In a Khaleej Times‘ OPINION AND EDITORIAL, Michael Jennings of the University of London comes up with criticism of the now well-established labels of First World, Third World, suggesting that it is time for coining new binaries. Then First World, Third World? Let’s coin new binaries; but what about the MENA region’s stand, one would ask. The answer is below per the IMF’s Economic Overview.
First, the illiteracy and educational indicators are significantly more unfavorable for women than for men. Second, MENA countries compare poorly to other countries when account is taken of spending on the social sectors, highlighting the impact of distorted labor markets, an inefficient educational delivery system, and neglect of female education. Third, when various human development indicators are combined (e.g., as in the UNDP human development index) the region’s ranking among countries in the world is less favorable than that based on income criteria alone.
All too often, these terms have played into wider prejudices about places that reflect and are fed by the values ascribed to each.
For anyone living in ancient China’s Zhou empire in the first millennium BCE, the world was simple: they were in the “Zhongguo”, or Middle Kingdom, and everything outside was barbaric. Understanding the world at the height of European imperialism also was easy. On maps, vast swaths of territory were coloured in hues denoting each empire. Human nature strives for simplicity, and today we have come up with a multitude of descriptions for the world’s regions. But terms such as North/South and First World/Third World have flattened diversity and complexity through a simplistic binary gaze.
It isn’t just a problem of simplicity, though. All too often, these terms have played into wider prejudices about places that reflect and are fed by the values ascribed to each.
We can see this on social media, where the rise of intemperate comments and put downs against others can often be based on the implied superiority of where one lives or comes from. Social media weaponises and reinforces prejudices and racism that come from a facile understanding of the world. More than ever before, in an age of parity between the informed and the less-so, we must be careful of the words we use to describe each other.
Trying to analyse and explain the world has always required some generalisation. We lump together countries or regions that share some similarities and gloss over details and important differences. But describing the world is not just about looking for objective points of commonality or difference. It involves recognising different world views, assumptions and values. The problems come when one side of that binary division of the world gets to decide what is the norm, reflecting the realities of global power and ongoing colonial legacies.
Since the end of empires, two dominant ways of dividing up the world have emerged. The first reflected the Cold War, seeing the world through the prism of an existential conflict between the democratic-capitalist West and the communist East, comprised of the Soviet Union and China. The “rest” — which related closely to maps of former colonial territories — were the regions in Africa, Asia and Latin America that together comprised the arena for this battle of ideas and influence.
The second way took a more economic perspective, categorising regions through their GDP or level of “development,” and allocated various terms to describe those differences. Some — such as the terms “low-,” “middle-” (or “emerging-”) or “high-income countries” — are unapologetically economic in their focus, based on levels of GDP that still conceal great diversity within populations. These remain widely in use but at least have the virtue of being a label one can escape: Tanzania and Benin recently moved into middle-income status, while Mauritius has now joined the group of high-income countries. But other terms have attained wider reach within popular and analytical vernacular. The terms “North” and “South” were always less about geographical location than about distinguishing between the rich and globally powerful regions and the poorer, less powerful ones. “Developed” and “un-/under-developed” have similarly focused on poverty.
The term I grew up with, the “Third World”, was originally coined in the 1950s by the French demographer, Alfred Sauvy, to describe those nations that were part of neither the Western nor Eastern blocs. By the 1960s it had become firmly linked to poverty, under-development and poor governance. In a world that still contained third-class train carriages, in which “third” was inevitably less good than “first”, the term was applied to those parts of the world where the majority of citizens were people of colour — and which, coincidentally, had been under imperial rule. The racism and patronising undertones of the term were readily noted and understood by those on the receiving end.
What underpins all these ways of compartmentalising the world is the assumption that the European and North American models of development, with the same governance and other values, are the end-goal for all global regions. The closer you resemble these two, the more you can claim entry to the North, the First World and to “developed” status. These terms assume that emulating Europe and North America makes a country better, so it’s what every other nation should aspire to.
Yet rich Middle East states like the UAE or Asian nations like Singapore have no desire to replicate Western norms. In the 1990s, Malaysia’s then prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad, sought to articulate the “Asian Values” that marked a departure from a Western paradigm that twins development with liberalism.
