Ideas to Action:

Independent research for global prosperity


US Development Policy


Recently Tunisia has cemented its reputation as the brightest hope to emerge from the Arab Spring and we are heartened by the response to this progress, with  President Obama requesting a more than doubling of US assistance to Tunisia in his 2016 budget request.  But the US must heed the lessons of its decades-long engagement with the region and ensure that support for short-term security gains doesn’t undermine reforms necessary for long-term security and stability.   

In the first weeks of 2015, Tunisia  made headlines by successfully forming a coalition government  and selling its first unassisted bond since the country’s 2011 revolution. In January President Obama called newly elected President Beji Caid Essebsi to congratulate him and “emphasized our readiness to assist the incoming government as it works to meet all Tunisians’ aspirations for security and economic opportunity.” As Table 1, below, shows, the President’s FY16 request begins to back up these promises, doubling economic assistance, tripling foreign military funding, and increasing support for security and judicial institutions by a third.

Type of aid:

FY14 (actual) $m

FY16 (request) $m







Security and judicial institutions




56 (approx.)

130 (approx.)

Table 1: US aid to Tunisia FY14 and FY16 (request)

While total assistance remains paltry compared to other countries in the region, it sends an important message of support to the new Tunisian government at a crucial turning point in the country’s history. Used well, these resources could prove catalytic as Tunisia seeks to address critical economic and security challenges, few of which are characterized by capital constraints. 

First, the US must be careful not to overemphasize security at the expense of other reform priorities. The FY16 security assistance requests outpace economic assistance by over 30%.  But the challenges that deposed a dictator are still present today—nearly 80% of Tunisians describe economic conditions as bad, and 61% believe Tunisians are treated unequally under the law.  Fulfilling Tunisia’s promise relies on greater access to economic opportunity and justice for all, and US support must target these outcomes.  Further, the US must ensure that its security assistance is deployed in a manner that is consistent with international norms, and does not empower security forces at the expense of Tunisians’ legitimate demands for just and accountable security institutions.   

Second, to ensure effective spending of economic support, the US must work with the Tunisians to leverage these resources against the real constraints to growth: ineffective, unaccountable, non-transparent financing and judicial institutions, and labor policies that engender high costs, high risks, and high barriers to market entry for non-elites. The problem here for the US is that real progress on inclusive economic growth means confronting the political elites who are the main beneficiaries of current economic structures – and who are often US friends and allies. But we know that turning a blind eye to the practices that benefit the few while locking out the many no longer secures even short-term stability; in 2011 it proved an erroneous path that led to chaos.

The Tunisian government knows what needs to get done on the economy—they co-authored a 2013 constraints analysis together with the US Government and the African Development Bank.  But they need some technical help, incentives and leverage vis-a-vis resistant elites. Why not negotiate an ambitious package with the Tunisians that couples critical economic reforms with US loan guarantees and assistance from international development banks to smooth short-term reform challenges and illuminate a clear path to sustainable shared prosperity for all Tunisians? 

Finally, the US must take care to be transparent and engage broad constituencies in the allocation of its security and economic assistance.  The recent formation of a broad, multiparty governing coalition suggests a hopeful new direction for Tunisia—a rare flicker of pluralism in a region where its lack defines a core deficiency.  The US must be especially careful not to disturb this new, fragile equilibrium by putting a thumb on the scale.  In the past, US aid sometimes served to reinforce entrenched elites at the expense of citizens, ultimately undermining US interests. When the revolutions brought new players to power, the US struggled to find friends among those who viewed it as an agent of their prior exclusion.  To avoid that outcome in Tunisia’s emerging multiparty democracy, the US must engage transparently and broadly, building relationships with all credible, non-violent elements of Tunisia’s new political order, addressing economic priorities that are widely shared among Tunisians, and undertaking new efforts to share, justify and allow citizen monitoring of US assistance.   

In Tunisia, the US has a chance to build a model partnership with a model country, forging a way to transform its partnerships across the region.  As the people of the region look to Tunisia as an example of what could be, let them also see what good the US can do, and what a productive partnership can look like when all sides are committed to just, democratic governance responsive to the needs of all citizens.  


CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD does not take institutional positions.