Defender of Transparency: Achraf’s Changemaker Journey

Achraf Aouadi, a leading social entrepreneur fighting against corruption, has been guided by a constant commitment to experimentation, failure, and inclusion. His journey to changemaking began when he was in his teens, discovering innovative ways to change his school culture for the better.
Achraf Aouadi
Source: Achraf Aouadi

When Achraf Aouadi is not cultivating a robust citizen sector in Tunisia, he is leading a national anti-corruption movement, activating young leaders across the country, and preserving the lessons and momentum of revolutions across the country’s entangled history. As a social entrepreneur and Ashoka Fellow (elected in 2019), Achraf is contributing to a world where everyone, of every age, embraces their inner power. This power enables individuals to fight the indignity of corruption and actively rebuild a society made for everyone to thrive. This is Achraf’s journey to changemaking.

A Brief Look at Tunisia’s Independence

Achraf’s commitment to social change stems from an unyielding desire to combat generational consequences following Tunisia’s independence from France in 1956. At the time, Tunisia adopted a highly centralized political system, modeled after the French constitution. The military was given a defined defensive role, which excluded public participation in politics.

In the late 1950s, the central government appointed authorities nationwide that had little or no local roots to the region they were assigned to govern. Since most public officials worked in the capital city of Tunisia, Tunis, the remaining 23 regions of the country lack careful attention and consideration in the federal government. Forgoing democratic values, this inequitable system inherently lacked accountability and compassion for the nation’s people which invited decades of systemic corruption.

Finding his Entrepreneurial Mindset in His Teens

Growing up in political disequilibrium, Achraf learned about freedom and choice from a young age. He grew up in Kef, a small city in Northwest Tunisia, and was raised by his parents, two dedicated schoolteachers. Achraf’s father was not only a teacher but also an activist for democracy.

Before Achraf was born, his father was exiled for three years because of his local organizing against the country’s political institutions. However, growing up, Achraf never heard this story. His father’s political organizing days occurred before he started his family.

Around town, everyone would call Achraf the son of a leader, but he was never able to inquire a clear answer as to why. However, when he was 12, a neighbor told Achraf the story of his father’s demonstration of courage and aspiration for a better world post-Independence. This untold story deeply resonated with Achraf as he too began to question the world around him.

When he was 15, Achraf’s parents moved to Tunis. The disorderly and fast-paced energy of the city, especially when compared to his humble upbringing in a rural community, energized Achraf. He wanted to create his own path in this new place. In high school, Achraf supported himself by selling secondhand clothing, thereby embracing an entrepreneurial mindset as a teenager.

A Transformative International Exchange Program

The first time Achraf felt truly powerful, he recalls, is when he started university in Tunisia. “I had a lot of personal experiences – that were just about me. At the time, I think that was the first time I looked around and felt like I had the skills and ideas to do something. I felt like I could bring people into my ideas.” Shortly after, Achraf was accepted to the University of Minnesota in the United States for a summer leadership and exchange program. “They did not pick me for who I use[d] to be, but for who I can become in the future.”

Achraf traveled to the US and was amazed by the campus culture and student leadership opportunities embedded into the fabric of American universities. Through a summer of immersion in a different learning environment, Achraf felt inspired to bring elements of this culture back to his university.

He was particularly “jealous” of all the clubs and organizations American students could be a part of. “Coming back from the US, I thought that we could be even better than the US. The universities were wonderful – I knew my school could be also like that, a different type of campus. ‘I can make my university a better place’ I thought to myself.”

The challenge Achraf faced was changing people’s mindsets around the role of a university in Tunisia. “Education in Tunisia is we don’t have to pay for campuses, but it's really the basics. We have lots of engineers and doctors, but the learning conditions are not great.” However, Achraf and his friends wanted to create opportunities for students to both prepare for their future jobs and are active in their community.

Inspired, Achraf went on to establish an internet café to increase access to information for local community members. He also launched a club called Student-to-Student (S2S), which focused on sharing stories and experiences between students internationally. Through these clubs, he and his friends aspired to “change campus culture” through modeling and promoting student leadership.

A Moment of Reckoning

At the start of 2011, Tunisia underwent the Jasmine Revolution. After a tumultuous 28 days of civil unrest and resistance, much of the revolution was driven by the dissatisfaction and organizing power of young people. Shortly after, one of Achraf’s former professors at the University of Minnesota emailed him to ask if his family was okay and if he had plans to step up as a local leader to ensure a peaceful transition of power.

However, Achraf doubted her suggestion, feeling content with the outcomes of the revolution. “We got everything we wanted,” Achraf responded, “we have freedom now; we have democracy; we have everything.”

His professor responded, “Achraf, the euphoria will only last a short time, but it will fade; make sure you have a plan when it does.” The professor’s warning was this: “you are there when your country needs you; transitions are more complicated than a revolution.”

Achraf shrugged off his professor’s plea and went about his life for a week. The first week after the revolution was quiet. Then, Achraf shares, “in the second week, things got more complicated.” Achraf noticed more political instability in the city. Clearly, the path to democracy was not as clear as he anticipated.

His First Step Towards Anti-corruption

After witnessing rising tension in his city and country over the course of a few weeks, Achraf questioned his initial reaction. “And that is why I began to think my professor might actually be right. So, I thought ‘let me try to do something.’ I began to talk to my friends, and we discussed what we thought our role should be in fighting corruption and protecting democracy. But we knew nothing. We have no idea how corruption should be fought, we just had ideas.”

But Achraf and his friends were just getting started. Instead of giving up, Achraf gleams, “we started a journey of learning by doing.” In the first few months, the team was determined to stay realistic. “There was an election coming up in November. We decided to have a short-term contract – to monitor and observe the upcoming elections. We agreed that if we call each other the day after the elections, on November 24th, that is a sign we will carry on.”

