To accelerate the development of the IT sector, the authorities launched the Tunisie Digitale 2020 programme, which is part of the National Strategic Plan (Plan National Stratégique, PNS) to develop and support the economy. Tunisie Digitale was initially meant to cover the 2014-18 period, although authorities extended its implementation to 2020. Its main goal is to accelerate the growth of IT infrastructure and capabilities, interlinking IT expansion with Tunisia’s overall economic development. The programme also aims to enable IT-related entrepreneurship, reduce access barriers for IT and internet services across the country and establish efficient e-government platforms at different levels of administration. A critical accomplishment of the programme will be to balance the level of accessibility of IT infrastructure between rural areas and the more developed coastal cities.
In particular, e-government is a critical area in which the sector programme is likely to intervene. Easing the delivery of state services to reduce regional disparities will be a key element on which the overall success of Tunisie Digitale is likely to be measured. “The short-term priorities for digitalisation include creating e-health and e-education solutions,” Elyes Ben Sassi, director-general at Topnet, told OBG. “Tunisia needs a global unified strategy throughout the government that encompasses all the ministries. In this way, all of the departments will be able to pilot projects more efficiently,” he added.
The country secured a €71.5m loan from the African Development Bank in November 2017 to support the implementation of the programme. The loan involves an additional investment commitment by the Tunisian government of €63.4m.
The international support comes at a critical time. Political and economic instability over recent years has severely affected state finances, and with it the government’s ability to advance much-needed infrastructure development plans. Despite good intentions from domestic and international stakeholders, the overall implementation of Tunisie Digitale has been lagging. As of February 2017, only 5% of the portfolio of 70 projects had been implemented, with 20% in the execution phase, while the majority of projects remain in the initial planning stages, according to the Ministry of Technologies, Communications and Digital Economy (Ministère des Technologies de la Communication et de L’Économie Numérique, MINCOM).
This has brought criticism from the sector operators. “To me, Tunisie Digitale is a nice-sounding programme, but many in the administration do not want it implemented because of the transparency and accountability it implies. This is a barrier we need to surpass,” Imed Ayadi, CEO of Addixo, told OBG. Furthermore, Ayadi believes the capacity of the government to invest and accelerate the implementation of both digitalisation and infrastructure development plans is limited because of the current economic situation. “The government accounts for 80% of IT buying, but now that has been interrupted, the administration is largely paralysed in terms of implementing IT programmes,” he added.
The injection of fresh investment into the Tunisie Digitale programme might increase the rhythm of implementation. But dealing with localised blockages within the administration seems to be an obstacle to the successful completion of the government goals. New regulations, like the Start-up Act, is expected to go to Parliament for approval in 2018, and is also likely to free up the private sector’s ability to participate. “The legal framework allows for the digital economy to develop, and now the private and public sectors need to push for innovative projects,” Yassine Touati, CEO of Communik Crm, told OBG.
The IT sector is in a transition phase. But leveraging its capacity to create a more nimble administration and to stimulate development will only be possible through the elimination of an ingrained inertia that continues to affect segments of Tunisia’s public administration as the country advances in its democratic transition.
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