The Forum ERF elaborated on how E-governance for sustainable development in MENA countries by Iyad Dhaoui are typically perceived as technical support activities and not as a core strategic component of public sector activities.
March 23, 2021
Efforts to create digital government in the Middle East and North Africa are typically perceived as technical support activities and not as a core strategic component of public sector activities. As this column explains, the alternative would be that e-governance is value-driven instead of technology-driven: it should become an enabler of sustainable development.
In a nutshell
While digital technologies have spread rapidly in MENA countries, the broader development benefits from using them – the ‘digital dividends’ – have lagged behind: the opportunities offered by e-government are much wider than current usage.
Digital technologies are no shortcut to sustainable development: the digital economy also requires strong analogue components consisting of regulations, skills and institutions. Not undertaking necessary reforms in terms of digital complements will raise the opportunity cost.
The full benefits of the digital revolution will not be realised unless MENA countries continue to improve their business climate, invest in education and health, and promote good governance through strong institutions.
Both electronic governance (e-gov) and good governance have been widely discussed in the national and international arena. Digital technologies are some of the most transformational factors of our time, including their impact on effective governance and the process of sustainable development.
Public digital transformation has considerable potential for modernising public administration, improving public service delivery and promoting good governance. It may contribute to achievement of the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) set by the United Nations. In that regard, e-government initiatives remain an important driving force for realising this transition (EGOV4SD). It is becoming a viable alternative to the traditional bureaucratic means of public service delivery as it promotes open governance.
Digitalisation underpins every aspect of our daily life. Digital technologies – the internet, mobile phones and all the other tools to collect, store, analyse and share information digitally – have spread quickly and we find ourselves in the middle of the greatest information and communications revolution in human history (WDR, 2016).
The Covid-19 pandemic, which requires social distancing and quarantine measures such as lockdowns, has accelerated the role of digital government both in conventional delivery of digital services as well as new innovative efforts in managing the crisis. Digital solutions have become vital to address isolation and keep people informed and engaged (UN, 2020). E-governance ensures the delivery of services remotely, thereby reducing the economic, social and environmental costs associated with service delivery to the public.
Developing countries, including in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), have made efforts to leverage information and communications technologies (ICTs) over the past decade. Concerted efforts have been made to digitalise (fully or potentially) government services to the public.
But digital government efforts in the MENA region are still perceived as technical support activities and not as a core strategic component of public sector activities (OECD, 2017). The alternative would be that e-governance is value-driven instead of technology-driven.
Some stylised facts
In the MENA region, the level of achievement of SDGs, governance system performance and investment in advanced technologies are different from one country to another, including sometimes within the same state.
In terms of achievement of the SDGS, the region is facing many challenges in creating decent jobs, building constructive social dialogue and improving social justice. The uprisings in half a dozen countries in the region brought to light key challenges that had existed for some time such as low job creation, pervasive corruption and lack of accountability and transparency. The uprisings and their truncated aftermath raise many important questions about political reforms, especially in terms of institutional structures. Individuals are seeking to become active citizens.
Recently, the pandemic has exposed serious vulnerabilities in MENA societies, institutions and economies. The consequences of the pandemic are likely to be deep and long lasting and the region’s economy is expected to contract by 5.7% (UN, 2020).
In terms, of governance system performance, adequate governance for innovation, and specifically ICTs, is severely lacking in most MENA countries (Göll and Zwiers (2018). There is a substantial cross-country variance in the related indicators, as well as variance in the responses to each of the indicators for individual countries.
*Percentile rank (0-100) indicates rank of country among all countries in the world. 0 corresponds to lowest rank and 100 corresponds to highest rank.
Source: Worldwide Governance Indicators (WGI).
Corruption remains a central challenge despite the work of many governments across the region to focus their national priorities on fighting corruption and increasing transparency. The corruption perceptions index, which ranks countries by their perceived levels of public sector corruption according to experts and business people, uses a scale of 0 to 100, where 0 is highly corrupt and 100 is very clean. With an average score of 39, the MENA region falls behind both the Americas and Asia Pacific regions (score: 44) and does only slightly better than Eastern Europe and Central Asia (score: 35) and sub-Saharan Africa (score: 32).
