In Tunisia recently for a workshop with business journalists on corporate governance issues, I witnessed a generational divide that gives me hope. The key moment in the training came in a debate between an older journalist writing for a state-owned newspaper and younger journalists writing for web-based economic journals about the role of the media in investigative reporting on corporate behavior. The state-owned newspaper journalist challenged why reporters should dig their noses in private businesses if there is nothing wrong. The others protested, saying they must be active in their reporting in order to uncover failures before they become scandals. The split in their views was clear, and I was encouraged by the younger clan who want to shape a new culture that values good governance and the rights of all stakeholders. Now, if only the government would stop blocking YouTube and checking e-mail messages…..
Later in the day, I asked several participants about the most pressing economic issue facing Tunisia today. One answered the rising costs of oil, then explained that the government stabilizes the price of oil so international increases don’t affect them directly. But, he added, there is still a cost since the government has less money for other development projects that would benefit the country. I thought the Tunisians must be very lucky not to feel the food squeeze as much as its neighbors in Egypt or Ethiopia, where bread riots have been on the rise. Tunisia seems to be weathering this storm, but can subsidies for oil continue on an ongoing basis? I asked if rising unemployment and the lack of good jobs was an issue, and they just replied with a shrug. It’s hard to believe that these economic realities aren’t felt, but perhaps it reflects their desire not to air dirty laundry.
Later that night, sitting with our two trainers for this workshop—a Pakistani journalist and a Tunisian professor—one posed the question: “What are you most proud of in your country”? The Tunisian answered women’s rights and a high level education. The Pakistani answered the impact of protests and complaints by the public to affect change in a tangible way. I said the drive for achievement and a spirit of ingenuity and entrepreneurship. I thought the answer from the Tunisian was interesting indeed; the tradeoff between political freedoms and social development seems to satisfy many people here. There are others, however, who long for the air of freedom and say as much in not-so-subtle comments whispered under their breath.