The government began raising donations from Tunisians to help fight Covid-19 in March, but now many are concerned about how that money—just over 200 million Tunisian Dinars (TND)—has been spent. Several high level officials have issued statements that appear to contradict each other regarding how the money has been spent or whether it has been spent at all. Activists and civil society groups claim that officials are providing little transparency on this issue, and some have alleged that Covid-19 funds have been misappropriated and stolen. These allegations are receiving a lot of media attention, especially as numerous reports indicate that Tunisia’s public health sector has not significantly increased its capacity since March to treat the now rapidly increasing number of patients suffering from Covid-19.
As the new coronavirus began to spread in Tunisia in early March, the government led by then prime minister Elyes Fakhfakh called on Tunisians to donate money “to fight against the Coronavirus 19 and minimize its economic and social impact,” according the Ministry of Health’s website. The government set up a special fund—the so-called 1818 fund—to receive donations both from within Tunisia and from abroad. Donations could be made through several methods, including by sending an SMS to 1818. By September, officials said the fund had raised just over 200 million Tunisian dinars.
But just how much of that 200 million TND has been spent? There are at least three possible answers to this, depending on which official you listen to: zero; 52 million TND, or 197 million TND.
Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi, in an October 18 interview with State television, claimed that when his government took power—September 3, 2020—“we found that almost none of it had been spent. Not a millime;” however, before this announcement the Ministry of Health had, on September 11, 2020, published on its official Facebook page a table showing that almost 52 million TND had already spent from the 200 million TND collected in the special 1818 fund. Just one day after PM Mechichi’s interview, on October 19, the Minister of Health Faouzi Mehdi appeared to contradict his boss’s figures, confirming to Shems FM radio the 52 million TND figure his Ministry had already published. Earlier, on October 15, another high-level official from the Ministry of Health had told Express FM in a two-part interview that only 3.5 million TND remained of the 200 million TND that had been collected.
“Both those numbers are correct,” Samah Meftah, a spokesperson for the Prime Minister’s office told Meshkal/Nawaat regarding Prime Minister Mechichi’s figure of zero and Health Minister Mehdi’s figure of 52 million. “The Prime Minister was speaking about money that was not really spent. The Minister of Health said that 50 million was spent meaning all of that has gone out through public contracts, so there are public contracts, sale agreements,” but not all of what was purchased has yet arrived. “Since the Prime Minster says that the money has not gone out of the account, have not been spent—the equipment has not arrived—that means there hasn’t been expenditure from 1818.”
However, the published Ministry of Health document on expenditures puts the 52 million Tunisian dinars under a column entitled “completed expenditures”.
Spending on Equipment or Salaries?
Among those who say that some of the 1818’s funds have indeed been spent, there are disagreements over what it has been spent on. The Health Ministry’s figures indicate that of the almost 52 million TND it claims have been spent, approximately 40 million TND went to personal protective equipment (PPE) while more than 10 million TND went to housing health workers, many of whom have had to remain apart from their family homes while working so as to help limit the spread of Covid-19. But the secretary general of the Tunisian General Labor Union (UGTT), Noureddine Taboubi, has claimed that the money Tunisians donated for the fight against Covid-19 has instead gone to paying salaries.
Taboubi told Shems FM radio that “this money was supposed to go to buying what could be bought for people’s health, medicine, protective gear…it’s not the responsibility of these donations to be used to pay people who have been contracted or those from specific categories in the health sector who the state recruited and then could not pay.”
“Today we’ve reached a situation where governments do not give the real numbers,” Taboubi added.
Minister Mehdi himself told Parliament on October 2 that some of the 1818 Fund had been allocated to salaries, according to State news agency TAP, but it was unclear how much was allocated and whether any of this had already been disbursed. Mehdi’s Director of Health Structures, Mohamed Mokded, told Express FM in another interview that 17 million TND had been allocated to hiring new doctors but that paying out salaries to new staff normally takes many months due to bureaucracy, indicating that 606,000 had been paid out in salaries.
Meshkal/Nawaat sent requests to the Ministry of Health and to the Ministry of Finance asking for clarification on the 1818 Fund’s spending. Chokri Nefti, a spokesperson for the Health Ministry, directed Meshkal/Nawaat to the Ministry’s official website, claiming that spending numbers were available there, although a recent check indicated that only the amount collected is displayed and even this online tool does not appear to be working or operating correctly. A Ministry of Finance spokesperson, Hafedh Bou Teraa, told Meshkal/Nawaat that the Prime Minister’s office is the one managing the 1818 fund and directed Meshkal/Nawaat to send all questions there, noting that the Ministry of Finance is only responsible for setting up the account.