In terms of e-governance, the MENA countries are characterised by large public sectors and complex regulatory structures. The implementation of ICTs to modernise public institutions has emerged and is growing. But dividends seem to be limited. Digital and data skills are also still scarce and unevenly disrupted across territories. The budgetary constraint is another challenge for the implementation of digital government strategies (OECD, 2017).
The difference in levels of digital development in the MENA region is significant (Thunert 2009, UNDP 2012, ESCWA 2015, Chambers 2015). Indeed, the region encompasses a wide variety of trajectories within the economy (general preconditions, differences between oil-exporting countries and oil-importing countries, outsourcing, start-up cultures, etc.). Factors such as the distribution of basic infrastructure, enabling business culture, and supportive economic and education policies are very different between as well as within most countries (Göll and Zwiers, 2018).
According to the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), internet use ranges from 30% to 80% across the region, and there is a gender gap in favour of men in many countries. The gap is also between rural and urban areas in almost all countries of the region.
High-speed internet penetration is low compared with emerging regions in Europe and Asia. With the exception of Gulf countries, where internet access is available to broad segments of the population, in many countries of the Arab world fewer than a quarter of households have access to this essential tool. Millions of people cannot afford internet services and are therefore excluded from the ICT revolution that is shaping the modern world (Gelvanovska et al, 2014). Table 1 highlights the state of e-governance development by geographical region.
Table 1: Breakdown of EDGI* per geographical region (2020)
Europe continues to lead e-governance development as indicated by the highest EGDI (0.817) it enjoys, followed by the Americas (0.634), MENA countries (0.616), Oceania (0.511) and sub-Saharan African countries (0.376) respectively.
The Human Capital Index (HCI) is the highest contributing sub-index in MENA countries while the Telecommunication Infrastructure Index (TII) and online service (OSI) are the lowest. This suggests that the main hindrances to the further growth of e-government in the region are still the lack of infrastructure and the digital divide.
The question now is which of the three sub-indices the rise in EDGI in MENA countries comes from?
Figure 2: Contributors to the EDGI improvements
Source: Compiled by author.
Figure 2 indicates that the largest component of the rise in EDGI in the region comes from the improvement in TII. This implies that investment in telecommunication infrastructure is the fastest means of improving a country’s EGDI rankings. It is worth noticing also the importance of online services and human capital in the long run. Indeed, although improvements in both infrastructure and human capital have been slower, they are equally important for a healthy and functioning e-government system.
E-governance as an enabler of sustainable development
The issue now is how e-government initiatives can help MENA countries to achieve better results in their governance and therefore their development policy goals (EGOV4SD)?
EGOV4SD has been defined as the ‘use of ICT to support public services, public administration, and the interaction between government and the public, while making possible public participation in government decision-making, promoting social equity and socio-economic development, and protecting natural resources for future generations’ (Estevez and Janowski, 2013).
Policy-makers have two options: apply this strategy with or without implementation of good governance.
Figure 3: E-government, good governance and sustainable development nexus
Source: developed by the researcher.
The huge public investment in ICTs, in the absence of a good governance framework that embodies accountable institutions, enlarges the voice of the elite, which in turn can result in policy capture and greater state control. This situation can hinder the business climate by raising natural monopolies and therefore creating more concentrated markets.
In the absence of institutional reform, technology will fail to deliver the expected benefits in the region. E-government reforms face the risk of failure to be adequately embedded in public sector reform. As a result, progress on tacking social and environmental divides may be limited. E-government will exert an adverse effect on various aspects of sustainable development instead of being a catalyst for progress.
The digital governance framework in MENA countries still faces institutional difficulties despite the great achievements accomplished to date. Digital transformation also faces complex challenges from economic issues, social and political matters, to technology innovation and its diffusion patterns. These challenges remain heavily dependent on the development stage of each organisation and each country.
A conclusion that may emerge here is the inadequate impact of e-government on sustainable development in MENA countries (Dhaoui, 2020). Digital government efforts in the MENA countries are still perceived as technical support activities and not as a core strategic component for development corpus. As result, the impact of e-government initiatives on sustainable development will be limited in the region.
