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T unisia's rural poor have come into focus since the revolution that overthrew the regime of Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali almost two years ago. Until that first uprising of the Arab spring, people in rural areas featured only occasionally in Tunisian media coverage, as mute recipients of top-down projects.
But in the months following the revolution they were seen protesting for better health services and housing, more job opportunities, better roads and transport into town. One long-standing World Bank-funded initiative — combining modest environmental projects with ones to improve basic infrastructure or agricultural productivity — is finding that revolution is a learning process. On a blustery morning last month, officials from Odesypano, an agency attached to the agriculture ministry, set up an easel on an empty rural road south of Beja, north-west Tunisia.
They detailed for visitors how World Bank money was being spent : rural tracks planned; olive groves planted against soil erosion; scattered landholding regrouped for easier farming; cisterns installed to store rainwater. For one of the watching Tunisian journalists it was reminiscent of the old regime's presentational style. But as the tour proceeded, there were encounters with villagers that would never have taken place under the old regime. One harangued the officials, demanding a surfaced road to his house because the existing dirt track lane turned to mud each winter.
Others told how a water canalisation project had not benefited householders on the outlying slopes, who still fetched water on mule-back each day except in the summer weeks, when the spring dried up. In the nearby village of Ain Dfali, Najat Bedoui led her two cows — the family's main assets — up a dirt track road as the call to evening prayer was heard.
As in other far-flung villages, freedom of expression is a term she relates to easily: "Before, I couldn't have just stood here and talked to a journalist. We were afraid. People were even afraid to talk on the phone. The role of the local "omda" the lowest rank of interior ministry official , who once exercised petty control over villagers' lives, is these days limited to signing birth or residency certificates. The network of political control and intimidation behind him is gone.