Lack of Transparency
The anti-corruption and transparency group IWatch tried to get and publish more details on management of the 1818 Fund back in April when it launched a website called Hay Floussek [Here’s Your Money] in partnership with the association El Space, but they were unable to receive almost any information.
“With lack of transparency, the risk of corruption became very high. That’s the problem – why don’t they share information about it?…Why do you keep hiding this information?” Manel Ben Achour, a member of IWatch who was in charge of the Hay Floussek campaign told Meshkal/Nawaat.
Ben Achour explained that in April, they reached out to the official committee charged with managing the 1818 Fund. The board of that fund includes two members ostensibly representing civil society, one from the UGTT and one from the Tunisian Union of Industry, Commerce and Crafts (UTICA).
“I tried to reach out to the two representatives from civil society because they have to be the bridge,” Ben Achour said. “They are supposed to share information with civil society because they do not represent themselves, they represent all civil society.”
Yet the UGTT only shared the minutes from two meetings of the committee, which Ben Achour said did not provide many details. Ben Achour added that the UGTT stopped providing minutes to IWatch shortly afterwards.
An Official Audit Underway
By May, the Audit Court announced that it would look into the 1818 Fund as part of its annual report investigating the budgets of State institutions. With so many public institutions in Tunisia, the Court normally chooses in advance, based on numerous factors, to focus on about 20 institutions and specific issues each year, according to Aicha Belhassen Dhaoui, a Section President at the Audit Court and Vice President of the Association of Tunisian Judges. However this year, as an exceptional measure, the Court added the 1818 Fund to its list of institutions to oversee.
“It’s very important for citizens to be informed about expenses dispensed by this fund, so the 1818 [Fund] was added exceptionally to the [Court’s] program,” Belhassen Dhaoui said. “We will also add a special mission…the State’s response to Covid-19 will also be audited in terms of public policies.”
But the Audit Court’s findings are not expected to be ready for publication until sometime in 2021. In the meantime, some civil society groups have begun to research and publish what appear to be state health equipment purchases not finding their way to hospitals.
Civil Society do Their Own Audit
On October 6, a group called the Global Young Leaders Organization (GYLO) held a press conference in Kairouan where they presented several allegations of suspected theft and misappropriation of funds related to Covid-19, particularly with regards to projects in Kairouan. The president of GYLO, Abdelrahman Kharrat, presented documents during the press conference that he claimed showed contracts and purchases for medical supplies which never made it to hospitals.
“We stirred up the issue in public opinion, and they followed us,” said Yassin Sbai, a researcher with GYLO.
But as a result of drawing attention to the issue, GYLO’s Kharrat was summoned for questioning by the police at the Administrative Division for Economic and Financial Investigations in Tunis on October 16, according to a press release issued by GYLO.
“They summoned him to Gorjani. We sent a lawyer with him. They asked him many questions, for five hours. Five hours of questioning,” Sbai told Meshkal/Nawaat. Sbai added that he thinks this was a pressure tactic.
Sbai claimed that some of the documents they shared were publicly available, produced by the Ministry of Health mostly about procurement, although some information was also from Parliament or provided by whistleblowers. Meanwhile, because GYLO has several branches across the country, they were able to send people to check whether supplies purchased by the Ministry of Health had in fact reached healthcare facilities in different regions.
“When we spoke to our people in interior regions, they went to visit hospitals and they didn’t find anything,” Sbai said. “That means there is a big contradiction between the announcements of the [Health] Ministry and Ministry documents and the reality on the ground.”
“Our problem is not with the ministry, but with [business] lobbies…We said this is public money. It’s our right to ask where it went,” Sbai added.
Disappointment, Distrust of the Central State
Tunisians who donated to the 1818 Fund are disturbed to see that what they donated might not have been used to effectively combat Covid-19.
“People sympathized and donated a lot,” Belkiss Anane, a Tunisian who was studying abroad at the time, told Meshkal/Nawaat, explaining that her home of Djerba had only three Intensive Care Unit (ICU) beds at the beginning of the pandemic.
“I myself—a broke student who just lost her on-campus jobs at the time—donated as much as I could. To see it sit there is only a sad confirmation of our government’s continuous incompetence,” Anane said.
Anane said she now feels “just a great deal of disappointment,” and is concerned that corruption might be at play.
“Being too familiar with the ubiquity of corruption in Tunisian authorities, I can only hope that the money goes where it’s due,” she added.
Skeptical that donating to the 1818 Fund would have a direct or immediate impact in fighting Covid-19 in his home region in Djerba, Chiheb Rais decided to raise donations on his own.
Rais, who was living in Paris when the pandemic broke out, said that at the end of March he raised about 60,000 Euros using PayPal, mostly from other Tunisians living abroad. He coordinated the donations with civil society groups operating in Djerba. The funds were then used to buy Djerba’s only fully-equipped, Type 1 ambulance, which now works with the island’s only public hospital, he said.