According to many studies and reports, and although ICTs have spread rapidly in much of MENA countries, digital dividends – that is, the broader development benefits from using digital technologies – have lagged behind. In many countries, the full potential of digital technologies is not being used. In many cases, e-government projects have enlarged opportunities and get better service delivery. But their aggregate impact has fallen short and is unevenly distributed. This proves the deficits in the adoption of new technologies in the MENA region vis-à-vis the major factors for success (Göll and Zwiers, 2018).
Adequate governance for e-government projects is severely lacking in most of the MENA countries. The region IS still unable to complement technology investments with appropriate economic reforms that reap digital dividends in the form of faster growth, better public services and adequate environmental management. These challenges are preventing the digital revolution from fulfilling its transformative potential in the region.
Access to ICTs and greater digital adoption is critical, but not sufficient. Thus, digital technologies are no shortcut to sustainable development; they can be an enabler by raising the necessary reforms. The digital economy also requires what the WDR (2016) calls ‘strong analog components’ which consisting of regulations that create vibrant businesses and let firms leverage digital technologies to compete and innovate, skills that allow workers to adapt to the demands of the new economy, and institutions that are accountable and that uses the internet to empower citizens.
Overcoming these challenges will require special awareness, commitment and a particular focus on ambitious and action-oriented strategies that contribute to bypassing e-government constraints and enhancing good governance, which in turn improves sustainable development and more inclusive societies.
Figure 4: Digital governance components
Source: developed by the researcher.
The role of governments is not only to act as facilitators and leaders; but also as enablers and regulators. Given the limited resources of governments, the involvement of stakeholders through transparent cooperation is crucial. Governments are consistently interacting with diverse interest groups across society such as citizens (G2C), employees (G2E), businesses (G2B) and various state agencies (G2G), cohesively.
Figure 5: The various interactions in E-government
Source: Alhassan, 2020. E-governance for sustainable development in Ghana: Issues and prospects.
Roadmap for successful e-government initiatives
In order to achieve economic, social and environmental sustainability for MENA countries, it is crucial to establish good governance by forming an institutional environment capable to enabling the government with more effective and efficient tools for more successful development plans. But the region suffers from a lack of adequate training and knowledge about the technology, access to it, and knowledge of how to best apply it.
Policies on the use of digital technologies need to be adequately embedded in public sector reform. MENA countries should promote competitive business environments, enhance accountability, and upgrade education and skills development systems to prepare people for the jobs of the future. The race is between skills and technology, while the outcome will settle on whether the dividends from ICTs are realised and the benefits widely shared.
Bringing digital technology and governance practices together at the forefront of sustainable development strategies and providing new and innovative technological options leading to improve governance strategies may contribute to achieving sustainable development in all dimensions.
A particular emphasis on building a digitally inclusive society is needed. The increase in access to digital technologies should bring more choice and greater convenience in the region. This can be done through inclusion, efficiency and innovation that are capable to provide opportunities that were previously out of reach to the poor and disadvantaged.
The full benefits of the ICT revolution will not be realised unless MENA countries continue to improve their business climate, invest in education and health, and promote good governance through strong institutions.
Figure 6: Pre-requisites for maximising digital dividends
Source: developed by the researcher.
The challenge is to start adequate reforms to maximise digital dividends and to prepare for any disruptions. The digital economy is changing rapidly. Not undertaking the necessary reforms in terms of digital complements such as regulation, skills and institutions will raise the opportunity cost. Any failure to reform will lead to a situation of falling farther behind those who do reform. Strengthening the interaction between technology and its complements is more urgent than ever before.
ISLAMABAD: Leaders and political workers must break through political, ethnic and regional divisions and unite to raise their voices against exploitation of natural resources in mountainous areas of the country along with social and livelihood challenges faced by people.
This was expressed by participants of a webinar who also urged the federal and provincial governments to use collective wisdom and develop a mechanism for social development.
The webinar, ‘Working Together to Empower Mountain Communities’ was organised by Development Communications Network (Devcom-Pakistan).
Being far away from the centres of decision-making, mountain communities, in totality, suffer from inadequate decision-making, they pointed out, adding that voices and concerns of people from the community along with other stakeholders must be taken into account while the government prepared plans for conservation and development.
Ill-planned infrastructure development and environmentally-unfriendly interventions in the name of tourism promotion and livelihood are proving to be natural hazards.