Clearly, the binaries and indexes we are left with are not objective or scientifically indisputable. They are based on what counts most to a minority (albeit powerful) portion of the world. Is a nation’s GDP the sine qua non of being “developed”? What about Costa Rica and Cuba? Both are significantly poorer than the (very much “developed”) US, yet both enjoy better health and quality of life across a number of different indexes than their First World neighbour. As the past year has shown, rich countries contain enormous pockets of inequality and poverty — residents of a poor housing estate in Manchester might share more with those from a working-class area of Hong Kong than they care to admit.
Over the past couple of decades, the terms “Global North” and “Global South” have emerged in reference to global regions. While there is still some overlap with old terms, they do attempt to acknowledge how important discrepancies in power are in shaping relations and opportunities. They are at least an attempt to do away with disparaging terms for particular regions.
I use those terms myself, but with significant reservations. Do they really avoid the division of the world according to colonial legacies?
While that might make sense from the perspective of the Global North, would someone in India, for example, see themselves as more aligned with, say, Kenya, than with Thailand or even South Korea? It all depends, of course, on what you’re comparing with and on what the context is. It solves some problems, but not all — and it certainly does not distance you from a perspective and values that are far from universal. Perhaps it’s time for voices from outside Europe and North America to come up with new terms and for politicians, academics and journalists within Europe and North America to listen. There is much talk these days of decolonising education, development aid and global health, among other things. So how about decolonising our perspective on the world?
Michael Jennings is reader in international development at the School of Oriental and African Studies, or SOAS University of London, where he works on issues related to global health and the politics and history of global development.
Robert P. Beschel Jr. and Tarik M. Yousef inform that In a region where the governance news is seldom good, on May 6, something very unusual happened in Qatar. Was it a quiet governance revolution in Qatar? wondered these authors in a Brookings article. We would agree that this is happening in the so-called autocratic monarchy of the Gulf and not the other republics of the MENA region. Here is the story.
A quiet governance revolution in Qatar?
17 June 2021
The Minister of Finance, Ali Sharif al-Emadi, was taken in for questioning over a variety of alleged crimes, including misuse of public funds and abuse of power. Al-Emadi had held his position since 2013 and was widely perceived to be one of the most effective finance ministers in the Gulf. Within a day, he was stripped of all governmental duties, as well as his roles in other publicly owned companies and financial institutions. Moreover, the anti-corruption probe is reportedly widening, with scores of businessmen and government officials being questioned by law enforcement authorities and financial regulators.
The publicity surrounding al-Emadi’s ouster is unusual. Throughout the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, most high-level cases of corruption or official malfeasance are handled quietly and without ceremony. The officials involved typically resign or leave their posts suddenly, with limited media coverage. Rumors swirl but are rarely confirmed, and investigations almost never result in prosecution, fines, or imprisonment. Kuwait, for example, witnessed a number of high-profile corruption allegations that led the prime minister to leave office in 2011 and the cabinet to resign en masse in 2019, yet no prosecutions followed. In the United Arab Emirates, a corruption probe resulted in the late Mohammed Khalfan bin Kharbash, the Minister of State for Finance, being removed from office in 2008 and charged with embezzlement in 2009. However, he pleaded not guilty, and the case never went to trial.
There is one major, and controversial, exception to this rule: the November 2017 arrest and imprisonment of 400 prominent Saudis in the Ritz Carlton hotel in Riyadh. Supporters of this decision, including many Saudi citizens, maintain that the imprisonment of these individuals was well deserved and long overdue. Critics allege that it had more to do with the consolidation of power by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman than with the actual guilt or innocence of those charged; they also claim that the funds recouped came from an effort that resembled a “shakedown” more than a bona fide attempt to recover stolen assets or enforce the rule of law.
