AS PREPARED FOR DELIVERY
Thank you for inviting me to be part of your Ambassadors’ Guest Speakers Program. I am very honored to be here with you, your distinguished faculty and your students.
It’s always a pleasure to speak to students because I know I’m speaking to Tunisia’s future scholars, leaders and entrepreneurs. Meeting such enthusiastic, dedicated young people who will accomplish great things makes me feel very optimistic about this country’s future.
And the potential I see in this room is as promising as the potential I see for U.S.-Tunisian partnership in the future.
But this partnership is not new. The United States has maintained official representation in Tunisia almost continuously since 1795, and a Treaty of Peace and Friendship with Tunisia was signed in 1797.
And this year, we’re celebrating the 60th anniversary of the U.S. Embassy’s establishment in Tunisia. In fact, the United States has provided more than $750 million in assistance to respond to Tunisia’s security, economic, and governance needs since the 2011 revolution. I am certain that the strong ties between our two nations will continue to flourish.
I’d like to talk today about two ways in which this can happen.
The first is education.
I’m a big proponent of connecting with people when they’re young, and that’s why I’m a strong supporter of the Embassy’s Access program, which teaches English to high-school students in underserved areas of Tunisia.
And the YES program, which sends Tunisian high school students to live and study in the United States for a year.
These students have such unique experiences before they finish high school, experiences that not only improve their English but also broaden their world views. Their eyes are opened to possibilities they never imagined.
This gives them an edge over their fellow students who have not been given the same opportunities, and they are primed for success at university or in the workplace.
The Embassy also sponsors a wide range of programs for university students—the Thomas Jefferson Program, MENA Coca-Cola, the Study of the U.S. Institutes, MEPI Student Leaders. I know that some of you have been on these programs, and if you haven’t, I hope you’ll apply.
When students return to Tunisia from these American experiences, they return with the knowledge that they can make changes in Tunisia, that they can contribute to the development of their country. More importantly, they have the confidence to take chances and try new things.
Let me give you an example. A group of nine alumni from four U.S. exchange programs were among 800 teams competing for funding from the U.S. State Department. The Tunisian group’s project—the Young Tunisian Coders Academy—was one of 48 selected to receive funds. Think about that. Only 48 from 800 were chosen. That’s pretty impressive.
What they did with those funds was also impressive. They traveled to disadvantaged areas in four governorates to teach students—ranging in age from 10 to 15—the Scratch programming language. They worked with NGOs and the Tunisian government to find venues for the trainings. As word spread, they received more requests for the trainings, so the project expanded to seven additional governorates.
In the end, they taught 200 students to code and trained 22 teachers to serve as mentors for the students. They held a nationwide programming competition in March, and five students from five governorates won the top prizes.
And they’re not done yet. They intend to hold a nine-day summer camp for students from all governorates to teach application development and robotics.
This is just one example of the benefits of U.S.-Tunisian partnerships.
Because education is a lifelong process, U.S. educational programming also targets professionals, who have the opportunity to study, teach and do research in the United States.
Our best-known program is the Fulbright Program, and Tunisians have five different options from which to choose:
- The Fulbright Language Teaching Assistant Program, which sends recent graduates in English and linguistics to teach Arabic to American university students.
- The Fulbright program for students pursuing master’s degrees and PhDs.
- The Fulbright TechPlus program for graduate students in STEM fields.
- Fulbright Scholars, which sends experienced Tunisian professors to conduct research for 10 months.
- Finally, this year, we are offering—for the first time in Tunisia—the Fulbright Junior Faculty Development Program. We’ll send new professors to the United States for a summer program to sharpen their teaching and research skills.
We also offer a number of other programs for professionals: Study of the U.S. Institutes, Teaching Excellence and Achievement, the Hubert Humphrey Program, and the Professional Fellows Program.
If you’re curious to find out more about these programs, I urge you to go to the Embassy’s website, tunisia.usembassy.gov, where you’ll find all sorts of information about these opportunities.
In addition, the U.S. Embassy has linkages with seven U.S. institutions of higher education, schools like Columbia, MIT and Texas A&M. The U.S. schools are working with Tunisian universities on technology transfer in fields like engineering, agriculture, education, diplomacy and business.
Finally, the Embassy is re-establishing two programs to bring American scholars to teach and conduct research in Tunisia: the Fulbright Scholars Program and the English Language Fellow Program. We’re starting small this year—with just one American coming on each program—but we hope to increase the numbers in the coming years.
The benefits to Tunisia and the United States are obvious: Tunisians on these programs return with exposure to cutting-edge laboratories and research.
