Since the revolution, the number of civil society associations in Tunisia has more doubled, reaching some 19 thousand. In the context of establishing a “participative democracy” with citizens and civil society as principal actors (Article 139 of the new constitution), Decree-law 88 of September 2011 guaranteed the “freedom to create, belong to, and carry out activities through associations, and the strengthening of the role of civil society organizations, as well as their development and respect for their independence.

But there is a tremendous gap between legislation and practice, as founders and heads of Tunisian civil society organizations repeated umpteen times last week during a forum on “Governance of Associations.” Organized by the Arab Institute of Business Owners (IACE), the discussions which took place on November 10 were part of a larger series of reflections and debates which will inform an eventual “guide on good governance practices.”

To provide a snap-shot of civil society organizations since 2011, the IACE presented the results of its poll on “degree of conformity to the rules of good governance.” Of 250 organizations polled, 64% reported being “employee-based,” 34% “volunteer-based,” and the vast majority (67%) composed of no more than five salaried employees. Associations were questioned about the roles of their constituents (functions of steering committees, selection criteria for administrative positions, importance of general assemblies, member involvement, voting methods), means of communication, and conflicts of interest.

How do you carry out voting in the organizational committee?

How do you carry out voting within the organizational committee? Vote by hand (61%); Vote by secret ballot (36%); Other (3%)

What is the point of laws we don’t apply?” wondered Mohamed Louzir of Deloitte Tunisia, who proposed the creation of a special committee to monitor associations’ transparency and conformity with the law. The controversial Moez Joudi, president of the Tunisian Association of Governance (ATG) confirmed the “alarmingly” low number of associations that respect legal frameworks: alluding to a poll carried out by the ATG in 2013, Joudi reported that a mere 20 were operating in conformity with the laws, and attributed this to an “ignorance of the truth, the depth … the importance” of good governance. He added that many organizations confuse governance and management—“governance is the management of management, a system of implementing a strategy and quantified objectives”—and intimated that not all associations necessarily strive for good practices. While most organizations are created with missions to serve the common good or provide a social service, there a number “with no objectives at all,” set up as a proxy for underhanded dealings: “We found many smugglers, indeed, well-known in certain regions, who had been more successful transferring money through associations as opposed to other means to cover up embezzlement.”

Co-founder and vice-president of Femme & Leadership Sana Ghenima (who made sure to point out as an example of good governance that she no longer occupies the position of Association president) focused the range of vocations which distinguish organizations. “In the eyes of the law, NGOs are associations … and yet these are not at all the same in terms of their resources, products, modes of functioning, budgets and deliverables.” She described the Tunisian Union of Social Solidarity (UTSS) as a State body in the guise of an independent organization which does not fit in the same category as true non-profit organizations who struggle to secure funding and whose vocation is “hard and fast activism.” According to Ghenima, Femme & Leadership has no interest in receiving State funding since “for 2 thousand dinars you are subject to extraordinary controls” and describes how procedures which apply to large associations are not necessarily applicable to small associations, for instance, the obligation of providing proof of social security for associations who engage student volunteers.

Do you find that the general assembly plays a determinant role within the association?

Do you find that the general assembly plays a determinant role within the association? Association president considers the opinions of participants during the general assembly to define the association project (Agree 94, Disagree 6); The general assembly ensures the sustainability of the project proposed by management (Agree 97, Disagree 3); Participants of the general assembly agree with management’s choices for strategic decisions (Agree 61, Disagree 39); The general assembly undergoes a systematic evaluation of the organizational committee’s decisions (Agree 74, Disagree 26)

Founder of Al Bawsala Amira Yahyaoui echoed the challenges of dealing with the Tunisian administration whose disorganized procedures are “like Chinese—you don’t understand anything,” and represent a tremendous cost of time and money. She called out some of the false assumptions concerning notions of volunteers, employees, and accountability. “Can civil society create employment? Civil society must create employment,” she insists. “Should people working in civil society organizations be paid? Of course, they must be paid. Does the State have to finance associations? I don’t believe that it should. The State has to finance according to priorities—health organizations come before those in transport—it cannot finance 18 thousand associations.” Responding to a remark that the State should offer assistance to organizations in regions where civil society presence is relatively weak, she indicated that many large organizations (including Al Bawsala) start from zero, that an association’s development is not a question of “have versus have-not,” but of the ability to plan and be inventive in coming up with ways to fund projects.

Accountant Walid Cherif observed that a majority of associations in Tunisia are small and run by volunteers who have little to no experience with accounting and finances, and who do not even realize that they are subject to legislation and taxes. “They are surprised when I tell them otherwise—‘but we are a volunteer organization!’  they tell me. Some are not even registered.” He insists that all associations need an internal apparatus to ensure that its objectives are being realized. Here moderator Hassen Zargouni intervened, noting that small associations have neither the financial nor material means implement such a system. Cherif disagreed, explaining that the means necessary are a “state of mind … will, ethics, an attachment to the law.”

What are the conflicts of interest within the association?

What are the conflicts of interest within your association? Overlapping of functions–control and management (64,3%), Granting of direct or indirect financial benefits (3,6%), Abuse of power (17,9%), Other (Please specify) (14,3%)

Among those present in the audience, Leila Gasmi, president of Therapeutic Farm for the Handicapped of Sidi Thabet, a suburb at the outskirts of Greater Tunis. While demanding that the Ministry of Civil Society do more for her association in terms of cooperation and providing an accurate legal status, she maintained that even volunteer-based associations must responsible for securing and creating their own wealth. “It is not because we are volunteer-based that we shouldn’t be audited. Being a volunteer is a moral commitment. We have the right to hold volunteers accountable.”

In between panels, Nawaat spoke with Aly Bouzwida of the platform Jamaity. Speaking to the discrepancy between legislation and practice, Bouzwida explained that “Articles 10, 11, 15, and 90 demand [of Decree-law 88 mentioned above] that ministers and State officials declare their assets. But in reality, it’s the opposite. Between what is written and what takes place on the ground, there is a large gap … Civil society is not a priority for the State. Among the least financed ministries is the Ministry of Civil Society.” Listing several institutions—the Central Bank which lacks visibility regarding civil society’s expenditures, the IFEDA whose budget is minimal and whose activities are primarily in Tunis, PASC which has become relatively inactive—Bouzwida explained that there is no structure in charge of supporting civil society organizations to develop their governance practices. Maybe it’s intentional, he concludes, a question of politics and the State’s desire to maintain control over civil society. “Which associations have occupied the center of public debate, have been most slandered in the media? Not those known to have given money to political parties … but those who said no to the State’s poor governance.”