Climatic conditions are worsening and communities are on the verge of socio-economic collapse.
Conservation adviser from Ev-K2-CNR, an Italian research organisation, Ashiq Ahmad Khan highlighted that unfortunately there was no culture of working together, even though it was necessary for sustainable development.
“Sometimes people have lesser abilities but they do not invite better skilled persons to work on community-based initiatives. They feel reluctant in empowering communities as perhaps they believe that after empowering communities, they would become irrelevant,” he said, adding that the federal and provincial government should develop an inclusive platform with support from the private sector to continue development initiatives.
Well-known mountaineer Nazir Sabir said mountainous areas lack basic amenities and social infrastructure which is the prerequisite for empowerment of communities.
“We need to provide them facilities at their doorsteps. Women in the region are disadvantaged in many ways. They lack health, education and equal rights.
“In addition to the challenges of living in the mountains like harsh climate and inadequate infrastructure, they experience unequal treatment based on traditional gender relationships that deprives them from equal access to health, education, property and well-being. Focusing on women empowerment will ultimately improve social and living conditions in the mountainous parts of the country,” he said.
Devcom-Pakistan Executive Director Munir Ahmed said: “We need to look into the factors that explain why several non-governmental organisations and donor-driven government projects could not generate desired results of community empowerment.
“The vulnerability of communities is increasing due to climate impact, indiscriminate deforestation, over exploitation of natural resources and shrinking livelihood options. Life is also under stress because of rapid social changes, local political conflicts and natural disasters.”
Gulf blockade: Qatar hugs and makes up with its warring neighbours – but will it last? wonders Mustafa Menshawy, Lancaster University, elaborating on a situation at one end of the MENA that lasted hardly more than three years, whereas the similar one at the other end of the region continues unabated for the last forty years. It is that of the ongoing North African situation, but that is another story. In the meantime, let us read Mustafa’s.
Shortly after four Arab countries – Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt – imposed an embargo on Qatar in 2017, I flew into the country’s capital Doha. Hamad airport – usually buzzing with visitors from the Gulf countries (one of every four visitors to Qatar in 2015 came from Saudi Arabia) – was eerily quiet.
The four countries severed ties with Qatar in June 2017 after they accused Doha of supporting terrorism. They demanded the shutdown of Qatari news network Al Jazeera as well as calling on the country to downgrade its relations with Iran. Doha defiantly rejected the accusations and agreed to mediation from Kuwait and the US to end the standoff.
Qatar has estimated its losses from the blockade in the billions of dollars – citing factors such as “industrial-scale theft of content from its sports broadcaster BeIN by rival Saudi network BeoutQ and the manipulation of its currency by the four countries. So, when they agreed on January 5 to lift the embargo and restore diplomatic relations with Qatar, all sides were keenly anticipating any economic benefits the restored detente might bring.
Qatar may be the smallest of the Gulf states – but it’s the richest. So when, hours after the agreement, foreign minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani talked about the possibility of the country’s sovereign wealth fund investing in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, his hint would have been well received in Riyadh.
Dangling the carrot of investment is a good way of appeasing Saudi Arabia, which is keen to attract foreign investment to back Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s grandiose modernisation projects as well as respond to the country’s long-term need to secure new export markets and diversify its oil-dependent economy.
But the biggest sign of the new detente has so far been in the tone of Qatar’s news media. Top of the list of the 13 demands placed on Qatar by the four countries was shutting down Al Jazeera.
Qatar didn’t shut the network down – but watching the network in the days after the blockade ended, one could feel the difference. Bulletins no longer include regular news on “violations” by the Saudi regime. The channel even rebranded the Saudi Crown Prince, who it had vociferously attacked just a few weeks ago for “tarnishing the image of the Saudi state”. Now Bin Salman is represented as a rising peacemaker engaged in relations of “fraternity”. This was symbolically reflected in the way he hugged Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani when the Qatari emir arrived in Riyadh for their meeting on the sidelines of the Gulf Cooperation Council meeting in Saudi Arabia on January 5.
