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
Conditions for boosting the privatisation process via the Algiers Stock Exchange are reviewed by University professor and international expert, Dr Abderrahmane MEBTOUL.
The aims of the privatisation, whether partial or total of the Algerian economy do not come to be questioned. The process is a must, however, it needs to be addressed as a matter of urgency. Proposals of strategies are made, notably through my experience as Chairman of the National Council of Privatizations between 1996/1999 complemented by numerous tours in the USA, helping to formulate the conditions for the success of the privatisation process via the Algiers Stock Exchange, to imply clarity in the objectives and means of implementation.
The urgency of a strategic vision
At a time of the coronavirus pandemic and the world going through new socio-economic changes in technological and organisational models including shock waves that according to the IMF, the World Bank, and the OECD, global growth will not be felt before the end of 2021. Furthermore, subject to the control of the epidemic, all domestic companies using the State’s handouts for their survival and all of the state-owned enterprises suffer from a structural deficit. Indebted to banks, some whose production techniques, are obsolete and do not meet new technologies and international standards, it is mentioned in this particular context to address the large budget deficit. The observation is the lack of dynamism of the public sector, the consolidation supported by the public treasury having far exceeded 100 billion dollars at constant prices between 2000/2020. The cost of the numerous restructurings between 1980/1999 and the ensuing remediation period of 2000/2020, resulted in more than 95% of the domestic companies returned to their inception status. Whereas with this, capital-money, it would have been more sensible to create a whole new and performing economic fabric. These are only announcements because, being an eminently political process, any decision on such a sensitive and complicated subject must first have the approval of the Council of Ministers certainly after consultation with the Security Council because it commits national security. Privatisation should not be confused with complementary de-monopolisation, both eminently political, moving towards the disengagement of the State from the economic sphere so that it devotes itself to its role as a strategic regulator in a market economy. Privatisation is a transfer of ownership from existing units to the private sector, and de-monopolisation is about fostering new private investment. The objective of de-monopolisation and privatisation must reinforce the systemic transformation of the transition from an administered economy to a competitive market economy. A legal text is not enough (this is only a means) and becomes a decoy if there are no coherent objectives clearly defined with pragmatism and a return to trust.
Privatisation can only be successful if it is part of a coherent and visible global socio-economic policy and if it is accompanied by a competitive universal and sustained dialogue between the social partners. It should be aimed at putting an end to perpetual legal instability. The renovation of the Ministry of Finance through digitisation of all systems of taxation, banks, land and customs duties would surely put an end to the central and local bureaucracy that as a significant constraint of an administered economy would be best be accompanied by the overhaul of the socio-political system. Also, the decentralisation around large four to five regional poles, not deconcentration would help.
Moreover, the impacts of all trade agreements between Algeria and the European Union, Africa and the Arab world, as well as all international ones would be of a win-win type only if Algeria has public or private companies that are competitive in terms of cost/quality. In any case, all of these agreements have domestically economic, social and political implications.
The four conditions for boosting the privatisation process
Are our managers aware that there is a global privatisation market where competition is perennial, and the determining factor is a demand for goodwill and not just supply? The success of this process to prevent certain predators from being interested only in the real estate of these companies and not in the production tool involving five conditions?
The first condition, its impact on the reduction of the budget deficit where according to the Finance Law of 2021 more than $21.75 billion in 2021, against the 2020 close of $18.60 billion and an overall projected treasury deficit of $28.26 billion, artificially, which is in principle filled by higher production and domestic productivity; to boost non-hydrocarbon exports and contribute to the establishment of a competitive market economy far from any monopoly, whether public or private.
The State, as a regulator and guarantor of social cohesion, especially at a time of budgetary and tensions domestic and at our borders should enforce the contract between employers and employees so that the logic of profit does not undermine the dignity of workers. Nevertheless, never forget that the most incredible moral devaluation in any society is being unemployed or assisted. The important thing is not to work in the national, international or state-private sector, the critical thing for our children is to find a sustainable job within the framework of social protection.
The second condition was a good preparation of a company X for privatisation, assuming transparent communication, as some executives and workers had heard the news in the press, which increased social tensions. Transparency is a fundamental condition for the acceptance of both the population and workers in the spirit of reforms linked to profound democratisation of society. The takeover of companies for executives and workers requires the creation of a risk bank to accompany them because they possess the technological, organisational and commercial know-how a hardcore of skills must constitute the basis of any reliable unit.
