Tunisia: a note on victim regions

In a transitional justice firKasserine-1st, some of Tunisia’s poorest and most underdeveloped regions have been filing for “victim” status at the Instance Vérité et Dignité (Truth and Dignity Commission – IVD). It’s unknown territory for transitional justice, which is used to thinking of victims as individuals rather than as regions. The key dynamic that the ‘victim region’ concept captures is the influence of social-economic context on the satisfaction or frustration of people’s needs. The poor regions in question were at the heart of the Tunisian Revolution, which began with the self-immolation of a street vendor, Mohamed Bouzizi, in Sidi Bouzid and then spread to neighbouring regions before reaching the wealthier coastal regions and the capital, Tunis. And while it’s still early days, what the status entails for local people and how it will help address the causes of chronic poverty remains to be seen.

Marginalisation of an area or region is invariably political and is almost always a consequence of political decision making. This short note intends to flag the point that it’s a feature of our contemporary economic system that people are socially and economically marginalised and excluded not only in poorer regions but in the wealthier ones as well. One of the spatial features of our economic system is that poorer economic zones emerge even within wealthier, relatively more developed regions and urban centres.[1] Would these zones qualify as ‘victim zones’? Their inhabitants usually make up the bottom rungs of the societal ladder, the rural-urban unemployed, peasant farmers, and unskilled labourers engaged in low-remunerative (often precarious) work.

My own research on poor farmers is taking place on the Cap Bon peninsula, a much more economically diversified region of Tunisia where human development is higher than much of the centre and south of the country. The farmers we spoke to had been engaged for most of their lives as tenant farmers working for large land owners, but were now confronted with profound problems generating sufficient incomes and satisfying their needs. History is always important, and no less so than in Cap Bon where tenant farming emerged out of the old feudal khammesat sharecropping system that was common in parts of North Africa. Tenant farming there has always been a system predicated on structural inequalities in the distribution of land, landlessness, and a large measure of poverty. But while tenant farmers were able to make some gains during the period of state-led development, they are finding their needs increasingly frustrated by integration into new social-economic relations, by the effects of state withdrawal and deterioration of public finances, and by their gradual exposure to the market economy in the context of economic liberalisation. Many farmers have abandoned agriculture in recent years and have migrated to the urban centres in search of work while those who remain find themselves locked into multiple relations of dependency and constrained by social economic structures that ultimately frustrate need satisfaction. These processes are not unique to the case study region, and differentially affect the rural poor all across Tunisia.

What does the ‘victim region’ concept then tell us about about the spatial dynamics of poverty and the differentiation of needs from one place to the next? At present the concept has clear rhetorical value but remains rather weak analytically. Future research in comparative political economy will be useful for deeper understanding and elaborating on historical underdevelopment and the structuration of chronic poverty across Tunisia’s poorer and wealthier regions. Relational explanations need to account for social and economic structures and practices, whose relations and tendencies may operate at and across multiple scales, from local to global. With this in mind we might begin to develop answers for questions such as what counts as a victim region? What are the differences and similarities for people living in victim and non-victim region and non-victim regions? What common constraints do they share in satisfying their needs? Can the victim region concept be analytically useful if applied elsewhere?

Besides the more oft-asked questions about victim regions (such as the use of the ‘victim’ label), practitioners will need to tackle some additional questions before a programme of reparations in the regions can begin. These particular ones concern the fluidity of populations and the winners and losers in particular locations: does ‘victim region’ imply a scale of individual victimhood? How do we approach people who, in search of work, left behind a ‘victim region’ years earlier and migrated to a poor urban neighbourhood in a non-victim region? How do we account for the fact that settlement is sometimes temporary? And what about individuals and groups from ‘victim regions’ who’ve benefitted, economically or otherwise, from the prevailing order of things?

Using the regional human development figures as a starting point, better understanding the spatial dynamics of poverty and social-economic differentiation among and between populations and classes in different parts of Tunisia might reveal a more complex picture, as well as reveal new venues for transformative practice.

[1] In Tunisia, like in some other countries, systematic regional marginalisation is highly political in purpose and intention, but regional inequalities also pre-date even the Protectorate years (Sethom 1992) and retain basically the same spatial form that they do now.

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