Coverage of Qatar by Saudi network Al Arabiya has also softened considerably, something picked up on by the BBC, which even hosted analysts to comment of the repeatedly screened scene of the hugging between the two leaders. “It was a hot hugging”, commented one analyst, of the enthusiastic way the two leaders embraced when meeting at the airport in Riyadh.
The reconciliation has brought a sense of relief in all four countries. Ordinary people paid a deep humanitarian price – many are linked by close tribal ties and there are thousands of cases of cross-border intermarriage (to give you an idea of how close the Saudi Arabia and Qatar are, consider that it takes just an hour to drive from Doha to Saudi territory).
In Qatar, I heard many stories of families split apart when Qatari nationals were ordered to leave their three Gulf neighbours within 14 days. More than 12,000 residents in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and UAE were also ordered to leave Qatar. Social media is now full of videos of families jubilantly crossing “Abu Samra”, the land border between Saudi Arabia and Qatar within hours of the agreement.
This may all sound like a return to normality, but sceptics pointed to the fact that, while the two feuding leaders talked of “brotherly unity” and desires for “Gulf unity”, neither mentioned an agreement on any of the issues that caused the crisis. On the one hand, everyone’s a winner – but, on the other, we don’t know how or why. The situation has been described as a “detente borne more of exhaustion than compromise”.
The 13 demands made by the other Gulf states of Qatar remain unmet. For example, the Qatari foreign minister has already scotched a demand for Qatar to reduce its ties with Iran by shutting down diplomatic posts in Iran or expelling members of Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guard, saying a couple of days after the agreement that his country would not alter relations with Tehran.
So this dispute is far from ended and there is a lot of tension brewing under the surface. Saudi Arabia, for its part, sees Iran as an “existential threat” and is unlikely to take no change as a negative answer.
Others believe that for Bin Salman, temporarily easing the tension with Qatar is “low-hanging fruit” – something achieved with relative ease ahead of the inauguration of Joe Biden as the 46th US president. Biden is known for his critical attitude towards Riyadh’s approach to human rights.
There is no sign that Qatar is also heeding the other demands, including closing Turkey’s military base outside Doha. Turkey is popular among Qataris. You’ll see cars with number plate stickers featuring the Turkish flag – or even with the image of Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
With so few issues apparently actually resolved, it’s little wonder that it took just days for new signs of tension to reappear after the agreement. The UAE’s minister of state for foreign affairs, Anwar Gargash, said following the GCC summit that Doha still has questions to answer, including: “How is Qatar going to deal vis-à-vis interfering in our affairs through support of political Islam? Is Turkey’s presence in the Gulf going to be permanent?”
These are the same questions asked of Qatar long before the four countries issued their ultimatum in 2017. It’s tension that is likely to outlive the warmth engendered by those televised hugs.
An Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) article advises the world about Protecting migrant workers in the Gulf: don’t build back better over a poor foundation
By Vani Saraswathi, Editor-at-Large and Director of Projects, Migrant-Rights.Org
The Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) states need to completely revamp past policies, and not merely attempt to bridge gaps or provide a salve to deep wounds.
As of February 2020, millions of migrants –– primarily from South and Southeast Asia and increasingly from East African countries –– were holding up Gulf economies, working in sectors and for wages unappealing to the more affluent citizens. In countries with per capita GDP of US$62,000 or more, minimum wages ranged as low as US$200 per month.
Men were packed into portacabins and decrepit buildings, six to a room if lucky, hidden behind screens of dust and grime, away from the smart buildings they built and shiny glasses they cleaned. The women were trapped 24/7 in homes that are their workplaces, every movement monitored. It is accepted and normalised without question that these men and women will leave behind their families in the hopes of building a better future for themselves. That they may live all their productive life in a strange country, excluded from social security benefits and denied all rights of belonging, is seen as a small price to pay for the supposed fiscal benefits. The fact that the price is too steep is rarely discussed.
“Why did able-bodied, productive individuals struggle for food and shelter in some of the richest countries in the world?” #DevMattersTweet
Then came March, and a worldwide upheaval as the COVID-19 pandemic struck nations indiscriminately. The official response across the board ranged from well-meaning but knee-jerk, to discriminatory and short-sighted. Some of the strictest lockdowns were implemented in the most congested areas of Gulf cities, where migrants live. However, their labour was considered essential, as the process of nation-building could not be paused. Attempts to decongest were hopeful at best, but the majority continued to live in cramped quarters, were bussed into construction sites, and remained vulnerable to this new infection, as they had been to other infections and health perils.
