Monday, January 24, 2011


We have looked on as events in Tunisia have progressed rapidly from what seemed like isolated demonstrations, building up into nationwide social unrest that forced now ex-president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali to flee his nation last weekend.

The small North African country of 10 million, wedged between volatile Algeria and back-from-the–cold Libya, has gone largely unnoticed known more for its soccer prowess than anything else. Its impressive social indicators, reputation as a premium tourist and investment destination did little to prepare the outside world for the implosion of the last few weeks.

Even insiders while acknowledging a quiet unease and a simmering resentment at growing corruption and crony capitalism, remained content in the belief that the population’s desire for continued stability would mitigate against any widespread unrest.

Obviously they had badly underestimated the local discontent at the status quo.

The straw that broke the people’s back was the self immolation of a high school dropout, who was stopped by authorities from selling vegetables in a local market because he had no license. An event that probably happens everyday in markets around Tunisia – the expulsion not the subsequent burning.

He was called Mohammed Bouazizi, and he did not set out to start a revolution, but his protest against a system that had become desensitised to the plight of the everyday man while its leaders flaunted their ill gotten wealth, resonated with disaffected masses.

With the benefit of hindsight the events in Tunisia have followed an all too familiar pattern: Government delivers goods and services, people’s welfare improves, government rests on its laurels, people want more, government uses security services to keep them quiet, people’s resentment grows and overflows at a seemingly minor irritation.

If companies exist to make a profit then a government exists to uplift the welfare of its people. But no sooner have the needs of a people been met than the people want more and more. Governments often become victims of their own success.

The only way governments can stay ahead of the game is by not losing touch with the people, which is where democracy comes in.

The example of Singapore is instructive. In his seminal book “From the Third world to First” former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew describes how his country has faced up to this challenge.

By first of all firing up the economy and then ensuring almost universal home ownership, quality and affordable health care and education services and social security Lee Kuan Yew’s party has held sway over Singapore’s politics since independence from Malaysia in 1965.

It should be noted though that by liberal democratic standards Singapore borders on an authoritarian state.

Government taxing the productive sectors to provide public goods, which in turn facilitate the unproductive parts of the economy to become productive is a recipe that should work, has worked and can work.

In pre-independence times, regardless of what the colonialists’ motives were, basic social services and infrastructure were set up that saw a generation lift themselves out of poverty and take over the leadership of this country.

It is doubtful whether that progression will be replicated looking at current circumstances. I would love to be proved wrong.

Governments manage the hopes of people through the economy. If the economy is run well that is, provides opportunities for people to improve their lives, then there is hope and often times that’s all we need.

But when the economy is mismanaged and a critical mass of people see no light at the end of the tunnel, while at the same time a connected clique is benefiting disproportionately, then you have a time bomb on your hands.

And today with developments in technology not only can people communicate much better, share there experiences and discover the commonality of their plight but mobilization of discontent is that much easier.

The truth be told, ordinary citizens don’t really care what government is doing as long as things are ok it’s only when deficiencies in service delivery appear that governments come under attack.

One more thing about Bouazizi. When his vegetable cart was confiscated, the policewoman who oversaw the incident not only refused t the $10 fine he offered, but also slapped and spat at him. Which goes to show when the revolution comes the trigger will not be where we are looking for it and the smallest government agent could be the one who pulls it.

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