In the immediate aftermath of the Ritz Carlton arrests, some observers maintained that the move would be disruptive and create uncertainty, scaring investors away. Others argued that it would signal a seriousness of intent and purpose that would be beneficial to the country in the long-term. The short-term effects of the arrests were indeed disruptive: foreign direct investment in Saudi Arabia fell precipitously in 2017 before rebounding in 2018 and 2019, albeit to lower levels than before. The long-term effects of the decision remain to be seen, although there is a wealth of evidence that countries with lower levels of corruption are better at attracting investment and have higher levels of economic growth over time. It would not be surprising if other countries conducting public crackdowns on corruption followed a similar trajectory to that of Saudi Arabia—an initial drop in foreign investment due to added uncertainty, followed by increased investment downstream if the effort is viewed as serious and credible.
According to Transparency International’s 2020 Corruption Perceptions Index, the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region “is still perceived as highly corrupt, with little progress made towards controlling corruption.” The reality is more nuanced, with wide variation in performance across the region. For instance, the U.A.E. and Qatar are ranked 21st and 30th, respectively, by the Corruption Perceptions Index—a position placing them ahead of countries including Spain, South Korea, and Portugal. The bulk of MENA countries fall in the mid-range. There is also a significant cluster of countries in the lowest ranks, including Iraq, Libya, Syria, and Yemen, which are perceived to be among the most corrupt countries in the world.
Two elements of the region’s anticorruption efforts are particularly worrying, even with regard to regional leaders such as the U.A.E. and Qatar. The first, as the International Monetary Fund and others have noted, is the delayed progress on “next generation” governance reforms, which stretch beyond eliminating petty corruption and improving the quality of service delivery. This agenda involves thinking more carefully about the boundary between the public and private sectors; improving transparency and public accountability; making regulatory processes more streamlined and predictable; and strengthening the independence of agencies charged with investigating and prosecuting corruption. It also involves moving forward legislation on income and asset disclosure, as well as cracking down on money laundering.
The second troubling feature of MENA anti-corruption efforts is the relatively static nature of the region’s performance over time. According to the World Bank’s Worldwide Governance Indicators, the region’s composite scores for controlling corruption have actually fallen consistently from their peak in 2002. The persistence of these chronic “governance deficits” has been viewed by many as the root cause for the region’s repeated political crises over the past decade, starting with the Arab Spring revolutions in 2011 and continuing through to the protest movements of 2018-19 in Algeria, Iraq, Lebanon, and Sudan. In all of these countries, concerns about corruption were among the most prominent public grievances.
Could it be that Qatar’s recent move heralds a transition toward new and more serious anti-corruption efforts in the Gulf and wider region? And could the country’s public efforts inspire other MENA governments to do better? In response to queries about the arrest warrant for al-Emadi, the Qatari Minister of Foreign Affairs underscored the importance of institutions and noted emphatically that “no one is above the law.” A day prior to the finance minister’s arrest, Qatar’s emir abolished immunity from prosecution for public officials, leveling the legal playing field for all. Such steps, if translated directly into a robust governance reform agenda and taken forward with skill and tenacity, could very well open a new chapter in strengthening the rule of law and building effective and equitable state institutions in both Qatar and the wider MENA region.
Michael Young in an interview, with David Linfield who argues that international donors are benefiting existing power structures in the Middle East. It is all about Colluding With the Corrupters.
Corruption spread deep and for some time in the MENA region with social, political, and economic implications, but with differing penetrations rates. All because the area can divide into two types of governance. The autocratic monarchies live with side by side with the so-called republics. Few of these latter countries know a higher degree of corruption than the first-mentioned countries. In any case, all have made the fight against corruption a priority by passing laws and adopting strategies to combat crime. But in vain. Colluding with the Corrupters could quickly summarise a situation where such deviant behavioural attitudes originators can be traced back out of the region.
January 29, 2021
David Linfield is a visiting scholar in Carnegie’s Middle East Program. He is on sabbatical from the U.S. Department of State, where he is a career foreign service officer. Linfield recently wrote a commentary for Carnegie, titled “International Donors Are Complicit in Middle Eastern Elites’ Game.” In mid-January, Diwan interviewed him to discuss his article, and more generally to examine the anti-elite feeling that has permeated protests throughout the Middle East in the past year, notably in Iraq, Jordan, and Lebanon. The views expressed by Linfield are his own and not necessarily those of the U.S. government.