The women, hundreds of thousands employed as domestic workers, have been invisible at the best of times because their ability to leave home and enjoy an off day or free time has always been at the discretion of their employers. The pandemic guidelines prevented even this thin leeway, with some countries explicitly prohibiting domestic workers from socialising, even when their employers were allowed to. Domestic workers, like a lot of other poorly-paid and badly-treated workers, were considered essential workers. With entire families working and studying from home, their workload increased exponentially. They were also exposed to strong chemical cleaning agents without proper protective gear. While their services were essential, even critical, the individual was considered dispensable and replaceable.
Force majeure rules allowed companies to reduce pay, terminate workers, or put them on leave without pay. Measures were introduced to ensure business continuity even if these measures infringed on workers’ rights. The lack of civil society and trade unions and inability to negotiate collectively –– all disempowering conditions that preceded the pandemic –– meant workers’ voices and representation were limited and muted. No mechanisms were established to challenge the unfair implementation of the measures. Access to justice was riddled with even more problems than before, as wage theft and other labour abuses from the pre-COVID era were yet to be resolved. This post is not even attempting to explore the vulnerabilities and exclusion of undocumented workers –– many of whom are forced into irregularity by the sponsorship or Kafala system.
“When a population has been dehumanised and othered for so long –– as being temporary, their labour merely transactional –– a pandemic will not magically correct decades of poor policies.” #DevMattersTweet
In the plethora of webinars that consumed the early months of the pandemic, human rights advocates and activists repeatedly spoke of the lessons being learnt, the new normal that awaited us at the end of the dark tunnel, with ‘building back better’ punctuating every discourse. What they failed to recognise is that when a population has been dehumanised and othered for so long –– as being temporary, their labour merely transactional –– a pandemic will not magically correct decades of poor policies.
In fact, we saw the opposite, with migrant workers being blamed for spreading infections, because of their living conditions over which they had no control over. Ten months into the pandemic, it is almost back to business as usual, with malls, offices, schools and even tourism, opening up in stages. Vaccination drives have begun, with a promise to include migrants in all of the Gulf Co-operation Council countries. But the most marginalised are still housed in deplorable conditions, their temporariness being reinforced. And the first sector that re-opened for recruitment was domestic work bringing in more women from impoverished countries reeling from the impact of the pandemic.
If there is one takeaway for human rights advocates it is that a socio-economic environment devastated by the pandemic is not fertile ground for righteous policies. If anything, origin and destination countries may go lax on due diligence over corporations in the name of business continuity and impose tighter controls over migrants under the pretext of protection.
“The last year has seen an increase in wage theft, and there is an urgent need for transnational mechanisms to deal with this.”#DevMattersTweet
There are key questions we need to ask ourselves and the governments:
Why did able-bodied, productive individuals struggle for food and shelter in some of the richest countries in the world? What combination of policies and prejudices leads to this situation?
With so little public investment made in social welfare, the dependence on live-in domestic workers is only likely to increase. How do we ensure recognition of domestic work as work, and domestic workers as workers, formalising their status in the labour market?
How do we then break the monopoly of live-in domestic work that is inherently exploitative?
The ghettoisation of migrant labour is both the root cause and the result of discrimination. In many Gulf Co-operation Council states, migrants constitute the majority of the population and their needs are deliberately neglected in urban planning.
In the coming years, climate change, population imbalances and economic distress will increase migrants’ vulnerabilities, and solutions cannot be rooted in the current environment of inequity and discrimination.
Corruption and Predation in Exercising Power: Algeria and Iraq as Case Studies by Nahla Chahal, Professor and researcher of political Sociology, Editor in Chief, Assafir Al Arabi.
All throughout 2020, Assafir al Arabi conducted a study on corruption as one of the pillars of power, just as important as repression, impoverishment, and despair. For such exercise, we chose Algeria and Iraq as case studies, hoping to extend our research to include other countries. This work will appear in the Books of Assafir al Arabi in three languages, Arabic, French, and English, and their online versions.