The third condition will be to avoid filialisations that were not operating in the past—sticking with bureaucratic power, being the basis for the success of both the partial opening of capital and total privatisation, the wealth in the accounts being often undefining. Lack of an updated land registry poses the problem of the non-existence of reliable title deeds without which no transfer of ownership can be carried out. As there is an urgent need to have transparent real-time accountings of public, private companies, that meet international standards, all measures will be ineffective especially for stock market valuation the actual sale price varies from time to time.
The fourth condition, time overlap of different institutions between selection, evaluations, tender notices, transfer to the stakeholders, then to the Government for the issuance of the final title of ownership would best be not arduous. It may discourage any takeover because mobile capital is invested only where economic and political obstacles are minimal. In this context, it is imperative that long bureaucratic circuits avoid a clearly defined synchronisation and that the current conflicting legal texts should be reviewed, which can lead to endless conflicts, hence the urgent need for their harmonisation with international law. Empowerment will need to be specified where it is necessary to determine who has it to request the undertaking of a privatisation operation. It is vital to prepare the transaction, to organise the selection of the purchaser, to authorise the conclusion of the transaction, to sign the relevant agreements and finally, to ensure that they are carried out correctly.
The four conditions for boosting the Algiers Stock Exchange
In lethargy since its inception, the ASE was built up like a stadium without players through administrative injunctions, like all the loss-making state-owned enterprises.
However, the revitalisation of the stock market implies three conditions.
First, the lifting of environmental constraints gives bureaucratic obstacles that cannot be a reliable purse without competition, avoiding legal instability referring to the rule of law.
Second, a stock exchange must be based on a renovated banking system. However, the Algerian financial system for decades has been the place par excellence for the distribution of the hydrocarbon rent and therefore a considerable challenge of power, and therefore the revitalisation of the stock market necessarily requires the overhaul of the financial system. Indeed, despite the number of private operators, we have a public economy with managed management, all activities whatever their nature feeding on budget flows, i.e. the very essence of financing is linked to the actual or supposed capacity of treasure. It can be considered that the banks in Algeria operate not from local market savings but by the recurrent advances from the Central Bank of Algeria that is refinanced by the public treasury in the form of reorganisation not only for the recent period but having to count the costs of restructuring between 1980/1990. This transformation is not in the scope of the company. However, it moves into the institutional field (distribution of the annuity hydrocarbons), and in this relationship, the Algerian financial system is passive. Bread 90% of these companies its returned to the starting box showing that it is not a question of capital money, real wealth can only assume the transformation of currency stock into capital stock, and there is the whole development problem.
Thirdly, there can be no stock exchange without the resolution of all deeds circulating shares or bonds. The urgency of the integration of the informal sphere cannot be underestimated. Issuing title deeds is vital as there can be no reliable stock exchange without clear and transparent accounting modelled on international standards by generalising audits and analytical accounting in order to determine the cost centres for shareholders. This raises the problem of adapting a socio-educational system, which does not exist as financial engineering. The balance-of-payments services item with foreign exchange outflows between 2010/2019 is between $9/11 billion per year, in addition to foreign exchange outflows from import goods. There are a few rare exceptions; it turns out that accounts Algerian public and private companies from the most important to the simplest in the State that would not pass the most basic audits due diligence. For example, SONATRACH needs new strategic management like the majority of Algerian companies, with clear accounts in order to determine costs by sections, where we are witnessing the opacity of its management which is limited to delivering consolidated global accounts covering the essentials without distinguishing whether the surplus accumulated is due to exogenous factors, international prices or good internal management. As a primer, we propose partial privatisation of a few profitable national champions to initiate the movement to enable the establishment of a stock market index consisting of volume and quality, acting as incubators of companies eligible for the stock exchange and attracting investors looking for financing and know-how.
