SDG16+ Champions of Change

The scholars enabling inclusive local decision-making in Tunisia

Champions of Change is an initiative started by the Pathfinders to highlight advocates who have made an impact in their communities and helped to create peaceful, just and inclusive societies (SDG16+). It provides an opportunity to feature individuals, businesses, and organizations doing extraordinary things to empower and inspire members of their communities.

  • Intissar Kherigi is a PhD student in Political Science at the Centre for International Relations at Sciences Po University in Paris. Her academic research focuses on decentralization, regional inequalities and local governance reforms in post-Revolution Tunisia. She holds a Bachelor in Law from Kings College, Cambridge University and a Masters in Human Rights from the Centre for the Study of Human Rights, London School of Economics. She is a qualified lawyer in England and Wales.
  • Dr. Tasnim Chirchi is a social scientist specializing in political sociology. She holds a PhD in sociology from the Université du Québec in Montreal, and has taught sociology and anthropology both in Canada and in Tunisia. She is the Director of The Jasmine Foundation for Research and Communication.

In 2013, Ms. Kherigi and Dr. Tasnim Chirchi helped to establish the Jasmine Foundation, a “think and do tank” in Tunisia that focuses on youth empowerment and citizen participation in decision-making and holding public institutions accountable. The NGO uses applied social science research and non-formal education methods to create spaces for citizens to produce their own innovative solutions to local challenges, thus contributing to building a democratic culture in Tunisia. The NGO works in 8 regions in Tunisia and has partnerships with over 25 municipalities.

We spoke with Intissar Kherigi and Dr. Chirchi to learn more about their work and what drives them:

How did you come up with the idea for the Jasmine Foundation?

Dr. Chirchi: Tunisia’s revolution brought high hopes about democracy and justice, but also a lot of frustration. The reforms we all wanted required harder work and more patience than many had expected. At Tunis University, I had sensed how young people participating in revolution later felt excluded from political processes, which is dangerous for the long-term viability of our democracy. I started thinking, “How can we give these young people the necessary recognition and opportunities to take part in creating change?”

I wanted to help my fellow Tunisians use the tools of social sciences and academia to manage the transition and bring forth the change we wanted to create in our society. The Jasmine Foundation hopes to be an institution that empowers citizens, particularly young women and men, at the individual and collective level so that they can have their voices heard, while also learning how to have an impact in decision-making.

What brought you to the Jasmine Foundation?

Intissar: I became a lawyer because growing up aware of the political injustice in Tunisia, I saw the law as a way to guarantee people’s rights. Living in London when the revolution started, I returned to Tunisia to help set up the Jasmine Foundation because I was eager to take advantage of the chance to build an inclusive, democratic, fair system for all. I was inspired by young and old who were doing research, reading, debating — searching for ways to take part in the transition.

A new constitution by itself will not guarantee a democratic transition. Citizens need to remain engaged, informed, educated, and committed to preserving democracy. Such active shaping of democracy, however, takes a lot of work, strength, and collaboration. The Jasmine Foundation can create arenas for dialogue and sustained engagement to support these processes, help people find their sense of agency, and make sense of the societal changes around them.

What is your organization’s main focus?

Intissar: Our mission at the Jasmine Foundation is to help citizens develop their own solutions to social challenges. We do this [on] three different fronts. First, we engage citizens through training on democracy, citizenship, and human rights, providing them methods, tools and skills to analyze and act on the issues most important to them. Second, we work to build trust and understanding between people so that they can better manage conflicts in their communities. Third, we bring citizens, academia, institutions, and government together to discuss the issues most pressing to them, develop solutions and jointly implement them. We emphasize reaching out to new audiences, people who would not be engaged otherwise, so that all citizens have an opportunity to be involved.

For example, we have developed a “citizens’ scorecard” that helps gather citizens’ perspectives on the performance of their local government and evaluates the services they provide. This gives local governments a lot of useful data that they can use to guide their own decision-making, and provides a basis for further dialogue with citizens that doesn’t stick to the problems and grievances, but can easily provide solutions and steps forward. Engagement with local governments can also help citizens be better aware of the challenges faced by local governments, and take part in prioritization of issues and implementation of programs.

How does the Jasmine Foundation enact change?

Intissar: We do our work at the local level, because we believe this is the real nucleus of a democracy, where people feel a strong and immediate sense of belonging. But also because local issues can be more manageable and can be addressed through more tangible solutions, offering a good first step towards instilling a sense of agency and hope that something can be done.

Dr. Chirchi: Times of transition come with a lot of uncertainty, but we can transform it into an opportunity to change the old ways of working. We wanted to inform decision-making through more dynamic research and knowledge exchange, and with analysis that took into consideration the particular context of Tunisia, embracing its complexity and applying a multidisciplinary and inclusive approach.

Our activities represent an investment in collective intelligence, opening the space for collective reflection to find new solutions to old problems. Civic engagement is still new in Tunisia, and it is developing very quickly but also facing a lot of challenges, including inadequate coordination and lack of sufficient funding.

Why do you think civil society and civic engagement is important?

Intissar: Civil society is an important actor in holding institutions to account, but [it] can also facilitate governance by mobilizing citizens around common demands and agendas that can be more easily advocated for and monitored. Civic engagement can help young people gain the critical thinking and project management skills that our formal education system might not provide, and provide a space to learn to manage differences and conflicts, how to live together with different views.

How has COVID-19 impacted your work?

Dr. Chirchi: COVID-19 has been an intense moment of collective work, reflection, and of much more enhanced impact on the community level. We invested more heavily in internal communications, but also in finding alternative ways to reach the populations we work with and support. We would call people and send messages of support and advice, raise awareness about the pandemic in areas with high levels of mistrust, and worked with people in the community to monitor local governments’ responses to the pandemic. We encouraged our partners to create “bulletins” to keep residents informed, and helped municipal governments identify gaps in their response and opportunities for coordination, set up crisis management plans, and seek additional funding.

The experience has shown us that, having faced continuous instability throughout the past years, Tunisia has showed surprising resilience, particularly due to the creativity demonstrated by individuals and civil society groups. The solutions tested at the local and regional level can show the way towards recovery and sustainable democracy. This has increased our confidence in our ability to change society for the better. This will be particularly important to face the economic and social consequences of lockdown measures and outbreaks, when the need to move beyond transforming the political architecture and respond to citizens’ needs will be more important than ever.

In times of hardship, where do you find strength?

Dr. Chirchi: I have accepted that uncertainty is part of our reality, but that there’s an opportunity in that. It has long been clear that the usual way of working has not been benefitting many, so not going back to normal might not be a bad thing. Out of a crisis, we can create new ways of working together and new approaches to deal with our social issues.

Intissar: Just like a diamond is created by putting carbon under pressure, I find strength in seeing how in difficult times, people do amazing things. I’ve seen such creativity and solidarity in helping others and ensuring no one in their neighborhood is left behind. People were reminded that at the end of the day, their main asset is each other.

I also find strength in looking at the past. Throughout history, we see that people have always struggled for justice and encountered strong resistance, but there is always a way forward.

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The Pathfinders are a group of member states, international organizations, global partnerships, and other partners working to accelerate delivery of the SDG targets for peace, justice and inclusion (SDG16+). Hosted by the NYU Center on International Cooperation (CIC).

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