The Tunisian revolution’s most profound success has been the initiation of an important and active civil society finally able to complement and to share resources and expertise with its government. As socio-economic challenges grow, governments find themselves lacking the necessary tools and execution speed to singularly design solutions and administrative changes for today’s dynamic cities. One of the most needed solutions in the historical urban part of Tunis, called the Medina, is a repurposed strategy and more efficient management for the over 70 government-owned historical buildings, most of which are closed and in urgent need of restoration and re-use. Tunis city’s historical building stock is an important underestimated opportunity to improve socio-cultural dynamics and historical urban quarter regeneration.
In 2015, a modest project was initiated following the 80th anniversary of Rachidia - an association initiated in 1934 for the preservation of traditional Tunisian music – through which civil society and social entrepreneurs were united to uplift the organization and its presence in the Medina. The project took over two years for the benefit of the legendary Rachidia, uniting young associations (Aswar el Medina, Carthagina, Collectif Creatif, ENAUVATEUR, & ARC ), social enterprises that led and managed the project (Blue Fish), and institutions (INP, Ennajma Ezzahra, Biobliotheque National, & ASM Tunis).
The project aimed to digitalize Rachidia’s important paper and recording archives, including rare musical manuscripts and documents related to the foundation of the association in the colonial context (after the Cairo Congress of 1932 organized by the Baron d’Erlanger), and to create the first open digital library for Tunisian traditional music. After many meetings to harmonize project visions between the different partners, a crowdfunding campaign was launched, through which 38 generous contributors, all of which were Tunisians living abroad, donated to build Rachidia’s digital library. Two additional donations were later received from Le Pont Genève, an association of Tunisians living in Switzerland, and from expatriates living in Tunis.
The initial use of the funds was dedicated to the critical and burdensome mission of sorting nearly one ton of paper archives, which were a mixture of artist contracts, student registrations, musical manuscripts, and phone bills, all piled together at Dar Lasram II since the 1920s. Architects and architect students generously gave their time to recommend building restoration needs in collaboration with INP (Institute National du Patrimoine). The collaboration with INP lasted through the duration of project implementation, using INP’s labor and crowdfunded money to buy all restoration raw material and supplies. This collaboration was crucial in maximizing the return of crowdfunded money, achieving important savings in labor costs.
Once the archives were sorted, collaboration with Ennajma Ezzahra enabled the digitalization of all audio archives, including half-century-old musical performances. In addition, collaboration with Bibliotheque National enabled the shared digitalization of paper archives and maintenance of historical manuscripts of musical instruction. Furthermore, private sector representatives Astral (paint manufacturer) and Ooredoo (telecom company) generously donated paint and computers respectively, which helped with final touches.
Today the project is terminated. A historical government-owned building has been saved, Rachidia’s half-century-old Tunisian traditional archives have been digitalized and published online, a new, much-needed space in the city of Tunis - which was closed for half a century - is now a digital library and performance space open for youth to express themselves, discover their musical heritage, interact with professionals, and add a valuable socio-cultural dynamic to the Medina.
The project proved that a social enterprise business model can be the solution for more efficient and inclusive historical public building management. Such a management approach balances building preservation as well as economic and cultural dynamics within the urban community in a way that is independent from government funding and that is sensitive to heritage preservation needs while also securing public ownership.
The private-public partnership law was signed and passed in Tunisia in 2015; however, it remains extremely difficult to implement, offering a very general framework, but nothing specific that can be used by the private or public sectors. The success of the social enterprise model therefore arises as a compelling alternative. The management and repurposing of the city’s historical building stock could be a great private-public partnership story, especially if managed as a social enterprise.
With the absence of a clear government framework permitting the sustainability of achievements like those above, private-public partnerships require firm belief in the importance of sharing know-how between the private and public sectors for more sustainable development, and honest intentions to unite in building harmonious cities, which bring hope to our youth and help them create and seize opportunities in their communities.
Leila Ben-Gacem was elected as an Ashoka Fellow in 2016 for her work to create and grow a grassroots movement led by students, heritage activists, and cultural entrepreneurs to restore the vibrancy of the Medina in Tunisia.