The fourth condition is monetary stability and legal and monetary stability and the resolution of bad debts and debts, with state-owned banks crumbling under the weight of bad debts and the majority of state-owned enterprises in structural deficits, especially for the currency-denominated part involving transparent mechanisms in the event of exchange rate fluctuations. The simultaneous depreciation of the dinar against the Dollar, the main currency of exchange, does not respond to real values because their quotations are inversely proportional, has the essential aim of artificially filling the budget deficit, akin to an indirect tax. Indeed, on October 15, 2020, on the Stock Exchange, the Dollar is quoted at 1.2144 Euro, against 1.16 in June 2020, a depreciation of 5%, allowing a rise in the price of Brent by 5%. In reference to the June 2020 quote, the price of Brent quoted on December 15 at $50 would be $47.5 at constant prices, thus not having experienced a real increase in terms of purchasing power parity against the Euro and thus an increase in the import bill in euros in the same proportions. Thus, the current Government projecting for 2023 about 185 Dinar one Euro and 156 Dinars per Dollar and taking a 50% deviation from the parallel market we will have about 300 Dinars a minimum Euro in 2023 subject to the control of inflation otherwise the gap would be larger. They were compared to more than 200 Dinars in mid-December 2020 with a projection of 240/250 Euros at the end of 2021 in as to open borders and the inevitable increase in interest rates of the banks’ priorities to avoid their bankruptcies. In this case, it is illusory both to attract the savings of emigration via the banks that one wants to install with foreign exchange costs, as to capture the money capital via the informal sphere via Islamic finance. How do you want a trader with this monetary instability to appear on the stock exchange knowing that the value of the dinar will fall by at least 30% if not more in two to three years, depreciating its assets?.
The partial or total privatisation can be the process, with economic, social and political recompositions of power for a controlled liberalisation in order to avoid the squandering of public assets for the benefit of speculators interested mainly in real estate assets. It involves the transparency of specific objectives, the removal of bureaucratic obstacles, land, banks, the informal sphere, taxation, legal and monetary stability, essential criteria for any national investor.
MOSUL, Iraq (AP) — Anan Yasoun rebuilt her home with yellow cement slabs amid the rubble of Mosul, a brightly colored manifestation of resilience in a city that for many remains synonymous with the Islamic State group’s reign of terror.
In the three years since Iraqi forces, backed by a U.S.-led coalition, liberated Mosul from the militants, Yasoun painstakingly saved money that her husband earned from carting vegetables in the city. They had just enough to restore the walls of their destroyed home; money for the floors was a gift from her dying father, the roof a loan that is still outstanding.
Yasoun didn’t even mind the bright yellow exterior — paint donated by a relative. “I just wanted a house,” said the 40-year-old mother of two.
The mounds of debris around her bear witness to the violence Iraq’s second-largest city has endured. From Mosul, IS had proclaimed its caliphate in 2014. Three years later, Iraqi forces backed by a U.S.-led coalition liberated the city in a grueling battle that killed thousands and left Mosul in ruins.
Such resilience is apparent elsewhere in the city, at a time when Baghdad’s cash-strapped government fails to fund reconstruction efforts and IS is becoming more active across the disputed territories of northern Iraq.
Life is slowly coming back to Mosul these days: merchants are busy in their shops, local musicians again serenade small, enthralled crowds. At night, the city lights gleam as restaurant patrons spill out onto the streets.
The U.N. has estimated that over 8,000 Mosul homes were destroyed in intense airstrikes to root out IS. The nine-month operation left at least 9,000 dead, according to an AP investigation.
Memories of the group’s brutality still haunt locals, who remember a time when the city squares were used for the public beheading of those who dared violate the militants’ rules.
The Old City on the west bank of the Tigris River, once the jewel of Mosul, remains in ruins even as newer parts of the city have seen a cautious recovery. The revival, the residents say, is mostly their own doing.
“I didn’t see a single dollar from the government,” said Ahmed Sarhan, who runs a family coffee business.
Antique coffee pots, called dallahs, line the entrance to his shop, which has been trading coffee for 120 years. An aging mortar and pestle, used by Sarhan’s forefathers to grind beans, sits in his office as evidence of his family’s storied past.
“After the liberation, it was complete chaos. No one had any money. The economy was zero,” he said. His business raked in a measly 50,000 Iraqi dinars a day, or around $40. Now, he makes closer to about $2,500.
But even as Sarhan and other merchants are starting to see profits — despite the impact of the coronavirus pandemic — ordinary laborers are struggling. Sarhan employs 28 workers, each getting about $8 a day.
“It is nothing … they will never be able to rebuild their homes,” he says.
Since the ouster of IS in 2017, the task of rebuilding Mosul has been painfully slow. Delays have been caused by lack of coherent governance at the provincial level; the governor of Nineveh province, which includes Mosul, has been replaced three times since liberation.