Michael Young (MY): You’ve just written a commentary for Carnegie, titled “International Donors Are Complicit in Middle Eastern Elites’ Game.” What is your argument in the piece?
David Linfield (DL): My argument is that the United States and other international donors have put significant clout and resources behind promoting economic liberalization in the Middle East, while they have been hesitant to put similar emphasis on political reforms. By political reforms I mean boosting transparency, combating corruption, and empowering elected officials. International actors have partly justified this approach by suggesting that economic reforms are a better way of promoting stability and less risky than political changes. But I contend that recent events in the region suggest that these policies are making violent, sudden change in the region more likely, not less so.
When adopted in the context of authoritarian political systems, economic reforms such as privatization have tended to benefit existing power structures, exacerbating economic inequality and citizen-state tensions. The World Inequality Database now ranks the Middle East as the most unequal region in the world. While economic inequality has decreased worldwide since the 1990s, it has remained constant in the Middle East.
By supporting policies that have inadvertently led to such entrenched inequality, while neglecting political reforms, international donors have contributed to citizens’ frustrations with their relative economic status while leaving them without peaceful institutional means of expressing their grievances. This is all a recipe for instability, which is the opposite of what donors want.
MY: You write that “[e]merging solidarity among previously competing groups, grounded in [economic inequality]” is a feature of the growing resentment of elites in the Middle East. Are you suggesting, to borrow from Marxist jargon, that we are seeing the emergence of a sort of class consciousness in certain countries that may have revolutionary potential?
DL: Most of the protests in the Middle East since 2018 have focused on economic inequality and corruption. Whereas previous demonstrations in the region tended to consist of a homogeneous ethnic group—whether from a particular religious sect, region, or group of tribes—these recent protests have been more diverse.
Common frustrations with inequality appear to have led people from lower-income communities to demonstrate in common cause—albeit sporadically and tentatively—against what they see as a corrupt and multisectarian elite that has failed them. We have seen this happen most explicitly in Iraq, Jordan, and Lebanon.
Some of the slogans used in recent protests in these countries do indicate the emergence of class consciousness. When the Jordanian Teachers Union threatened to strike in summer 2020, they framed their plight as a class struggle against those who had “looted the country.” The 2019 Lebanese protests included slogans like “down with the rule of the thieves.” Iraqi protestors in 2019 and 2020 told media outlets that their struggle was about taking the country back from “thieves.”
MY: In light of your assessment, how have the traditional fault lines among Middle Eastern populations that regimes have manipulated to retain power—things such as sectarian, tribal, or regional divisions—fared in what you describe as a changing environment?
DL: The traditional fault lines in Middle Eastern societies are still very much present. Emerging class-based tensions have not fully supplanted preexisting divisions based on ethnicity, religion, and tribalism, but rather now coexist alongside them more than before. That said, the trendlines I described earlier suggest that class-based divisions will continue to grow in relative importance and have the potential to reshape existing political alliances and divisions.
In addition to the demonstrations I mentioned earlier, another indicator of the power of class solidarity is a 2019 experiment by researchers from the University of Pittsburgh and the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies. The study, which assigned hundreds of Lebanese people into different conversation groups having varying compositions based on sect and class, found that when Lebanese people gathered with other members of the same class, they exhibited markedly less support for sectarian politics.
It’s too early to craft a comprehensive assessment of how emerging class-based tensions will interact with longer-standing societal divisions in the Middle East. One reason that we’ll have to observe for a longer period is that Covid-19 shifted the focus dramatically from political and economic challenges to the health crisis. But given that the pandemic exacerbated economic inequality, with lower-income communities bearing the brunt of related economic disruptions, we probably won’t have to wait long before class discussions reemerge.
MY: If the problem is that economic liberalization has reinforced elites, what are you recommending as an alternative approach by Western donors? And what makes you think that such an approach would have any chance of working?
