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Democracy key to public sector reform in Arab world - experts

Democratic changes in the Arab world are essential to reform bloated public sectors that are corrupt and badly run, participants in regional conference said.

The conference held this week in the Jordanian capital, Amman, was organised by several NGOs and Jordan's Public Sector Development Ministry. It focused on the theme of "Excellence in public service in the Middle East."

"The abuse of power without justice and use of private interests is the worst type of corruption that causes social injustice and leads to many problems," Walid Turk, chairman of Excellence Inc, a Jordanian NGO and one of the sponsors of the meeting, said.

As part of a government effort to raise efficiency in a country whose public sector employees are almost 40 percent of the total workforce, Excellence Inc has pioneered management projects with key ministries to raise productivity and transparency.

Several Arab countries have embarked on projects to reform various areas of public administration but critics and management consultants say progress is hampered by poor public accountability and governance.

Jordan's blueprint for reforms known as the "national agenda", which is expected to be unveiled later this month, will propose setting up a ministry to oversee government performance, Marwan Muasher the deputy prime minister told the participants.

Jordan's King Abdullah has criticised the prevalence of nepotism, patronage and tribal connections - rather than merit - in state appointments, in what critics say is a bloated public sector with low productivity.

However, downsizing the public sector carries risks in Jordan and other Middle Eastern states that have restive populations with high unemployment and where many depend on the state as their employer, politicians and independent analysts said.

CHANGE NEEDED

Taleb Rifai, regional director of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) acknowledged that public sector reforms in the Arab world, where the size of labour force is 75-80 million, required real changes in political empowerment and democratic reforms to be effective.

"Without political reforms there cannot be real public sector and administrative reforms. The basis for Arab political reform is democracy, transparency and participation to narrow the gap between people and their governments," Rifai told IRIN.

"Real administrative reforms will depend on greater participation for people, NGO and civic groups. The government should be ready to acknowledge such a role for civil society," he added.

Rifai echoed the concerns of many public administrators in the region who believe without good governance and more participatory politics, real reforms would remain stalled.

"We cannot go towards public sector reform without achieving higher standards for Arab political systems. The key to public sector reform is to admit first that the public sector is at the service of people," he added.

"We in ILO say there can be no reforms in the public sector without participation of all the parties that are affected by reforms," he said.

Participants said lack of democracy and accountability was behind the widespread patronage and decisions based on political considerations rather than good governance.

"This is due to the lack of democracy and accountability," Rifai said adding that many Arab public administrations were highly centralised and inept.

Ahmad Nuseirat, an advisor to the Dubai government excellence programme, told IRIN that public bodies in the region had lagged behind others.

"Unfortunately the state of public administrations in the Arab world is dire. All the ills of poor administration exist. If Arab public administration is reformed it will go a long way to reform the political and economic scene in the area," he added.

"The main problem is weak productivity and unfortunately we don't have means of measuring this," Ahmed said. "The absence of a conducive work environment [means] those who produce and those who don't, get the same salaries and perks. This affects productivity negatively," he added.

POLITICAL INFLUENCE

Nuseirat said while administrative rules were outdated in public administrations even when some countries had modern systems, they were not implemented.

"Political influences on Arab public administrations should be kept to a minimum. We are not talking about a utopia but at least the minimum of corruption, 'wasta' (connections), favouritism and appointment of employees without enough qualifications based on loyalty," he said.

Administration should focus on competence and choosing the right candidates – something that all countries in the region have a long way to go to do, Nuseirat said.

Corruption was a major deterrent against the reform of Arab administrations said Mohammad Ashmawi, a management consult who is president of MENA, Cairo and CEO of Chemonics Egypt.

However, in a country like Egypt some progress has been made in recent years to put senior bureaucrats and officials on trial for bribery and mismanagement of public funds.

"As a result of fighting corruption in the top tier of government bureaucracy, we now hear about former ministers being sentenced to prison terms. This is very positive and acts as a deterrent," Ashmawi, who also heads the USAID-funded Institute for Public and Private Partnerships in Cairo.

Free market reforms over the last 10 years helped downsize a once bloated public sector in Egypt as more workers find jobs in private enterprises.


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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