With no central authority to coordinate, a tangled web of entities overseeing reconstruction work — from the local, provincial and federal government to international organizations and aid groups — has added to the chaos.
The government has made progress on larger infrastructure projects and restored basic services to the city, but much remains unfinished.
Funds earmarked for reconstruction by the World Bank were diverted to help the federal government fight the coronavirus as state coffers dwindled with plunging oil prices. Meanwhile, at least 16,000 Mosul residents appealed for government cash assistance to rebuild their homes.
Only 2,000 received financial assistance, said Zuhair al-Araji, the mayor of Mosul district.
“There’s no money,” he said. “They have to rebuild on their own.”
Mosul residents eye government policies with suspicion and suspect local officials are too corrupt to help them.
“Whatever funds are provided, they will steal it,” said Ammar Mouwfaq, who spent all his savings to re-open his soap shop in the city last year.
A photo of his father hangs inside the shop, which he took over in the 1970s. Neat stacks of the region’s famous olive oil soap, imported from the Syrian city of Aleppo, tower above him.
“What you see now, I did alone,” he added.
On one thoroughfare the ruins of cinemas bombed by IS — the militant group’s strict interpretation of Islam banned such forms of entertainment — are a stark contrast to the shops and restaurants abuzz with customers.
The Old City, with its labyrinth of narrow streets dating back to the Middle Ages, now serves as an eerie museum of IS horrors. Misshapen iron rods jut out of what’s left of houses they were designed to fortify. Smashed pieces of alabaster stone and masonry, once extolled by historians for architectural significance, lie among the debris. Signs of a former life — a pair of women’s shoes, a notebook covered in hearts, shells from exploded ammunition — are untouched.
“Demolition is forbidden” reads a graffiti written on a slab of wall surrounded by rubble, a testament to Mosul’s unwavering dark humor.
The Mosul Museum, where IS militants filmed themselves smashing priceless antiquities to dust, partially re-opened in January. But apart from occasional contemporary art exhibits such as that of Iraqi sculptor Omer Qais last month, there is nothing to see.
On the other side of town, Sarhan, the coffee trader, invites anyone who cares to see his collection of antique swords, plates and bowls he painstakingly hunted down. In the 12th century, Mosul was an important hub for trade; a century later, its intricate metalwork rose to prominence.
“This is our history,” said Sarhan, holding up a rusting bronze plate, engraved with 1202, the year it was made.
The world – or at least a large and dominant part of it! – is increasingly being run by so-called “experts”, sometimes dubbed honestly as “technocrats”. Their fields of “expertise” are many, and that list is growing steadily longer. The fact is, universities and research institutions must be seen to be “torch bearers” of progress, values, knowledge, scientific inquiry, freedom, justice … or whatever other words sound good in a speech or on a website. In vicious competition for student fees, research funds, private donations and government grants, every institution must proclaim “excellence” – somehow, anyhow.
As in any other field of human endeavour, opportunities for gaming the system are many. The standard, time-tested techniques of cronyism, mutual back-scratching, feudalism, deception, hyperbole, playing to the gallery … et cetera … run rampant. These techniques are at work incessantly and brazenly, around the world, to further the careers of aggressive and ambitious old-timers, mid-lifers and new entrants.
For so-called “experts”, however, one other very special trick is also available. The ability to define ever newer areas of “expertise” and “challenges” offers an easy option not available in other areas of human endeavour. As more and more people acquire Ph.D.s and fight for success and prominence, they build ever smaller boxes around their work. Each such group dubs its small box “the next big thing”, writes a few silly papers, and makes a big show of “fake it till you make it”. If one such “bold academic initiative” does not work out too well, another appears soon with a different flavour, another catchy label, and yet another round of hype. Thus the spectacle goes on from “progress” to “more progress”.
If a manufacturer claims to have developed a better quality of soap, potential customers have right to test the product, verify the claims and decide whether to spend their hard-earned money on the new soap. Validation by prospective customers is a crucial and essential step when a new product is sought to be introduced to society.
With new and unproven academic claims, however, ordinary citizens of the society have no right to opine. This is a tragic, anomalous and therefore also unstable situation, because the public policy burdens of new theories fall almost wholly on ordinary citizens. Any intelligent citizen can study a subject and formulate a cogent opinion, but a kind of intimidating “caste system” dubs large sections of population as being incapable of questioning theories and policies which impact their lives; and thus honest public debate is avoided.