The following studies seek to examine corruption in Algeria and Iraq. They do not tackle its manifestation as bribes or looted public funds, but rather as a major governance mechanism, an essential part of its structure and operations.
Corruption is no self-treatable symptom; it cannot cure itself nor can its tailored arrangements; rather, it is channelled to empower a ruler(s), to sustain and perpetuate their power and hegemony. It could be more effective than oppression; takes on various shapes and forms; attacks society by taming it into submission, talks people out of pursuing change, and impoverishes them.
Corruption infests everything and partners with many people to various extents. Alternately, it asks for their complicity, or their acceptance thereof, at the very least, to simplify their lives. It remunerates certain social strata in particular, which happen to be fused with the ruling powers, for matching ideological considerations at times, and tribal-sectarian affiliations at others.
Numerous studies tackle corruption as a question indicative of imprudent governance, lack of transparency, collapsed mechanisms of oversight and accountability, or faded rule of law. The question of corruption has been widely contextualised in theory and through international standards outlined by organisations like the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and Transparency International. Those focused on nepotism, theft, and lining influential people’s pockets; they proposed measures to protect whistle blowers, enhanced access to information, made way for civil society, and instilled social accountability; all of which have contributed to the creation of an extensive useful database.
But to focus on those alone would be limiting, as they capture neither dynamics nor functions of corruption. Certainly, all such aspects of corruption must be interconnected somehow, given meaning and rendered a real “configuration”. The studies presented here precisely seek to examine such hypothesis and identify the circumstances that make corruption flourish.
There is, of course, a direct relationship between rampant corruption and failed national liberation –or its defeat– for getting rid of older colonialism is no complete realisation of that end – liberation. Massive privatisations also accompanied such failure and opened up new doors for corruption. Furthermore, real decision-making mechanisms may be seen hiding behind decision-making formalities, whether in ministerial cabinets or parliamentary buildings. Interchangeably, it hides behind decrees. Namely, corrupt practices take legal cover.
In his paper on Algeria, “Corruption as a Configuration of Power,” Daho Djerbal (1) argues that corruption is deemed institutionalised not only when widespread, but also when organised on the basis of socio-economic clientelist networks entrenched within the State apparatus, then disseminated into society through alternating intermediaries. It emerged fiercest, he says, when the State monopolised economy – in both capitalist and socialist paradigms.
Corruption is a configuration of economic rent which began as a system of economic and political regulation, whereby relations between State and its institutions, enterprises and their partners, civil society and its organisations, are all subject, by hook or crook, to rent-seeking logic instated to allocate all national resources (human, natural, financial, technical, and organisational), develop them, and distribute their generated revenues. Corruption thus became a “rite of passage” to accessing numerous public services.
As for decrees, Djerbal considers them as means for elected assemblies and democratically appointed authorities to avoid discussing major topics at hand. Those are tools invented to ensure wider reproduction of this system of new profits, to render the executive branch as sole party in charge of economic evaluation, and to arbitrage between conflicted interests for the sake of increasing revenues and systematise their redistribution. He also considers corruption and democracy as interlinked. As such, the emergence of “pragmatic practices” assumed by the authorities rely on a system of “remunerations, gift exchange, the fragmentation of spheres, places, and actors who determine what is legal and illegal, moral and immoral, legitimate and illegitimate…”
To illustrate his reflections, he gives a number of real-life examples from Algeria and analyses exposed “scandals”, the logic behind their trials, and the verdicts reached against their protagonists.
In investigating corruption in Algeria, Rachid Sidi Boumedine (2) wonders about what could be defined as corruption. He notes that one culturally distinguishes between corruption and bribes, commonly called “tchippa” or “qahwa,” that is, money ordinary citizens pay to buy access to services (mundane, occasionally) or any other goods, though already granted by virtue of law. One feature of a clientelist system is embodied in excessive authorised violations, starting from the highest ranks of the hierarchy, which simultaneously places the lower ranks at the mercy of executive circles, who could, in turn, punish the former for violation of the written law, if there need be.
Boumedine also notes how rentier networks function “internally”, like a clan (a family, village, affiliated community). As such, familiar arrangements of gift-exchange and mutual donations -characterised by their binding and impactful nature- create a favoured system of rights and obligations in society. Such principles consolidate a clientelist system by creating, nourishing, and sustaining reciprocal obligations among its members. He also claims that the system in Algeria has become neo-patrimonial.
