Introduction

In post-revolution Tunisia, where the marginalization and disillusionment of young people are leading to high rates of radicalization, Wala is building a movement of young people who are creating their own path to constructive political and economic participation.

Wala is reducing economic and political marginalization of young people by creating pathways for them to develop an identity and role as active citizens, political decision makers, and drivers of the new digital economy. Through her venture, YouthDecides, Wala recruits “community ambassadors” between the ages of 18 and 35 years old and trains them to recruit and lead teams of young people in their local communities through projects of their own choice. To do so, Wala identifies, connects and provides the young ambassadors access to a network and set of tools to engage the young people in their communities. These tools are geared at enabling young people to develop the skills necessary to find jobs or start their own businesses in the digital economy (web design, coding, etc.) as well as leveraging digital technology for political participation. Through YouthDecides, she empowers young people trapped in a post-revolutionary depression to become fully engaged participants of their community and the economy.

Leveraging young people’s status as digital natives, Wala succeeds by using technology to attract, motivate and mobilize young people. Wala follows the technology market dynamics closely and she knows that half of the Tunisian youth are on Facebook and one quarter has access to smartphones with mobile internet – and that these numbers are constantly increasing. As information and communication technology does not have borders, she is aspiring to impact the whole Maghreb region, bringing the digital natives to the center of economic and political decision making processes.

Six years after Tunisia’s 2011 revolution, misguided developments of the political and economic system are threatening to turn against Tunisia’s people and against its youth in particular. Tunisia’s youth face exclusion at multiple levels – economic and political marginalization puts social stability of youth and the whole country at risk. In economic terms, and according to the World Bank, one in three Tunisians aged between 15 and 29 years is neither in education, in employment, nor in training (NEET). One out of every two young women in rural Tunisia (50.4 %) is NEET; about one in three (32.4 %) is NEET in urban areas. The proportion of NEET in urban Tunisia is less severe than in rural areas. However, in urban areas, the primary destination for many young job seekers—more than one-fifth of young men (20.3 %) and about one-third of young women (32.4 %) is NEET. That makes Tunisia one of the highest countries with NEET rates in the whole MENA region. In addition, young people spend more than three years unemployed before finding a job. In addition, political decision-making remains dominated by older generations. As for the Tunisian Constitutional assembly, only 4% of the 216 members are under 31 years and about 80% of its members are over 40 years old. The politico-economic complex promotes extremism in Tunisia. That is evident in the study conducted by The European Centre of Peace that argues that young Tunisians join ISIS for economic benefits. Approximately 4000 Tunisians joined ISIS in Syria, representing one of the highest recruitment rates worldwide. Depressingly, the UN reports show that most of the people joining extremist groups belong to Tunisia’s youth – i.e. people between 18 and 35 years old.

The existing system neither sufficiently realizes nor adequately counters the fatal consequences of marginalizing the young citizens, who represent more than half of Tunisia’s population (57% aged less than 35 years). Such exclusion is seen in the illegibility for who are under 40 to run for parliament of municipality elections. This resembles the lack of trust and confidence in the decision making capacities of younger generations. That situation is even more complex because of the low quality of education, which doesn’t permit students to have the adequate skills for seizing opportunities in today’s job market. On the top of that, and according to the World Bank, job placement is not merit based and there is a strong positive correlation between the individual social capital and job placement. As such, there is no systematized job support for the young people. According to the World Bank, economic activity has been slow in the post-revolutionary period, as real GDP grew at 2.3% only in 2014, after 2.4% in 2013. The IMF and World Bank estimate the growth rate for 2015 as 1%. The fiscal regulations do not support engagement with the global economy as Tunisians, as customers and business owners, are not supported by credit cards that enable them to buy and sell online.

Since the revolution, several entities, including the government tried to tackle youth marginalization. In 2011, all parties had to include youth candidates. This shows how top-down approaches fail to make a change, if they ignore the relevance of civic attitudes. Previous efforts have failed because they addressed the problem only partly and focused on only one aspect of the problem of youth exclusion. The complex composition of legal, institutional, and motivational barriers that have grown since the revolution in 2011 cannot be solved with a one-dimensional approach.

The problem of multidimensional youth marginalization does not only affect a part of Tunisia’s population but rather the whole country and MENA region. Frustrated, vulnerable youth with limited opportunity for self-expression or political and economic participation can easily turn against a country or even a whole region. In our highly globalized and digitalized world, space and time is bridged within seconds. The internet and social media has never been as present as today, in particular in the MENA region, where the Arab uprisings demonstrated how many people can be reached out to by internet and how fast a “Facebook Revolution” can spread. In this way, nowadays, the internet specifically and technology in general, both, cause a high threat when it comes to extremist groups paroling their ideologies and recruiting people via social media. A World Bank report found that factors most strongly associated with foreign people joining ISIS are related to economic and social exclusion. In Tunisia and other MENA countries, one can find the threatening combination of high social media activity and multidimensional exclusion.

Wala is creating a movement of economically and politically empowered young people by organizing young people locally, equipping them with a precise set of tools geared at economic and political engagement, and connecting the local groups at a national level to drive policy change.

Wala is building a network of activated “YouthDeciders” and YouthDecides communities across Tunisia. She organizes campaigns in local universities to publicize YouthDecides through establishing advertising booths on campuses to recruit YouthDeciders, namely undergraduates who are hired as part time employees and as full time employees after graduation, if they prove, during the time they served as part-time employees, that they can scale the work of YouthDecides, to become community ambassadors. She organizes them in the form of a leader and co-leader (based on their knowledge of technology and their communities, as well as past experience with empathy-based leadership) who are both responsible for reaching out to their communities to create and lead a local YouthDecides group. Wala trains those ambassadors in how to create a YouthDecides event, including contacting sponsors to finance the event, incentivizing the search and engagement process where ambassedors aregranted a percentages of the total capital that she manges to get and engage, and reaching out to participants, particularly young citizens between the ages of 18 and 35, through social media by organizing events on Facebook and at universities by establishing booths and reaching out to professors and lecturers to spread the work of YouthDecides among their students.  The ambassadors in turn use such events to mobilize their communities.

