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Agence Française de Développement (AFD) has just cofinanced a study on civil societies in the Maghreb region. Martin Pericard (education), Sarah Botton (research) and Matthieu Vasseur (Africa) explain how AFD assists local civil society organizations with the challenges related to the ongoing transitions.
Why did you decide to focus on the Maghreb region with this study?

Martin Pericard (Education, Training and Civil Societies Project Manager at AFD) – One of AFD’s main mandates is to support the development of civil societies in the South, by cofinancing projects led by French civil society organizations (CSOs). This is especially the case in the Mediterranean and Maghreb region where we are supporting a number of initiatives on youth and citizenship, education and vocational training, the social and solidarity economy, as well as gender, health and disability.

AFD has a capacity to produce scientific knowledge on these issues and generally on development issues, based on a field analysis working with local researchers. This approach contributes to making it a “development platform” agency and allows greater account to be taken of the challenges and issues related to the ongoing transitions. This study has been financed in this context. Our partners from associations and all our stakeholders are particularly interested in this type of analysis which they can compare with their own field studies based on complementarity.

Mathieu Vasseur (Deputy Director of the Africa Department at AFD) – We should also bear in mind that this work is the result of a partnership-based approach between our research teams, our teams for operations in Africa and partnerships with civil society. Our partners are the Caisse des Dépôts et Consignations, which has cofinanced this research with us, and Aix-Marseille University.

In our respective positions, we felt that it was essential to gain a better understanding of civil societies in the Maghreb region and their role in these countries. This is because they are engaged in major transitions and are central to the Group’s action in view of the unique relationships they have with France and the common challenges we share with them.

This is why we decided on this joint project, which aims to improve our knowledge of these societies and inform our future operational action to support both civil societies and the public policies their action is coordinated with.
What observations can you make from the study on civil societies in Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria?

Sarah Botton (Research Officer at AFD) – The main observation we can make is that civil society is marked by profound changes in these three countries.

In Morocco, there is an old and structured network of associations with many different international cooperation actors. Morocco stands out for its political model based on a multiparty system and freedom of association. This is why the reform of the 1958 law on associations proposed after the demonstrations in February 2011 caused conflicts. The dialogue established by the authorities led to a divide in a multi-faceted and very active civil society, but which is partly financed by the State.

In Tunisia, the Arab Spring in 2011 highlighted a very strong generational divide. Massive investment in programs to support the democratization of public life has since led to the emergence of multiple projects devoted to the socialization of young people, civic education and the democratization of the political system.
 
In Algeria, the events in recent months have demonstrated the vitality of civil society. The study also shows us that Algerian civil society has always been active, even during the “black decade”, including on sensitive issues such as the fight against AIDS and LGBTI rights. Yet Algerian civil society still remains very closely supervised and is under the control of the public authorities. But there are dynamics at work to support the professionalization of stakeholders and promote new projects.

 

Do you think that some of the developments we are seeing inform other development processes of civil societies?

Martin Pericard – The initiatives led by civil society constantly feed into the reflection conducted by international cooperation actors and the experience gained in the voluntary sector often foreshadows public policies. However, this is provided that donors give long-term support to these initiatives. This is why we need to ensure the sustainability of our commitments in order to provide the best possible capacity building support to the civil societies we work with.

Sarah Botton – This study has the merit of confirming the tremendous inventiveness of civil society in the Maghreb region: people and groups provide “discoveries” in all areas (social, educational and environmental) which, in many cases, make up for the deficiencies of public authorities. This is why we need, at a broader level, to give them the capacity to be more autonomous, in particular by developing hybrid models (associations-entrepreneurship, for example), or by promoting the creation of new dynamics in local territories.

 

What conclusions do you draw from the deterioration of the environment of civil society seen in a number of countries?

Martin Pericard – The issue of the expression of civil societies in the public arena is raised in the Maghreb region, as well as in Lebanon, Iraq, Sudan, Egypt, Chile, Hong Kong and… in France. In the background, there is the issue of improving civil society dialogue with both governments and international cooperation actors. This also raises the issue of the level of maturity of civil societies: beyond the desire for change, which everyone supports, what rallying vision is proposed for society? How does civil society fit into it and based on which projects that promote innovations and solutions for people?

 

Are there plans to continue this work?

Mathieu Vasseur – We first need to promote this initiative. Feedback on the results of the study is planned in France and in the field with the relevant stakeholders. A book based on this research is also planned in the coming months.

Another interesting thing is that this study is part of a more general research and education project. Aix-Marseille University is considering the creation of a Chair devoted to civil societies and transitions in the Mediterranean, which would address the issues of climate, territorial development and urban planning. It is an interesting extension and a continuation of the partnership is being explored in this context.

We also need to think about the objective of continuing to make a more detailed analysis of the changes experienced by civil societies in the Maghreb region. We will especially focus our analysis and action on the economic and social innovations that are emerging in all these countries, as there are many of them and they provide hope and inspiration for both these countries and our country. In this respect, our action fits in with the dynamics of the Summit of the Two Shores organized in Marseille last June, which aims to foster links between civil societies on both sides of the Mediterranean.
 

Further reading