This configuration of looting and corruption thus draws upon social acceptance for sustenance. As such, at least in part, it is not considered as theft carried out at the expense of the larger public. Such ideological design –which legitimises looting, whereby the latter is an act directed against an anonymous, undefined, long-hated state after all– thus becomes a gateway to a new social paradigm. He illustrates the question through describing those recurring handouts to the “poor”, or housing opportunities delivered in accordance with ever-contested lists – fashioned along surreptitious criteria. These operations further plunge their beneficiaries into that recognised mire of a clearly unjust system. It is a system that benefits whoever knows their way around maintaining good relations with network agents, ensuring access to those lists.
In their cowritten article reviewed by writer Omar Aljaffal (3), researchers Mohsin Ahmad Ali (4) and Abdul Rahman Al-Mashhadani (5) consider how the 2003 US occupation of Iraq –which toppled the political regime, dismantled the foundations of the state, reformulating them in accordance with US visions and under the administration of the “American civil governor of Iraq”, Paul Bremer– resulted in the transformation of corruption from a manageable and resistible phenomenon into a system protected by laws and legislations. It was thus turned into a daily practice protected by force of weapons, media, platforms, and religious fatwas.
The writers see the destruction of the public sector in the monopolisation of secure jobs by the ruling power and its parties. Those jobs are thus used as a card to purchase voter power in parliamentarian elections, whereby parties promise their supporters and clans jobs in return for their electoral vote. Subsequently, the number of government employees would reach 4.5 million, as opposed to 880 thousand employees in 2003. The two researchers claim that corruption developed and transformed into an “acceptable” social phenomenon after 2003, accompanied by a political shift towards a market economy led by political parties that landed with the occupier and/or emerged after 2003. Those parties have sectarian and racist agendas. Those parties ratified regulations and laws that furthered their interests, such as the “Jihad military service” – for people who had established organisations of armed resistance against Saddam Hussein’s regime and for “political prisoners”. As such, we do not stand before one type of corruption only (which manifests in bribery, among other illegal activity), but also before corruption protected by a legal framework that includes a larger range of different economic activities, subsequently rendering the country’s riches into material up for grabs to those in power and control, inside and outside Iraq. Between 2003 and 2018, financial crimes hit unprecedented records while financial waste surpassed $350 billion. The two researchers also affirm a close connection between intensified and aggravated corruption and external factors that instigate and encourage it. Many cases of corruption are thus entwined with external objectives abroad. Their article tackles manifestations of corruption throughout Iraq and its sectors, as well as those tools used by the ruling power to perpetuate its rule and those it uses to appease society.
Overall, research on corruption faces various challenges, some of which are obstructive indeed. Those include lack of published data, prohibited access to documents, lack of documentation in the first place, mistrust in researchers, and the potential harm that threatens the latter should their research be published. Additionally, research faces challenges that pertain to researchers themselves, from sticking to one familiar methodology they are prone to reproduce, to the scarcity of institutions capable of embracing and supporting them, or lack thereof, to competing over whatever little is available, all the way to declining intellectual standards and knowledge in general, and so on.
Ultimately, the endeavour we undertake here goes with an unexhausted obsession with searching and trying. It questions the way existing powers rule our countries. Along with the contributing researchers, Assafir Al-Arabi thus hopes to have tackled some of the aspects that could answer such a fundamental question.
1- Daho Djerbal is a historian. He teaches contemporary history at the University of Algiers 2. Besides his extensive research on economic and social history, he studies the relationship between history and memory. He has been the director of Naqd publication, a review of social studies and critique, since 1993. 2- Rachid Sidi Boumediene is both scientist and sociologist. He published a number of books and articles throughout his career as academic and consultant in both Algeria and abroad. 3- Iraqi poet and writer. He recently worked on a project that analysed Basrah’s local government in Iraq, as part of a “conflict resolution studies program” at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). He received the Mostafa Husseini Prize for young journalists in 2017. 4- Professor of political economy at the University of Basrah. 5- Senior lecturer at Al Iraqia University, specialised
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