Advertising agency M&C Saatchi involved in project to help civil servants 'transparently communicate with citizens' amid anti-austerity protests
Editor's note: This story was updated on 5 July to include comment from the British Cabinet Office.
The British government is paying advertising agency M&C Saatchi for work on a campaign in Tunisia aimed at raising awareness among young Tunisians about economic reforms in the North African country.
The agency is "providing services" for British Cabinet Office officials involved in a UK-funded project with Tunisian civil servants to “communicate economic reforms”, a British government spokesperson told Middle East Eye.
The project comes at a time when the Tunisian government is implementing International Monetary Fund-mandated (IMF) austerity measures, including tax rises and increases in fuel prices, that have brought protesters onto the streets since the start of the year.
The Guardian newspaper, which said it had seen documents about the project, said the first stage of the campaign would be aimed at "Tunisians aged 18 to 35", the demographic that has been most active in the protests.
Money for the campaign will come from the Conflict, Security and Stability Fund (CSSF), a body established by the UK Foreign Office and the Department for International Development which provides "development and security support to countries which are at risk of conflict or instability," according to the UK government's website.
According to the Cabinet Office, the campaign will encourage citizens to engage with the Tunisian government and create platforms where they can access information about the reforms.
It also includes a "capability building programme" for Tunisian civil servants to enable them to run future campaigns independently.
The spokesperson told MEE that M&C Saatchi was not working directly for the Tunisian government.
“In Tunisia, CSSF programmes strengthen democratic governance, security and economic reform. This project supports the Tunisian civil service to transparently communicate with citizens, with initial results showing an 18 percent increase in the number of citizens that want to learn about economic issues and reforms,” the spokesperson said.
M&C Saatchi told the Guardian that it did not comment on government contracts.
The CSSF provides funds for projects in countries across North Africa including Morocco, Algeria, Egypt and Libya.
In Tunisia, the fund spent £4.8m ($6.3m) between April 2017 and March 2018 on projects which aimed to "strengthen governance to support effective, accountable institutions" and provide "support on economic reform and growth to increase stability".
"The UK will work with the (UK) Government Communications Service (GCS) to ensure the Tunisian Government has the ability to be able to communicate effectively with the Tunisian population – particularly during a crisis and on economic reforms," a programme summary said.
But critics of the CSSF say that it is opaque and raise concerns about the human rights records of some organisations and institutions, including police forces and paramilitary forces, which have been funded.
"The government is sowing insecurity under the banner of security," Lloyd Russell-Moyle, a Labour MP on parliament’s international development committee, told Middle East Eye.
A report by the Independent Commission for Aid, the UK's aid spending watchdog, in March said the CSSF did "not routinely articulate its influencing objectives or measure and report on its achievements" and worked with "counterparts with contested human rights records, and does not always assess the risks in an adequate and timely fashion".
But it also said it was "impressed by the CSSF’s work on strategic communications and media, aimed at strengthening mutual understanding and counteracting extremist or polarising messaging in divided communities".
The Tunisian government last month announced they would be raising fuel prices as part of their IMF requirements in order to unlock another tranche of a $2.9bn loan from the International Monetary Fund.
The government has been trying to cut the public sector wage bill to 12.5 percent of GDP in 2020 from 15 percent - one of the world's highest - by offering voluntary redundancies. However, few have taken up the offer because of high unemployment.
The UGTT union, a powerful union in Tunis, has rejected plans to dismiss public servants and sell loss-making state firms.
Talks with the IMF have been held while the ruling coalition has been locked in dispute over the extent of reforms and a possible cabinet reshuffle.
Many Tunisians have expressed disappointment that since the 2011 uprising that overthrew longtime ruler Zine El Abedine Ben Ali, the country's economy has stagnated and unemployment has risen, despite the country still being regularly hailed as the sole success story of the "Arab Spring" uprisings.
In January, Prime Minister Youssef Chahed said that there would have to be tough measures including spending cuts in order to meet the country's needs, while at the same time promising to accommodate the anti-austerity protestors.
“We succeeded in implementing this new democracy - however we were not really successful in implementing and succeeding at the economic level,” he said.
“The challenge now is about the economy, how to recover the economy, how to increase the growth level in order to create jobs, that’s the number one challenge for us.”