These programs also open doors for continued professional development and cooperation. The relationships established between Tunisian professionals and their host institutions endure as the scholars collaborate on projects and present together at conferences.
The more Tunisians we send on programs, the stronger the links between our two countries.
There are so many success stories coming out of all these programs that last year, we began a regular feature on the Embassy’s Facebook page called Alumni of Tunisia. We highlight stories of achievement and success, achievement and success that continue long after the participants have returned from their programs. I encourage you to go online and read these stories, which you will find as encouraging and inspirational as I do.
The second way that the American – Tunisian relationship thrives is through strong economic links. We are working in three major areas.
The first is U.S. institutional support for economic reform.
In times of crisis, the United States has provided cash transfers and loan guarantees, including two U.S. loan guarantees of about $1 billion, with a third for $500 million currently under negotiation.
We also provide technical assistance to the Government of Tunisia through a Tax and Customs Project between USAID—the U.S. Agency for International Development—and the Ministry of Finance. This initiative builds capacity through tax modeling and customs process improvement.
In addition, our Commercial Law and Development Program is working with the Ministry of Commerce to grow the franchising sector and improve government procurement procedures.
The second area is job creation.
USAID’s Business Reform and Competitiveness Program is working to help small agricultural and textile businesses grow and to export their products. This program also helps to match people looking for work with companies that are looking to hire.
The programs funded by MEPI—the Middle East Partnership Initiative—include WES and the Tunisian-American Young Professionals Handicraft Program.
WES—the Women’s Enterprise for Sustainability—trains and coaches emerging and established female entrepreneurs at 12 WES Centers for Women’s Business Development across Tunisia.
The Tunisian-American Young Professionals Handicraft Export Initiative has benefited more than 500 Tunisian artisans and had a positive impact on the lives of nearly 400 female artisans in rural areas.
It has also:
- Sharpened the marketing and management skills of artisans, entrepreneurs and government employees.
- Helped artisans attend important trade shows in New York.
- One of those shows generated actual sales of about $62,000 worth of Tunisian handicrafts with back order volumes of approximately $350,000.
The Embassy also places a high priority on entrepreneurship—helping people to create jobs for themselves.
RISE, a pilot program, creates linkages between the Tunisian diaspora in the United States and Tunisian entrepreneurs with high export potential to facilitate their market entry capacity.
Another initiative is CEED, which gives entrepreneurs the ability to connect with each other and share their experiences. CEED also provides access to finance, develops relationships through mentoring and builds skills through peer-to-peer learning.
Third, the Embassy assists the average Tunisian businessperson by improving access to financing.
The Tunisian American Enterprise Fund—TAEF—and the Overseas Private Investment Corporation—OPIC—help small and medium enterprises—or SMEs—do this in innovative ways.
TAEF invests in promising companies and provides technical assistance, functioning much like a small venture capital firm might.
And as you are probably aware, just last week President Triki signed a partnership agreement between TAEF and MSB. This partnership reflects TAEF’s commitment to transferring business-specific skills and tools to business students and future business students like you.
OPIC guarantees loans to SMEs, working with two local partner banks, and increasing banks’ interest in a specific business segment.
In the near future, I hope that Tunisia will complete the many difficult and challenging structural reforms necessary to attract U.S. investment.
These reforms include:
- Updating the Investment Code
- Reforming the financial sector
- Modernizing customs procedures
- Simplifying unnecessarily complicated bureaucratic processes and procedures
- Combating corruption
- Containing labor unrest and volatility
- Continuing to upgrade the security forces
Once these reforms are in place, the already-solid relationship between the United States and Tunisia will grow even stronger.
Implementing all these changes will be difficult and will take time. It will also require hard work from well-educated, highly motivated men and women.
And that’s exactly what I see in front of me here: a group of young people with enormous potential, young people who can use their skills, gifts and knowledge to help Tunisia reach its full potential. Young people who won’t be afraid of challenges.
The U.S. Embassy will continue its work to support development of Tunisia’s education and economic sectors. And I’m confident you’ll do your part to help keep the partnership between our two countries strong.
Let me close by returning to my story about the Young Tunisian Coders Academy. They were just one group of Tunisian students, one group among 800 groups, one group whose hard work and dedication helped them stand out in that very large crowd. One group that is now reaching out and positively influencing the lives of countless other Tunisians—all because they had the idea, the ability and the drive. And—most importantly—because they took a chance.
You have all the tools you need to succeed, and I’m confident that you, too, will help Tunisia stand out from the crowd.