I’m teaching a tutorial class as a TA this term, and part of my job is to encourage students to follow the news and be in touch with what’s going on in the world. This has given me the opportunity to be more news-aware myself. However, an educated person often isn’t satisfied with just reading a news story. I like to try to gain a deeper understanding by putting things in context. So I introduced the students to some very cool interactive online data visualization and analysis tools, mostly on country-level data that can help us put news in context. The uprising in Tunisia provided an excellent opportunity to play around with some of these tools and see how useful they are.
A major catalyst of the uprising was a man who set himself on fire. Pictures of this incident circulated around the internet and led to initial protests. Just like they did over the Iranian green movement, people are debating exactly to what extent the internet had a role to play. It’s interesting to see how much the internet can be effective in different countries using statistics on internet penetration rates, visualized on a world map here. Tunisia’s internet penetration rate is 8.2% which is not so high compared to most of Europe and North America (Canada & the US have a rate of almost 70%), but still relatively high for its region. In fact, Tunisia has the second highest internet penetration rate in the entire African continent. It’s rate is only slightly less than China’s and there are very few countries in Asia that beat it (Iran is one of them with 10.8%).
Education vs. Unemployment
One of the reasons mentioned by the media for the dissatisfaction of Tunisian people was the high unemployment rate, especially since Tunisians are becoming more educated. So I thought it would be interesting to look at employment rate vs. education rate in gapminder:
The graph shows that Tunisia has one of the lowest employment (highest unemployment) rates in the world which has not improved much in the past two decades despite increased levels of education. Actually, if you play the graph on the gapminder site, you will see that most of the world’s countries are becoming more educated but employment rates are not improving much. However, Tunisia’s unemployment problem is very severe comparatively. Only several countries in the region are doing worse.
Another reason mentioned for Tunisian unrest, is income inequality (gap between rich and poor) despite growing national wealth. A gapminder analysis shows this to be largely untrue. While GDP per capita has been growing, income inequality has gradually decreased. Although the latest gapminder data is for the year 2000 (Gini coefficient = 0.41), the latest data we have from the CIA World Factbook indicates that the 2005 estimate for income inequality in Tunisia is still around the same level (Gini = 0.40), Ranking Tunisia the 62nd worst in the world among 134 countries, which is about mediocre.
However, perhaps it is not so much the overall income inequality, as the corruption of a few government officials that angers the Tunisian people. Indeed corruption of the ruling family in Tunisia is highly cited as a major reason for the people’s discontent. According to the 2010 Corruption Perceptions Index provided by transparency.org Tunisia ranks 59th among 178 countries, with a corruption index of 4.3 (the higher this value, the cleaner, less corrupt a country is perceived to be). This value is mediocre, but compared to the Tunisia’s region it is actually pretty good. Few countries in Africa and Asia are better. Many European countries such as Russia (2.1), Italy (3.9), Ukraine (2.4), and Greece (3.5) are considered more corrupt than Tunisia. Still, it is possible that this corruption index does not take into account recent information revealed by Wikileaks that has fueled unrest in the country.
One of the reasons for discontent in Tunisia is considered to be a lack of press freedom. Indeed, the government did its best to prevent coverage of the unrest as it was happening. A look at the Global Press Freedom Rankings from FreedomHouse.org shows that Tunisia’s record is horrible in this regard, ranking 186th in the world, near the complete bottom of the list, only one rank higher than Iran. (Side note: students in my class were surprised to find that Canada is not in the top few countries on this list, ranking 26th along with the UK, and the US is only slightly better at 24th).
Many Arab and middle-eastern countries are guilty of having high inequality between men and women. Canada, Austrialia and European countries are considered to be top ranking in terms of gender equality. From this UNDP website that visualizes data on the Human Development Indicators, we can see that Tunisia’s Gender Inequality Index (2008 data) is 0.481 (the lower the better). That is not too bad. In fact, it is only slightly worse than the United States (0.457), and better than most of Africa, Asia, and South America. I’m not sure if we could infer any link between gender inequality and general discontent of the public, but low gender inequality means that when there is discontent, women will be active in driving the protests, and that is a very important success factor for any movement.