Achraf and his friends closely monitored the elections. They attended online courses, read books, and talked to experts in anti-corruption. And on November 25th Achraf called his friends. He was not ready to stop - he felt like they were onto something big. “They answered, and we knew we could fight anti-corruption together.”

Starting a National Movement

“We still had no clue,” Achraf candidly shares, “we did not have a legal background. But by knowing nothing, we were very open to new ideas, different angles, and perspectives. We could use rap music, IT, theater, cinema. I think if we had a formal understanding and legal background in corruption, maybe we would have stayed in that small circle of solutions. But since we don’t live in that small world, we could make the fight against corruption more inclusive and more engaging.”

Compelled to play a role in rebuilding a democratic Tunisia, Achraf and his peers founded I-Watch, Tunisia’s first local watchdog organization. “We saw people to people, not government to government,” Achraf reflects, determined to protect democracy without being pigeonholed early on.

Nearly a decade later, the team at I-Watch is building a national anti-corruption movement rooted in the experience and leadership of young citizens in Tunisia’s underserved regions. The team is building a robust citizen sector to counter the persistent corruption that still impedes good governance and transparency. Through years of developing his strategy, Achraf founded the organization and movement on the principles of inclusiveness, local action, and youth leadership – a model that is truly open to everyone.

I-Watch in Tunisia...has investigated and exposed corruption and is working with the authorities to introduce the kind of legal framework that will stop the corruption. Its members are courageous and dedicated. They are working for a Tunisia that respects the rule of law and provides justice for all." -Transparency International

Normalizing Transparency, Accountability, and Citizen Participation

I-Watch's model has caught international attention for its replicability and vitality. Through a partnership with Transparency International, the model is being spread to other countries in the region to advocate for free and fair elections.

Instead of a central leadership structure, Achraf built a distributed network of like-minded citizens, 40 watchdog organizations, and nearly two dozen local civil sector organizations. While centralized leadership is often followed by harassment, intimation, attacks, and exile, I-Watch focuses on the democratization of knowledge and power in both the federal government and its own practices.

In addition to convening a community that monitors anti-corruption, I-Watch defends democracy through technology, legal practices, civic engagement, and education. For example, I-Watch creates digital tools for crowd-sourcing cases of corruption, trains allies through e-learning tools, equips young people through civic incubation programs, investigates and pursues corruption cases in the judiciary system, monitors elections, and advises policymakers in crafting equitable and transparent legislation. Perhaps more fundamentally, the team generates public attention and discourse around anti-corruption.

“We talk to every audience. We have different mediums, like rap music, videos, and cinema, where people are talking about corruption,” Achraf describes, “When we talked to the Ministry of Religious Affairs, every Friday for a few years, every Imam during their Friday sermon would talk about anti-corruption. Same thing for poetry. Now for Instagram and YouTube influencers, they are talking about anti-corruption. Their followers are being a bit more informed. With every community, we try to connect with the people they trust the most...we use different means to disseminate the message.”

I-Watch is one of the most prominent Tunisian nongovernmental organizations founded in the new atmosphere of freedom of association and freedom of speech that blossomed after the [country’s] revolution.” -Washington Post

Not an NGO, but an Ecosystem

Achraf recognizes the importance of enabling others to protect democracy as one organization cannot do it alone. “We are creating different toolboxes,” he explains, “Fighting corruption means creating tools for others to use. We invest a lot in e-learning platforms and training individuals.”

And by activating others to own this collective movement, Achraf does not see himself as leading an organization but orchestrating a vision. “We don’t perceive ourselves as an NGO, we perceive ourselves as an ecosystem. We fund, incubate, and accelerate the growth of others,” he explains. While starting their own audiovisual and media company, Achraf and the team are constantly expanding their creative interventions and pushing the boundaries of a traditional non-profit organization.

“Since we did not fit somewhere, we created our own ecosystem. However, if we fit somewhere, we would have not created something new. This is the importance of ‘not belonging’ - the idea that you are the outcast, it gives you new ideas to create a place where we belong.” For Achraf, he discovered his sense of belonging through the courage of navigating ambiguity and changing expectations of what it means to fight anti-corruption.

Failure is Success

Success for Achraf and his team has not come from being praised but learning from failure. Achraf notes that many people are afraid to fail. But, for Achraf’s team, failing fast and failing forward is what makes them stronger.

For example, I-Watch zealously “sued the prime minister for anti-corruption.” Achraf recalls, “People thought we were crazy, but we didn’t care...” Instead, Achraf’s team has the mentality of “today we lost an argument, tomorrow we will win a case.” In fact, they successfully sued and won a major case against corruption for one of the most powerful positions in their country.

“The idea that you are the outcast, that you don’t belong means that you don’t follow other people’s steps, you don’t follow other people’s expectations. And it pays off... we do our own way of doing things, and that is the I-Watch way of doing can't lose your own footprint.”

This acceptation of failure is what Achraf cites as “part of the journey of making a lot of mistakes,” but he shares, “you will grow faster. We are okay with being the guys who are publicly humiliated,” because the team knows they will rise stronger from it. And, despite consistent failure in the process, the team has never lost a case against corruption.

A New Way Forward

In time, Achraf learned to avoid building a movement that would be overly academic or monopolized by professional experts. Instead, he aspires to activate every citizen, especially young people, through real experiences and toolkits for everyday action against corruption.

By learning from the lessons and momentum of the Jasmine Revolution, the I-Watch team enables civic leaders across the country to defend their collective agency. And through prioritizing decentralization and freedom, Achraf is normalizing what it means to have a powerful, committed citizenry building a more equitable future for everyone.