“If you want to see the impact of your  money in Djerba, we won’t be able to see it. If we will send money to the government it will go basically to Tunis,” Rais told Meshkal/Nawaat. “It’s a centralizing government so they will give the money to big hospitals in Tunis and they will ask for the small hospitals in all the regions to send patients to Tunis…That’s why we decided to go directly to the civil society here in Djerba and to do an impact in our region.”
Questions About Foreign Funding for Covid-19
Tunisian citizens who donated to Tunisia are not the only ones curious about where the money they gave has gone. In his recent interview with State television, PM Mechichi noted that European donors have also asked about this.
“There’s even a problem too with the spending of grants and assistance that came to us from abroad. Even in our discussions with our European partners they ask these questions,” Mechichi said.
While Tunisians raised about 200 million TND, the European Union [EU] announced at the end of March that it was giving a grant of 250 million Euros [about 800 million TND at the exchange rate then]. The same press release added that an existing EU grant program to Tunisia, “Essaha Aziza” [Health is Dear], would have its funding increased from 20 million Euros to 60 million Euros.
But how much of that extra 40 million Euros will find its way to the Tunisian healthcare system is unclear, as the operating costs of the Essaha Aziza program appear to be high. Of the 20 million euros that had initially been allocated for it, more than one fifth of the funding—just over 4 million Euros—was awarded to a German company providing technical assistance for the program.
Meshkal/Nawaat reached out the European Union’s office in Tunis for comment on the issue but had not received a response by the time this article went to publication.
Apart from the EU grants, Tunisia has also received numerous other bilateral grants from other countries. It has equally received loans from the IMF and the World Bank. While the World Bank has offered some countries grants as part of its Covid-19 assistance, for Tunisia the Bank approved a 20 million US dollar loan, in addition to 15 million US dollars that were reallocated from a previous World Bank project in Tunisia focusing on irrigation.
In response to an email inquiry from Meshkal/Nawaat, the World Bank’s Tunisia office clarified that the interest rate for the loan is 0.53 percent with a 15-year loan term and a three year grace period, but did not clarify why the World Bank offered Tunisia a loan instead of a grant.
A recent briefing paper by the European Network on Debt and Development (Eurodad) argued that the World Bank’s Covid-19 response is prioritizing the private sector.
Asked by Meshkal/Nawaat if private sector healthcare facilities are eligible to benefit from the World Bank’s recent Covid-19 loans, the Tunisia office responded that the Tunisian “MoH [Ministry of Health] is responsible to define the health facilities benefiting from COVID-19 project procurement.”
As for tracking where their loan money goes, the World Bank told Meshkal/Nawaat that “upon distribution of the medical and laboratory equipment,” expected to be purchased with the funding, “a post-delivery technical audit will be conducted by an independent agency acceptable to the Bank.”
Official Explanations for Delays
PM Mechichi’s explanation for issues over spending funds for Covid-19 was that normal—i.e. slow and lengthy—public procurement processes have been used thus far. He said he believes that an expedited process needs to be put in place to circumvent normal public procurement regulations.
“In our last session with the Covid committee I told them: ‘This 1818 Fund, I don’t want to find a single dinar in there anymore,’” Mechichi said in his October 18 State TV interview. “The fact that there is 200 million and later we find that it hasn’t been spent, there are reasons why it hasn’t been spent: either they say that a purchase was delayed or we revised the terms and conditions—a citizen is not going to listen to this, and it’s not important to them, and me myself I have no willingness to listen to these [excuses].”
However Mohamed Mokded, Director of Health Structures, noted the need for such procedures to buy the correct equipment. Mokded, in his interview with Express FM radio, gave as an example the need to find the right expertise to determine what kinds of ICU beds to purchase—an expertise that may be lacking within the public healthcare system.
But according to Mouheb Garoui, cofounder of IWatch who has recently researched corruption and anticorruption efforts in Tunisia’s Covid-19 response for his master’s dissertation at the University of Bristol, the first time the government issued a call for tenders to buy ICU beds wasn’t until August, five months after Tunisia began its pandemic response. The deadline for that first call was October 26, and the winners have not been announced as of when this article was going to publication.
“Tunisia has not purchased a single ICU bed since the start of the pandemic,” Garoui told Meshkal/Nawaat. In an attempt to circumvent the alleged bureaucratic blockages, the Prime Minister’s office announced on its official Facebook page in the early morning hours of October 29 that all purchases related to Covid-19 would be exempt from regular public procurement regulations. Instead, a special committee headed by the Director General of Military Health, a position within the Ministry of Defense, would be in charge of such purchases