U.S. Assistance for Tunisia’s Transition
Remarks by Ambassador Gray
“U.S. Assistance for Tunisia's Transition”
The Mediterranean School of Business
Thursday, March 29, 2012 at 17:00
• Good afternoon – I want to thank all of you for joining me here today. I also want to thank Dr. Triki for the invitation. It is a great pleasure to speak at the Mediterranean School of Business, and to be the first Ambassador to participate in your new lecture series.
• I know that there have been a lot of questions since the revolution about what the United States is doing to assist Tunisia’s democratic transition and its economic development. We are doing a great deal, so I would like to take a few minutes today to outline our programs and initiatives. At the conclusion of my remarks, I will be happy to take any questions you have and to listen to any ideas or comments you want to offer.
• Let me begin by congratulating you, the Tunisian people, for your incredible achievements since December 17, 2010. The desperate act of one man led to protests about economic grievances in the interior of Tunisia that transformed into mass demonstrations across the country calling for the downfall of the Ben Ali regime.
• We saw a dictator of 23 years flee the country. January 14 is a date recognized around the world, and dégage has entered the lexicon of protest. We have seen Tunisia’s example inspire people across the region to launch similar democratic movements in their own countries.
• Tunisia is also the first of the Arab Spring countries to hold free and transparent elections, with broad participation throughout society and strong support from the international community. By so doing, the Tunisian people have sent a clear message about the prospects for democracy in the Middle East.
• We have seen Tunisia’s first democratically elected government take office; we have seen the Constituent Assembly delineate the powers of the President, the Prime Minister, and the Assembly Speaker; and we have seen work begin on Tunisia’s new constitution.
• Looking ahead, though, we realize that many challenges remain. While 2011 was a year that witnessed extraordinary political change both in Tunisia and throughout the broader Middle East, 2012 needs to be the year that lays the foundation for enduring economic change in the region. In addition, strong civic institutions must be created to safeguard this past year’s extraordinary political gains and to ensure that the Tunisian people remain empowered participants in this country’s developing democracy.
U.S. Support for the Transition
• President Obama congratulated you, the Tunisian people, on October 23, right after the polls closed on that historic day, and said “the United States reaffirms its commitment to the Tunisian people as they move toward a democratic future that offers dignity, freedom of expression, and greater economic opportunity for all.”
• I am pleased that the Tunisian government and the Tunisian people have welcomed our assistance, and I would like to briefly summarize some of these initiatives for you now by highlighting six areas of U.S. assistance.
• As a former Peace Corps volunteer – I taught English in a lycée in a small mining town in Morocco – I am glad I can tell you that the Peace Corps has just returned to Tunisia. Peace Corps staff arrived yesterday, and the Director of the Peace Corps, Aaron Williams, will visit Tunisia April 2-4. The volunteers, who should come to Tunisia in the late summer or early fall, will focus on English language training and youth skills development.
We have listened to the Tunisian people, who have asked for this type of assistance, which will build local capacity, increase civic participation, and improve the marketability of Tunisian job seekers through English language education.
As a former Peace Corps volunteer myself, I can attest to the effectiveness of this program and I look forward to the return of Peace Corps volunteers so they can resume this long and productive partnership with the Tunisian people.
Job creation, trade, and investment
• The U.S. is creating a Tunisia Enterprise Fund to provide $20 million of seed money to help Tunisians launch small- and medium-enterprises and to encourage investment from venture capitalists. Enterprise funds have been successful in promoting entrepreneurship and job creation in several European countries.
• The Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC) has committed $2 billion to supporting private sector investment in the Middle East and North Africa, including in Tunisia. OPIC is working to invest in small businesses and in Tunisia’s franchising sector and is providing U.S. companies with incentives to invest in Tunisia’s renewable energy sector, notably wind and solar companies.
• Trade and investment are also key to the future of Tunisia, and the U.S. Government has been active in promoting Tunisia as a trade and investment destination to American companies. Since the start of Tunisia’s democratic transition, the Embassy has assisted over 280 U.S. companies interested in investing or trading with Tunisia. We have organized two trade missions with Fortune 500 companies, and I have traveled to the United States twice to speak about doing business with Tunisia. Last November, the State Department organized the first-ever Tunisia Investment Forum and in January we organized the second edition of our popular “Doing Business with the USA” roadshow series.
• The United States and Tunisia have also agreed to formally re-launch discussions under our bilateral Trade and Investment Framework Agreement (TIFA), and the first TIFA Council meeting since 2008 took place in Tunis just two days ago. These discussions will stimulate increased bilateral trade and investment between the U.S. and Tunisia and make it easier for Tunisian producers to export their products to the United States.
Reform and technical assistance
• Tunisia is also eligible for $20–30 million in funding through the Millennium Challenge Corporation Threshold Program. The MCC will work with the Tunisian government to remove constraints to economic growth and to increase private sector investment by implementing needed regulatory and institutional reform.