The local YouthDecides communities drive their own activities, starting from planning and financing down to implementation and assessment, but Wala provides the ambassadors with two particular toolkits to guide their efforts, one to stimulate the digital economy and the other to solve social problems and engage in political decision-making. The first is WeCode, where ambassadors create sponsored events to collect the youth in their communities who are interested in mobile and web technology development. Through WeCode events, young people (or others in the community who choose to attend) learn to how to create a digital business using mobile and web development (such as e-commerce web applications, digital mobile games, etc). The ambassadors recruit experts (i.e. instructors) to deliver different workshops, during YouthDecides camps, on business development, marketing, and developing mobile and web applications. The camp starts with a one day event where the participants are introduced to the workings and the impact of the digital economy to advance economic prosperity and growth to the whole nation. Participants are then registered for a 5 day camp to get deeply engaged with the specificities of starting a digital business, and those who wish to become experts in specific field, such as marketing or coding, they enroll in a three month program, run by the ambassedors and the recruited instructors.

The second is a platform dedicated to solving community problems where YouthDeciders also organize camps, but to connect young citizens on a mobile platform called iDecide that was developed by Wala. On iDecide, YouthDeciders organize young citizens around problems that they want to address in their communities (such as waste management and lack of humane means of transportation for school children in rural areas). The citizens, organized in teams, then are given 2 weeks to come up with a solution as well as budget and time plan for implementation. Wala then connects parliament members with those teams, where the latter have the opportunity to present their solutions with support of the parliament members. In order to be able to do the latter, Wala lobbied the Paralement through giving talks and holding meetings to make iDecide one of the official platforms that the Tunisian government uses to address societal problems. In doing so, she established a public-provate partnership that ensures the sustainability of the projects that several young citizens create and lead. Through this process, the young citizens are transformed into change makers with an ability to intervene in the decision making process, working for the betterment of their communities.

To date, and across 5 cities (Tunis, Jendouba, Ariana, Mahdian, and Monastir) in Tunisia, Wala has managed to build a movement of 279 Ambassadors, 180 Instructors, 760 Alumni, and 10 partners like Orange, Esprit-incubator, APAC, Institut Francais, and WebHost for example. Furthermore, Wala enabled the creation of 700+ digital jobs such as marketing and e-commerce and empowered 8 young unemployed young citizens to start their own businesses in various fields. Most remarkably, through the forerunner of the iDecide app, Wala’s movement was able to change two laws. On the basis of citizen-based efforts it is now mandatory that at least one among the top three candidates for the municipality election is under 35 years and at least two among the top four candidates for the parliament election is under 35. The Tunisian Parliament officially expressed its support of the YouthDecides movement and publicly honored the initiative. Since young Tunisians who want to grow their own businesses do not have the ability to make online, international financial transactions (as there is no policy that supports credit cards), Wala has managed to change a policy by lobbying the Ministry of Finance, the Ministry of Information and Communication Technology, and the Central Bank to issue an Online Technology Card that permits digital business owners, as well as freelancers, to make online transactions to finance their businesses and to be able to be paid by customers overseas.

Following the two laws, Wala’s movement has pushed for a Social Enterprise Law that enables the creation of Social Enterprises in Tunisia so that youth-driven initiatives could be more sustainable and scalable. At the same time, Wala is in the process of licensing YouthDecides in order to grow her impact beyond the current network of ambassodors, enabling social enterprises to become licensees and to organize more young citizens. Wala is also creating a YouthDecides Fund financed by both the government and CSR initiatives. This fund will support financing digital businesses and project teams that aim for solving community problems. This will enable her to scale up nationally and to grow her network of local community ambassadors across the whole Maghreb region and Africa, as Wala aspires to impact one million youth by 2020.

Wala was born in 1986 to an intellectual family. She was always curious about what was happening in the world around her. That motivated her to give significant time to her studies and to watching the news. Her curiosity and love to explore new places led her to take the bus to new places just to see new people and learn new things. She developed a passion for social engagement through watching her dad actively participate for the betterment of his community. Her dad joined the protests during the Gulf War and offered support to Algerians coming over the border. That led her to spend long periods in the library reading about change makers who managed to change patterns in their communities. She translated one chapter in a novel about revolution and distributed it amongst her friends. The chapter was about a girl who built a movement against a government that had recently issued a decree to kill whoever is under the age 30. That background helped Wala organize a constructive, productive movement (through mobilizing fellow students) against her school administration that deprived its students freedom of speech. She designed and implemented a campaign entitled: “No Rights, No Duties, No Education”.

Still at university studying Computer Science, in 2009, Wala founded her first company in marketing and IT. She built that company primarily to make students financially independent through becoming brand managers who promote corporate brands on university campuses.

In 2010, Wala was a leader in the anti-censorship campaign in Paris refusing the authoritarianism of Ben-Ali’s government. Through that experience, Wala became well informed about the power that technology can bring to civic engagement. She decided to engage in civil society empowerment through technology when she worked as a regional manager at AccessNow – an NGO that provides IT security solutions and support for international civil society. At AccessNow, Wala investigated how an organization can empower citizens through providing secure channels of expression. Through that experience, Wala’s sense of importance for involving youth systematically in the decision making process grew. In 2014, Wala started YouthDecides to move young citizens from activists to productive decision makers.