DL: The alternative approach I’m recommending is for international donors to incorporate measures to promote transparency and combat corruption into existing economic liberalization efforts. These political reforms are also good for business and economic growth—as noted by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank reports I cite in my article. The IMF’s recent insistence that Lebanon address corruption before receiving additional loans is a positive step to putting teeth behind their analysis.
Other helpful steps would include pushing to empower the many weak legislatures across the region beyond their current rubber-stamp roles, which would provide an alternative to protests for frustrated publics. If international donors put the same clout behind good governance that they have behind economic liberalization, they’ll make peaceful and durable progress more likely in the Middle East.
MY: Are you not reading too much into anti-elite solidarity? Ultimately, states in the region have shown that they will resort to violence in order to survive and societies have often gone back to being silent. Why will this change?
DL: Ruling elites in the region have demonstrated that they are willing to go to extreme measures to maintain their benefits. I am not suggesting that elites will somehow decide that they should altruistically begin to share resources with the rest of society. Rather, as your question implies, I am arguing that the elite behavior of concentrating power and resources is an unsustainable strategy that will ultimately foment violence and harm everyone’s interests, including those of the elite.
Autocratic regimes tend to resort to violence when they feel they have run out of other options, but rely more often on nonviolent coercion and intimidation to maintain daily control. By the time regimes turn to violence, it tends to be a prelude to their loss of control—or a stage where they are nearing that.
The strategy of international donors focusing their influence and resources on economic liberalization instead of good governance has not succeeded in bolstering stability and strengthening citizen-state relations. Instead, the policy has exacerbated class-based tensions and increased the prospects of unrest.
These trends are not linear: demonstrations in the region against economic inequality and corruption have ebbed and flowed. Ruling elites remain intent on doing everything they can to outmaneuver these latest challenges to their vested interests. Longer-standing societal tensions based on sect, region, and tribe also continue to simmer and remain exploitable by elites. But the overall direction of the region is still toward economic liberalization in the midst of authoritarian entrenchment. As long as that remains the case anti-elite solidarity is likely to build. International donors are inadvertently contributing to these increasing citizen-state tensions. Instead, they could be fostering more durable change that would make the region more stable and prosperous for everyone.
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
Until recently, labour markets in the MENA’s oil-exporting countries were characterized by a large public sector, a small, weak private sector, and depending on the country, a sizable agricultural industry, and a sizable informal sector. But in the case of Iraq like elsewhere in the region, the volatility of oil prices and the pandemic impacted the economy, resulting in a critical situation where bloated public salaries at the heart of Iraq’s economic woes result in increasingly unstoppable youth unemployment. The currently general upheaval in the region, rural to urban and cross-border migration has not helped, leading to an even greater informal market.
Bloated public salaries at heart of Iraq’s economic woes by Samya Kullab is a vivid picture or a series of pictures on life in Iraq as perceived by a locally based journalist.
People shop for clothing at the used-clothes market in Baghdad, Iraq, Tuesday, Oct. 20, 2020. Iraq is in the throes of an unprecedented liquidity crisis, as the cash-strapped state wrestles to pay public sector salaries and import essential goods while oil prices remain dangerously low. (AP Photo/Khalid Mohammed)
BAGHDAD (AP) — Long-time Iraqi civil servant Qusay Abdul-Amma panicked when his monthly salary was delayed. Days of waiting turned to weeks. He defaulted on rent and other bills.
A graphic designer for the Health Ministry, he uses about half his salary to pay his rent of nearly 450,000 Iraqi dinars a month, roughly $400. If he fails to pay twice in a row his landlord will evict him and his family, he fears.
“These delays affect my ability to survive,” Abdul-Amma said.
Iraq’s government is struggling to pay the salaries of the ever-swelling ranks of public sector employees amid an unprecedented liquidity crisis caused by low oil prices. September’s salaries were delayed for weeks, and October’s still haven’t been paid as the government tries to borrow once again from Iraq’s currency reserves. The crisis has fueled fears of instability ahead of mass demonstrations this week.
The government has outlined a vision for a drastic overhaul of Iraq’s economy in a “white paper” presented last week to lawmakers and political factions. But with early elections on the horizon, the prime minister’s advisers fear there is little political will to execute it fully.
