especially the SICARs (Société d’Investissment à Capital Risque), was amended in 2009 to encourage further risk-taking.

A Performance Preview of the Innovation System:

Education, scientific research and innovation sectors had always a place of choice in Tunisia’s development strategy. This comes as recognition of their essential role in the country’s development. According to the World Bank data, Tunisia’s spending on education in 2008 was 6.3% of GDP, which is clearly higher than Algeria (4.3% in 2008) and Morocco (5.4% in 2009).  In 2009, 34.4% of the corresponding population benefited from tertiary education (Algeria: 32.1% in 2011, Morocco: 13.2% in 2009). According to the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report 2011-2012, Tunisia ranks 24th as to primary education enrolment and 40th regarding its quality. Moreover, the same report ranks the overall quality of the educational system 41st, and the quality of math and science education 18th. It is however unfortunate to note that Tunisia was much better ranked last year!

R&D expenditures saw a steady increase during the last decade. They more than doubled, going from 0.5% in 2000 to 1.1% in 2009. While this performance remains unmatched in the region, i.e., 0.1% for Algeria in 2005, and 0.6% for Morocco in 2006, it fails short from responding to the needs of the country to move up the value chain. The number of researchers in R&D, per million people, almost tripled during the last two decades. Indeed, the indicator went from about 700 in 1998, to 1.9 thousands in 2008. This performance remains notable in the region when compared to 170 for Algeria in 2005 and 661 for Morocco in 2008. Concerning scientific and technical journal articles, Tunisia managed to exponentially outnumber its neighbours and reach 1022 publications in 2009, while it merely published 91 articles in 1993. Comparatively, Algeria published 123 article in 1993 and 606 in 2009. However, Morocco saw its 164 publication of 1993 reach only 391in 2009.

This resulting exponential publications growth is directly due to the major restructuring that took place following the promulgation of the 1996 Orientation Law. As a matter of fact, a closer inspection of these dynamics, especially in well established academic fields such as chemistry, shows without any doubt, the cause and effect relationship between the promulgation date of this legislation and the ensuing publications renewal. According to Thomson Reuters in 2011, the number of publications per million population, makes of Tunisia the leading country in Africa, as well as ahead of Saudi Arabia.

A large number of these publications were published as a result of collaborative research work between the Tunisian researchers and their main colleagues abroad. Africa Global Research Report published by Thomson Reuters in April 2010, reveals that Tunisia had 32.6%, 2.8%, 2.7%, 2.5% and 2.1% of its publications with France, USA, Italy, Spain and the UK respectively. These results are analogous to Algeria’s, showing the similarities between the neighbouring countries, but strikingly different for Egypt that not only collaborates with the USA and the UK, it also does with Germany, Japan and Saudi Arabia. It is worthy to note that these statistics will most certainly change in favour of the Tunisian German cooperation, since an ambitious bilateral research and innovation cooperation program was launched for the first time as early as the beginning of this year.

This relative performance of Tunisia is unfortunately offset by the modest contribution of R&D to the Tunisian economy. For instance, The Tunisia: Economic and Social Challenges Beyond the Revolution report by the African Development Bank, reported that only 17 international patents were granted by the USPTO and EPO to Tunisia during 2001-2010, and 22 for Morocco. This observation is corroborated by the low high-technology export, performance. Indeed, Tunisia exported 4.9%, in 2010, while Morocco achieved a 7.7%. These results are a revelation of a breakdown in the Tunisian NIS, despite the noticeable evolution of the number of researchers, engineers and scientists and scientific and technical publications. It is obvious that these contrasted performances between Tunisia and Morocco, notwithstanding the marked differences, in favour of the former, in the indicators above, is an indication of structural differences, which took place in 1997, downstream the respective innovation chains!

Again, the far from satisfactory performance of the innovation system is clearly confirmed in the 2011-2012 Global competitiveness Index, where Tunisia scores just a poor 3.6 in innovation, and a 3.8 in technological readiness, yielding a score of 3.9 in the innovation and sophistication index. Moreover, A low company spending on R&D score of 3.4, along with a weak university-industry collaboration in R&D index of 3.7, explain the low 3.4 capacity for innovation of the Tunisian SMEs.

Shortcomings of current policy responses:

The revolution was the ultimate expression of a systemic failure, an outcry of a desperate population that conquered its fear and ousted a corrupt police state that could no longer control it. The telltale of that failure was a lasting blatant youth joblessness crises characterised by a seemingly absurd but symptomatic high percentage of jobless university degree holders. As a mater of fact, and for the last decade or so, the more educated you were the lesser chances you had to get a job! This counterintuitive situation is nothing short from a Tunisian Paradox.

The key shortcomings, regardless of corruption and lack of freedom, which contributed to this state of affairs, are:

         Lack of a collective vision,
         Despite the isolated successes, the “system” didn’t deliver,
         Lack of global coherence, and absence of coordination, led to a systemic failure,
         Despite industrial modernization programs, innovation remains frail,
         Absence of synergies even with the multitudes of incentives and programs.


The above acknowledged shortcomings and challenges are indeed an opportunity for Tunisia to find its pathway for deep transformation. Consequently, facilitating its ascension to the rank of developed nations, and transforming its NIS to catch up with the frontier countries.

In this final section, a number of short and medium terms recommendations are made:

Higher Education System:

  1. Grant autonomy to the leading universities, within a healthy differentiation program,
  2. Reshape university governance by adapting best practices and structures compatible with high quality education and research training,
  3. Allow the universities to diversify their funding by maximising returns while playing their role as a  local engine of socio-economic growth and development,

Industry System:

  1. Adopt a long term industrial policy capable, in the short and medium terms, of consolidating the competitive sectors, while launching progressively a dozen of high value added niches within a coherent strategy,
  2. Initiate national innovation procurement programs, to accelerate the implementation of the industrial policy,
  3. Champion a number of targeted large national ST&I projects to enhance capacity, encourage collaborative work, and boost collective learning,


  1. Create a Vice Prime Minister position to coordinate the complex ST&I system, and insure its alignment with the remaining national policies and strategies,
  2. Streamline the structure of the actual NIS with confirmed models while keeping the same components and slightly modifying their missions and roles,
  3. Built effective and sufficient capacity due regards ST&I policy analysis and design along with R&D management capabilities.

Prof. Jelel Ezzine
President of the Tunisian Association
for the Advancement of Science,
Technology and Innovation (TAASTI)