Over two thirds of Tunisians live in towns and cities, making this the most urbanised country in the Middle East and North Africa region. The urbanisation of the country over the last few decades has in many cases led to the emergence of disadvantaged neighbourhoods, characterised by limited or non-existent access to basic services.
For almost 40 years, the Agence de Réhabilitation et de Rénovation Urbaine (ARRU) has been implementing the Tunisian State's strategy of making living conditions in these neighbourhoods one of its priorities: an effective way of helping to reduce inequalities in the country. Under the PROVILLE programme launched in 2013 with AFD's backing, 155 neighbourhoods are currently being rehabilitated in Tunisia, to the direct benefit of almost 860,000 inhabitants.
As well as providing basic services, PROVILLE goes further than ARRU's earlier programmes in improving inhabitants' living conditions. The scheme includes the delivery of community facilities (sports grounds, community halls, parks and gardens and youth centres) and buildings for industrial activities. The facilities provided take account of the needs of the local population, which are identified by prior consultation.
This logic of collaborating with inhabitants will be intensified in the second phase of the programme to be launched in early 2019, based most notably on an enhanced process of consultation with local voluntary bodies and municipal councils, the first to be democratically elected since the revolution of 2011.
In Tunisia, working class neighbourhoods are not only situated on the outskirts of urban areas, but also in their centres, in particular in the medinas that give the cities of the Maghreb their charm. These historic town centres are home to a relatively poor population as well as an architectural heritage that is constantly deteriorating due to a lack of upkeep.
With AFD's support, ARRU has conducted a pilot renovation scheme in four iconic medinas: Kairouan, Sfax, Sousse and Tunis. In Sousse, the sectors that have been renovated are recognisable at a glance. As well as the more recent paving, the other obvious difference is the absence of electric cables hanging above the streets.
"The electricity and telephone networks have been buried under the road. It's definitely easier on the eye," says a pleased Moez Naija, head of works at the town hall. Climbing plants and jasmine "planted and tended by the inhabitants" have now occupied the vacant overhead space. "We have also repainted the façades and restored all the doors that could be saved. Those that couldn't have been replaced," he adds.
The promising results of these operations have led to an even more ambitious plan being prepared for 2019 to regenerate the medinas and beyond. This scheme could include a part of the 19th and 20th century urban fabric with a cultural and heritage value. The aim is both to improve living conditions in these neighbourhoods and to enhance their tourist and economic appeal, for the benefit of local people and traders.
Since 2011 ARRU has to a large extent concentrated its efforts on Tunisia's southern, central and western regions. These are all regions that were left behind while the old regime prioritised the development of the capital and coastal areas. This led to a marginalisation that was certainly one of the factors in the revolutionary movement that began in 2011.
Today, it is about more than just providing roads, lighting, clean water and other basic services to the populations in these areas, it is really about creating a local and regional dynamic capable of providing more opportunities. Virtually all the neighbourhoods concerned by the current programme have benefited from at least one new community facility. In total, 51 neighbourhood sports grounds, 57 multi-use spaces and 32 industrial buildings are in the process of being delivered to municipalities. These have been planned and built in consultation and liaison with the local authorities. This process of local involvement indispensable to the success of this approach has been reinforced in the PROVILLE 2 programme, which launches at the beginning of 2019.
"The needs are great and urgent," confirms Mongi Bel Mejaoued, Mayor of Bouarada (North of the country), population 21,000. And yet this town has already benefited from an ARRU project, a few years ago. This provided the town's Ibn Khaldoun neighbourhood with a small sports complex that the users take great care of. "This is a building that cost 800,000 dinars, which we could never have afforded, with our investment budget of about 500,000 dinars a year", explains the town councillor. This kind of facility not only gives young people something to do, but it also allows a whole range of small businesses to develop.
Expectations remain very high among the population in these regions. Still in Bouarada, Mongi is impatient for work to start in the Mellassine neighbourhood, where over a third of his town's population live. The area is subject to regular flooding and blackouts, due to inadequate stormwater drainage.
ARRU, which depends on the Tunisian Ministry of Equipment and Housing, has a well-established method of operating. "As soon as the planning of a programme begins, a system of coordination is set up between all the ministries, the local authorities and the public utilities concerned: water, electricity, gas, sewerage and telephone," explains Imed Ghanmi, head of the ARRU's projects in the Manouba region, "We also try to provide for new infrastructures that do not depend on us directly, for example by preparing a plot of land to build a school or a post office".
AFD, one of ARRU's longstanding partners, has been supporting the different urban development programmes since the agency first arrived in Tunisia in 1992, often via delegation of funds arrangements (European Union, European Investment Bank and World Bank in particular). This support for ARRU's urban improvement projects is completed by other AFD actions supporting certain providers of utilities, mainly water and sewerage, local authorities and transport services.
Over a 25-year period, AFD has contributed to the regeneration of 1,000 neighbourhoods, home to almost 3 million people. As new programmes have been developed, they have gradually been enriched, taking into account more needs and involving more actors. Alongside PROVILLE 1 and 2, for example, AFD is also launching a new urban incubator concept: the pépinière urbaine. The aim of this scheme is to support actions run by local communities to enhance living conditions in their neighbourhoods and strengthen social ties: playgrounds, parks and gardens, allotment, concerts, events and activities. In Tunisia, the future is being built with local people.