The paradox of Tunisian water policy

by on January 14, 2011 at 2:59 pm in Data Source, Economics | Permalink

One quality of life measure put Tunisia first in the Arab world.  If you look at water policy, the Tunisian government has long had a strong reputation.  Here is Wikipedia:

Tunisia has achieved the highest access rates to water supply and sanitation services among the MENA countries through sound infrastructure policy. 96% of urban dwellers and 52% of the rural population already have access to improved sanitation. By the end of 2006, the access to safe drinking water became close to universal (approaching 100% in urban areas and 90% in rural areas). Tunisia provides good quality drinking water throughout the year.

I've never been to Tunisia, but from readings I've found the country especially difficult to understand.  They've had a corrupt autocracy for a long time, but some areas of policy they get (inexplicably?) right.  And usually they are by far the least corrupt country in the Maghreb.  Dani Rodrik called the place an unsung development miracle.  Maybe that was exaggerating but for their neighborhood they still beat a lot of the averages and they've had a lot of upward gradients.  They've also made good progress on education.

And now this.  Perhaps it is no accident this is "the first time that protests have overthrown an Arab leader."  The lesson perhaps is that the path toward a much better world involves…small steps.  Civil society there is relatively strong and has been so for a while.  Democracy is probably not around the corner, but if you're studying social change it's worth spending a lot of time on why Tunisia and Jordan are often so much better run than the other Arab states.

1 Kieran January 14, 2011 at 11:24 am

Maybe the old J-Curve, I wonder.

2 Ralph Hitchens January 14, 2011 at 11:53 am

Juan Cole (Informed Comment) had a nice post on the Tunisian revolution, or whatever it is.

3 Steve Sailer January 14, 2011 at 2:26 pm

Northern Tunisia, home to the Carthaginian Empire, was a sophisticated Mediterranean civilization 2500 years ago.

Southern Tunisia, not so much.

4 Barkley RosserB January 14, 2011 at 2:51 pm

When I was there over a decade ago, Ben Ali's picture was all over the place. The old adage about the index

of repression being how many times you see the leader's picture and how often you are approached for a black

market currency transaction had it pretty high, although not so much on the latter part. However, it was not

as repressive as many, probably most, Middle Eastern regimes. This may be a matter of high expectations,

including that it sticks well into the Med and has closer relations to such European countries as Italy and

France than many others. You are right, Tyler, that they have done well in many areas, but I think they have

been hit by the global recession (and they have not done well due to high oil prices, as they are not an

oil exporter, although we know that cuts several ways).

5 K. January 14, 2011 at 5:42 pm

This is without actually looking up the numbers, but I think Tunisia has more money than it's neighbours. Hence the dictatorship has had plenty to go around, for it's own needs and the needs of the people.

6 Steve Sailer January 14, 2011 at 6:57 pm

Tunis is the farthest north capital of any Arab country. It's farther north than bits of Italy, Spain, and Greece.

7 Philip January 14, 2011 at 8:53 pm

the more successful country, actually more likely they to have a revolution

18/19 century monarchy were overthrown by labor union and bourgeise

arab revolution usually started by educated military officer

for democratic revolution to succeed, they need large middle class

see : Indonesia, Korea, Taiwan who only become democratic after succesful economic development

8 NonIdeologue January 15, 2011 at 2:39 am

Sometimes small steps are appropriate, other times large ones. It's going to depend on the particulars. Revolutions with near/medium term net-positive outcomes (rare though they may be) are large, and are just as, if not more important than the "small steps."

A related point: we should frame below-the-baseline/bare minimum (in terms of human rights, sanitation, etc.) as non-improvements from a *moral* perspective. We should celebrate and encourage those improving their own steads, but need to be very careful to never back-pat tyrants who make marginal improvements vis-a-vis the suffering of their people, as this seems like a moral legitimation of their regime/overall policies. It gives them a kind of moral fig leaf; when criticized for treating women like dogs, executing homosexuals, starving their people, or torturing people, they can simply say "Hey, but we're improving! We tortured 10% FEWER political dissidents last week! We're AWESOME, so don't bother us!"

Those horrible policies that keep people even 1 iota below an international *bare minimum* (using one of the many available QOL, HR, etc. indexes) need to be met with the same vitriol, regardless of the amount of *relative* improvement. If you want praise, you need to get above that minimum(s).

Back on the main topic, if it turns out that Wikileaks did have as much influence on this situation as has been posited, that will be pretty revolutionary.

9 Jon January 15, 2011 at 9:05 am

Tunisia's checks and balances must be for real. That's the most important government correlary with prosperity. And, for all it's sadly a one-party system, how much do we look down on Japan?

Barkley, the US' no stranger to personality cults, either, and does OK. One Maryland politician put his name in EVERY government-provided thing he ran, both as Mayor of Baltimore and later as governor of Maryland. There's a big Reagan cult, and the Kennedy cult has only recently lost its power.

10 David Zetland January 17, 2011 at 10:52 am

I've been there. Ali was basically a benevolent dictator/local bandit, but he appeared to have attracted more cronies than technocrats. Water is well-suited for command and control (the USSR had good tap water), but freedom and free markets are not.

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