Interview with Souad Sassi and Uwe Korch
When did cooperation between Cologne and Tunis begin?
Uwe Korch: The two cities have been partners since 1964 but now there are entirely new opportunities for cooperation.
Souad Sassi: Cooperation used to be limited to just a few areas. At the end of the 1960s, for example, Cologne helped the city of Tunis to establish its own zoo. So the requirement for the city partnership was simply to ensure the zoo kept expanding, and the city of Cologne was supposed to provide us with more animals. Of course, since the revolution, we have much more freedom of choice and can set quite different priorities. We now want local autonomy, local development and democratic governance.
UK: German municipalities have a lot of experience in local self-management, and we are happy to pass it on. Cooperation is rising to a new level. We used to organise cultural and student exchanges but now we work with much broader scope on specific projects. Experts in a particular field come together to jointly solve specific problems. We may help with repairing the street lighting or with waste management, for instance.
What exactly do you do about that kind of infrastructure issues?
SS: Well, we still face considerable challenges. We struggle to ensure basic municipal services. Generally speaking, municipal institutions are not working very well. We don’t even have enough garbage trucks.
UK: This is where German municipalities can offer targeted assistance. For example, the waste company AWB run by the city of Cologne considers donating decommissioned but still roadworthy garbage trucks to the city of Tunis. In cooperation with the GIZ, we also consider organising an information campaign on how to reduce waste at the source and separating waste for recycling purposes.
SS: At present, you will still see a lot of illegal refuse dumps in the city. The citizens need to learn to play an active part in waste management; otherwise, we cannot guarantee cleanliness. We have to convince them of supporting the local authorities – by means of this info campaign, for example.
What else do you do?
SS: We also have completely different items on our agenda, cultural exchange, for example. An orchestra from Cologne will play in Tunis and in exchange, people will be able to listen to typical Tunisian malouf music live in Cologne. Tourism is also to be developed. Our network is a fantastic opportunity for the citizens of the two countries to learn more about the other country’s culture. I personally hope that the cultural exchange will be expanded to include theatre, for instance. This would bring people closer to one another.
What about economic cooperation?
UK: We support Cologne-based companies that want to set up something in Tunis. The conditions in Tunisia are favourable, and, not least in view of unemployment, labour is abundant.
SS: Unemployment is a real problem in Tunis and it was one of the major reasons that led to the revolution. So it is extremely important for us that foreign companies invest in our country.
Is the close cooperation between Cologne and Tunis exceptional?
UK: Cologne is not the only German city that is active in the Maghreb. At the end of 2011, German cities that wanted to support development in North Africa formed a city network for North Africa under the aegis of ENGAGEMENT GLOBAL and the German Association of Cities, a lobbying organisation.
Are Tunisian municipalities generally overwhelmed by the changes caused by the revolution?
SS: Well, no one wants to go back to the old days. Civil society has mobilised tremendously, but nonetheless, we are facing major structural problems. We need better services, transparent administrations and local autonomy. A national commission was recently established in Tunis with the aim of writing the new Constitution of Tunisia. Local authorities must be able to improve their situation in the transition process, and some ministries are involved in this approach too. We have to be involved in decision making.
How do you rate the chances of the city of Tunis of achieving truly democratic participation, including at local level?
SS: Even before the revolution, there were more freedoms in Tunisia than in other Arab countries that are struggling with greater problems: more poverty, more extremism, a higher rate of illiteracy and – just as serious – no culture of debate. All the same, people are extremely happy about the new freedoms. In some respects, the situation in Tunisia is different. Women there have always enjoyed more freedoms; the country has better preconditions for building a true democracy. Local elections will take place in 2013 at the latest. As for networking among municipal governments, a lobbying group for cities was actually established way back in the 1970s, but it never really became effective. After the revolution, however, municipal officers started to revive this Association of Cities, but it lacks funding.
Even German municipalities have only limited funds. How much
money does Cologne need to support Tunis?
UK: It is not really a matter of money. The city of Cologne is under tremendous financial pressure; this year we have to cut spending by € 30 million. That will hurt. But it is more important that we have public support for cooperation with Maghreb countries. The Chamber of Foreign Trade is in favour of our work, and we cooperate closely with civil society organisations, for example the Cologne-Tunis Association (Köln-Tunis e.V.). This association was founded in 1993 to promote the Cologne-Tunis city partnership and it is assisting us today with exchange programmes, among other things. In this sense, the city of Cologne has become an intermediary between the citizens of both countries.