Similarly, the U.S. will also work with the Tunisian government and civil society organizations to help Tunisia become eligible for the Open Government Partnership. This program will help Tunisia to implement the necessary mechanisms to ensure that the Tunisia’s government continues to make advances in becoming more transparent, accountable, and participatory.
Various other programs will provide technical assistance to the Tunisian government in the areas of commercial regulatory reform, the banking sector, and franchising.
• The United States will provide Tunisia with loan guarantees for hundreds of millions of dollars in new borrowing from international capital markets. The loans will be made available to Tunisia at reduced rates and will help to the government to cover a significant portion of the existing Tunisian budgetary gap, in addition to decreasing the cost of financing Tunisia’s reform agenda.
• Secretary Clinton announced, just a few hours ago, “that pending Congressional notification and review, the United States will provide a $100 million cash transfer to the Government of Tunisia for short-term fiscal relief. This will go directly to debt that Tunisia owes the World Bank and African Development Bank, allowing the Government of Tunisia to instead use this money for its priority programs, accelerating economic growth and job creation.”
• Continuing, she said that “as Tunisia progresses into the next phase of its historic democratic transition, the United States is working to help accelerate economic growth that benefits all, ensure that democracy delivers for the Tunisian people, and to help Tunisian businesses -- large and small -- become engines of job creation. We call on other partners in the international community to join us in supporting Tunisia and ensuring economic opportunities for more Tunisian people.”
• The United States has also been a strong partner in providing humanitarian assistance to the Tunisian people.
In the early stages of the Libyan revolution, the U.S. contributed over $3 million directly to the Tunisian Red Crescent, the World Food Program, and the World Health Organization to provide health services, food aid, and relief commodities to individuals seeking refuge in Tunisia.
Additionally, a significant portion of our $46.5 million in region-wide funding to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and the International Organization for Migration was used in Tunisia to meet basic humanitarian needs and to repatriate stranded third-country nationals.
We have also provided assistance to help build training centers for Tunisian NGOs, to expand health clinics in the south, and to help victims of recent flooding in Jendouba.
• The United States is designing 10 new university linkages with Tunisian institutions of higher learning, valued at $3.1 million dollars. These linkages with encourage the creation of dual degree programs, facilitate curriculum redesign, and fund exchanges between faculty and staff.
• We are also increasing the number of education exchanges available to Tunisian students through the Fulbright and Humphreys programs, and in cooperation with new partners such as Coca-Cola and the International Center for Journalists, and the University of Wyoming.
• As a former English teacher, I am pleased to note that we are also expanding English language training opportunities through the exchange of academic scholars and via the Access program, which offers free English classes for 1,000 underprivileged teenagers throughout Tunisia. In addition, we have helped to train over 150 Tunisian journalists since the revolution on the basics of elections reporting, on journalistic ethics, and on the fundamentals of fact-based reporting.
• If you are interested in learning more about our programs, I encourage you to visit our Embassy’s website at tunis.usembassy.gov and to visit the “American Embassy Tunis” Facebook page. There is a great deal of information on both of those sites and we regularly announce new programs and initiatives that may be of interest to you.
• Despite the pressures on our own budget, the total value of U.S. assistance to Tunisia since the revolution will amount to hundreds and hundreds of million dollars by the end of the year. And it is important to point out that this assistance has been programmed in direct response to the needs that you, the Tunisian people, have identified for your country. We have consulted widely with a wide variety of political, economic, and civil leaders during this transition process and to address the priorities that you have expressed to us.
• Time and again over the past 15 months we have been reminded why it is so important to invest in the Tunisian people. You are industrious, well-educated, multi-lingual, moderate, and peaceful. You are leaders. You have single-handedly created the model for what an orderly and peaceful democratic transition looks like in the Arab world, and you have demonstrated that the future is bright for your country.
• This is a future that the United States wants to invest in. We are very proud of our collaboration with the Tunisian people since the beginning of the revolution, and indeed since Tunisia became independent just over 56 years ago, and we look forward to continuing that collaboration in the years ahead.
• Let me conclude by quoting Secretary Clinton. During her town hall meeting in Tunis on February 25, she likened a democratic society to a three-legged stool, which requires “an accountable, responsive, effective government,” a “well-functioning, efficient business sector” to create opportunities, and “a strong civil society” to speak out for the poor and other marginalized groups.
• “We want to work with all three legs of the Tunisian stool to try to make sure that we are helping each become strong and demonstrate … to the entire world what Tunisia is doing because we believe you have a great story to tell,” Secretary Clinton said.
• Thank you for your attention, and thanks again to Dr. Triki for giving us the opportunity to meet today. I would be interested in hearing any comments you have, and in answering your questions.