The British government is paying advertising agency M&C Saatchi to run a media campaign in Tunisia to promote Tunis’ economic reforms, according to documents seen by the Guardian.
The campaign’s objectives are stated as to “improve public awareness of the government’s role in planning and delivering economic reforms”, after the country witnessed widespread protests at International Monetary Fund (IMF)-backed austerity measures at the end of May.
The first stage of the campaign is reportedly aimed at Tunisians aged between 18 and 35, with the recent protest having been driven primarily by the youth with concerns over unemployment, cuts to state subsidies and the rising cost of living.
The money for Saatchi is believed to be coming from the UK’s Conflict, Security and Stability Fund (CSSF), a lesser-known subsidiary of several key government departments including the Foreign Office and the Department for International Development.
With deposits of over £1.2 billion ($1.58 billion), MPs and the independent aid watchdogs have raised concerns over the fund’s lack of transparency and accountability, as well as suggestions that officials could be working with human rights abusers.
“I can think of no better example of the cynicism of this government than financing a PR campaign to support cuts to the Tunisian state by using state money in Britain that it claims is promoting peace and security overseas,” Lloyd Russell-Moyle, a Labour MP on parliament’s international development committee, said of the plan.
“The government won’t tell the public or parliament what this fund, which is worth over £1 billion [$1.32 billion], is spent on and the little evidence we do have suggests that the rot runs deep.”
Asad Rehman, executive director of the War on Want NGO, said that projects being endorsed by the British government in Tunisia “appear to be more about supporting governments with their PR rather than getting at the causes of the protests, which are rooted in deeply economic issues around inequality”.
“British companies being brought in to aid governments in forcing through policies which are highly contested, creates more friction and ultimately lead to a securitised response when people protest against them,” he concluded.
In a statement, a British government spokesperson said that all CSSF programmes were aimed at strengthening democratic governance and security, with the Tunisian people.
“This project supports the Tunisian civil service to transparently communicate with citizens, with initial results showing an 18 per cent increase in the number of citizens that want to learn about economic issues and reforms.”
News of the proposal comes amid heightened concern over North African countries’ ability to stem the flow of migrants seeking to come to Europe. EU states have increasingly stated that they would focus more resources on the region in return for North African nations holding back migrants travelling through.