This powerful new technique of deception is based on building ever narrower boxes of specialization. Instead of thinking out of a box, these “experts” build smaller and smaller boxes around whatever they are capable of thinking after twenty plus years of “formal” education; they are masters only of intellectual fencing and pointless one-upmanship.
Ordinary people do not question these “experts” because they have naive faith in the “hallowed halls of scholarship”, being unaware of the base emotions rampant inside.
One root cause of the problem seems to be that “well-being of fellow citizens” is not even a valid subject in academia! While each “expert” is fierce in defending his or her turf, what should be the central, common denominator – the well-being of society – receives at best a passing mention in support of some fashionable theory.
Examples can easily be cited of “specialist experts” bringing confusion to public debate, and often also immense misery to public life. This happens either because they disagree among themselves, or because they have in mind “private” goals, not public good.
Just a few prominent examples are given here, in what should never be mistaken for an exhaustive list.
The handling of the Covid 19 pandemic is a recent and glaring example. Experts in virology, public health, epidemiology, pharmaceuticals, practicing doctors, computer modellers – in short, just about every Tom, Dick and Harry – wanted to show how brilliant they were. Naturally, politicians joined in too, following the principle of “not letting any crisis go waste”. Who suffered?
Institutions such as IMF are staffed by allegedly “top notch” celebrity economists – ever so articulate, ever so politically savvy. Today they recommend unrestricted money printing for one group of countries, and unrelenting austerity for another. Plenty of “fuzz factor” is hidden in all economic theories, however, to spin either approach as being right.
The sad political reality, however, cannot be found in any textbook. The first group of countries are powerful, highly developed CREDITOR countries, while the second group has impoverished DEBTOR countries. Excess money with the creditors can always be made to earn juicy returns from economies struggling under debt burdens. All this makes very good business sense for the former – the CREDITOR countries – but should economists take sides in such cruel games of global usury?
Within any economy, there is a huge divide between ground reality and the official statistics. Statistics allow politicians and “expert” economists to congratulate themselves and play the endless game of blame-passing. People’s well-being goes by default.
Heartless decisions on bringing “democracy”, “freedom”, “progress” et cetera to other countries are routinely made by “experts” or “technocrats”. In reality, these people are no more than greedy, self-serving hatchet-men for ruthless power-grabbers.
Financial skulduggery in the name of capitalism engages the brightest minds of a society and the most powerful computers. Tactics such as high frequency front-running and algorithmic betting bring no benefit to agriculture, or manufacturing, or education, or health care or public well-being. Indeed, a few months ago, this author had the distinct impression that Donald Trump was testing and possibly teasing stock market investors by alternately making on-again, off-again comments about the possible trade deal with China.
As specialists, lawyers are a breed apart, tireless masters of evasion, innuendo and hair-splitting; truth, well-being or justice be damned. Climbing one level further up the food chain of corruption, many lobby ceaselessly for laws which subvert the public good.
Much is being made of the ongoing revolution in artificial intelligence (AI). A lot of it is hype, and much of it is ineffective and harmless. For example, if an AI bot sends me mostly uninteresting pieces of a news-feed, I will not bother to complain. Serious difficulties with AI will show up when it is applied in critical sectors such as health care or policing.
Wherever we turn, we see examples of a strong centrifugal tendency at work in human affairs, driven essentially by discontentment which compounds itself. True, holistic well-being of society is on nobody’s agenda, while the greedy behave like hyenas, tugging with bloody fangs at the remaining healthy parts of society until little remains.
Comprehending the well-being of others requires compassion – without which no amount of materialistic development, hyped-up “progress” or “research”, politics, fashion, academic claims, brilliance, spin or propaganda can serve a legitimate, durable purpose. This is the simple, central truth that all “experts” evade like the plague. The don’t “do” compassion.
This frenetic, ceaseless evasion in all directions creates a strong divisive, centrifugal tendency. The priceless core of well-being is abandoned as “experts” run ragged in every conceivable direction except towards the core of well-being and contentment.
Fortunately, for the discriminating individual, that core is ever-present, deep within – waiting patiently to be discovered and its treasure unlocked.
Dr Naresh Jotwani is a semi-retired academic living in India and a member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace Development Environment. Apart from part-time engagements in engineering education and consulting, he engages in an in-depth, personal exploration of how Gautam Buddha’s profound discoveries and teachings can be applied to the acute problems of modern life. Tags: Elites, Humanity
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