“We are asking the same people we are protesting against and criticizing to reform the system,” said Sajad Jiyad, an Iraq researcher.
The white paper’s calls for cutting public sector payrolls and reforming state finances would undermine the patronage systems that the political elite have used to entrench their power.
A major part of that patronage is handing out state jobs in return for support. The result has been a threefold increase in public workers since 2004. The government pays 400% more in salaries than it did 15 years ago. Around three-quarters of the state’s expenditures in 2020 go to paying for the public sector — a massive drain on dwindling finances.
“Now the situation is very dangerous,” said Mohammed al-Daraji, a lawmaker on parliament’s Finance Committee.
One government official said political factions are in denial that change is needed, believing oil prices will rise and “we will be fine.”
“We won’t be fine. The system is unsustainable and sooner or later it will implode,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss internal politics.
Iraq’s activists have called for a march on Oct. 25, expected to draw large crowds, a year since massive anti-government protests first brought tens of thousands to the streets demanded reforms and an end to the corrupt political class.
“As far as meeting our demands, there have been no changes,” said Kamal Jabar, member of the Tishreen Democratic Movement, founded during the protests last year. “To us, the white paper is a joke.”
Abu Ali, a merchant in Baghdad’s commercial district of Shorjah, fears what the following months have in store. The state is the primary source of employment for Iraqis, and civil servants are the lifeblood of his business.
“The delays in salary payments have affected the market directly,” he said. “If these delays continue our business and the economy will collapse.”
Abdul-Amma’s September pay was 45 days late, and he still hasn’t received the October pay that was supposed to come on the first of the month. He worries about the coming months as well.
“I have a history of chronic heart disease, and one of my daughters is also sick,” said the father of four. He pays $100 in medical fees per month.
But to the architects of the reform paper, he is part of the problem: Public sector bloat is first in line for reform.
“We hope the civil service and bureaucracy will recognize a need for change,” Finance Minister Ali Allawi told The Associated Press in a recent interview.
Iraq relies on oil exports to fund 90% of state revenues. Those revenues have plunged to an average $3.5 billion a month since oil prices crashed earlier this year.
That’s half the $7 billion a month needed to pay urgent expenses. Of that, $5 billion is for public sector salaries and pensions, according to Finance Ministry figures. Iraq also imports nearly all of its food and medicine; with foreign currency reserves at $53 billion, the World Bank estimates the country can sustain these imports for another nine months. Foreign debts account for another $316 million.
Poor productivity of public workers is the heart of the issue, Allawi said.
“We’ve ended up with a low productivity, high-cost public sector that doesn’t really earn its keep,” he said. “In one way or another this issue has to be tackled by either reducing numbers, which is politically difficult, reducing salaries … or increasing productivity.”
The white paper calls for public sector payments to be reduced from 25% of GDP to 12% but doesn’t detail how. Officials said one step may be to restore taxes on civil servants’ benefits that previous administrations had lifted.
To meet month-to-month commitments now, the government has had to borrow internally from its foreign currency reserves. A request of a second loan of $35 billion was sent to parliament, drawing criticism from lawmakers.
Haitham al-Jibouri, head of parliament’s Finance Committee, said in televised remarks that if borrowing was the government’s only plan he would fetch a shopkeeper from Bab al-Sharqi, a commercial area in the capital, to do the finance minister’s job.
Parliament’s endorsement of the loan and the reform paper is crucial for the government to avoid a full-scale economic crisis.
But this will prove difficult with elections slated for next June, since factions want to hand out jobs to maintain their constituencies.
“Whoever decides to push ahead and support reforms first will lose out, they will also need to convince other political players who will also lose out,” said Jiyad. “That is a tough sell.”
Al-Kadhimi’s advisers privately acknowledge the challenges of having the system that produced such mismanagement and corruption be its own savior.
One official recalled a remark made by the finance minister at a meeting of a high-level committee tasked with managing the crisis.
He looked at the room of officials charged with halting the country’s fast spiral toward insolvency and said, “I can’t believe this was done for 10 years and none of you did anything to stop it.” There was silence.
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