It’s fairly interesting to note the number of corruption cases that seem to have made headlines in recent months. This past year in fact has arguably been one of the most corruption-laden years in recent Jordanian history. From Basem Awadallah being accused of human trafficking and his subsequent resignation, to Sahel Majali being involved in dubious behavior regarding the Decent Housing Decent Living – an initiative to offer affordable housing to less fortunate in the country. And if these weren’t high profile enough, they were followed by a stream of embezzlement cases. From missing money at the Ministry of Industry and Trade, to missing money at the Ministry of Agriculture, and more recently, the Greater Amman Municipality (GAM).
Naturally, it is difficult, if not downright impossible to prove most of these case. The ones you can are the ones that likely done by lower level employees who can be used as scapegoats, and tend to be involved in cases of outright stealing, which is relatively easier to prove. The high profile cases are not only impossible to prove – no one even bothers with them. In the case of Awadallah and Majali, for instance, corruption tends to manifest itself in the most intricate of manners that is often difficult to catch it unless you have some understanding of financial structures. Nevertheless, the result is usually a resignation or political marginalization, and then you never hear from them for a long time. At least until things have settled down, and they’re brought in again. How did they get caught in the first place? No, it’s not due to investigative journalism (although the media does play a role) – in my opinion it is usually due to one of two things: the country is just too small to keep secrets that big, and often you’ll find that in these high-profile dealings, someone gets rubbed the wrong way, someone is cut out of a deal, someone holds a grudge, and thus, someone leaks the story.
This is of course just my opinion, and while that usually counts for little, it is however somewhat reflective of public perceptions regarding government corruption. And politics is, after all, all about perceptions.
Enter the Rifai government.
From a so-called Code of Conduct, which is slowly becoming a trend, to various anti-corruption “measures” being taken, we are lead to believe that the government is taking corruption seriously. For anyone who believes any of this, a closer examination of the political landscape is desperately needed. How can any government take corruption seriously simply by signing a document it wrote up itself, and making several speeches? Fighting corruption requires setting up automatic mechanisms that are here to stay, usually in the form of independent entities that have both the power and the authority to deal with corruption no matter who is involved. Be it a minister or an employee.
But we don’t have that, and it doesn’t look like we’re heading in that direction any time soon. In a recent statement, Rifai said something I found quite interesting. It is along the lines of the same recycled language regarding corruption that we’ve heard many times before in Jordan:
â€œIt is the stateâ€™s first enemy: it weakens public confidence in government institutions and contradicts equal opportunity and justice, in addition to its disastrous impact on the reputation of the countryâ€™s economy and investment environment,â€
I find these words interesting simply because public officials tend to always politicize and economize corruption. It’s always about public confidence or investor confidence – there’s always something at stake, something to lose. But no one ever stands up and says you know what, corruption is immoral. The reason corruption rubs people the wrong way is because of the morality that surrounds it. It is that morality, or rather immorality, that manifests in the people being wronged. Instead, we say corruption is bad because it makes us, the government, look bad.
But this is all besides the point. The language being used these days is forceful and serious, but it all boils down to this government not wanting to be attached to the past government’s image, and thus doing their utmost to shift public perceptions. Because politics is, after all, all about perceptions.
However, our problems stem far deeper than a newspaper headline of some corruption case involving a single person. Scapegoats are commonly use to detract attention from the greater problems, the problems that imply, if not insist, that corruption does in fact stem from much deeper issues. When high-ranking government officials are business-minded individuals with private sector mentality – far from the much-needed public servant – there is always a risk. It doesn’t matter if they resign from the board of anything and everything they’ve ever been on, a stint in the public sector offers opportunity, especially if everyone knows they won’t be around for very long. It is like letting loose a hungry child in a candy store and then expecting him to restrain himself by sheer will.
But even this is both a generalization (which is not to say it isn’t a reality) and indeed not the biggest problem.
The bigger problems lie beneath that individual – the system of corruption that sustains their actions and make them possible. From money laundering via “investment opportunities” to bribing members of the security apparatus to a judicial system that is far from independent. There is a network that is alive and well, and most importantly, hidden. It is practically impossible for anyone, be they a minister or an employee, to pull off anything without tapping in to this network. Even citizens are some times exposed to glimpses of this network, some even engage with it from time to time, but those who are a part of it depend almost completely on it. It is a network consisting of many names and faces; some known, others not so much. It is obviously an unofficial network, and I merely call it that due to its interconnected nature.
For journalists, which are supposed to be one of the major channels to fight corruption, it is fairly impossible to prove any of this, and what corruption we do hear about is usually stories that are leaked to the press, and those stories are almost always red herrings – distractions designed to divert our gaze away from the bigger problem. Besides, the media is not set up to hold anyone accountable. It merely reports on what it is told, or what it is allowed to report.
So, with no independent mechanisms of accountability in place, corruption will likely continue to not only exist in Jordan, but thrive. While the Iraq war opened the floodgates for such corruption in Jordan back in 2003 and onwards, it would be folly to think that such opportunities won’t come again.
There is little the people can do to combat public sector corruption, and the rare few that might consider it for even a moment will instantly consider their safety first. In all likelihood, most of us will eventually and inevitably be forced to deal and interact with this network, in its smallest form. It will come in the guise of someone asking for a bribe, but that individual will not be alone; he will have the support of the network to which he belongs. These thriving networks of corruption tend to get so big that they eventually self-destruct and collapse, and if left unattended, leave behind fertile ground for other networks to emerge.
This is of course not to say that everyone in the public sector is corrupt. I would argue that the overwhelming majority are not. However, as history has shown, it is usually a minority that are strong enough and interconnected enough and picky enough as to who they allow to become a part of their network – that tend to run the tables.
But again, this sort of corruption can only be solved through a top-down purge and a subsequent establishment of mechanisms of accountability. This is unlikely to happen any time soon.
On a final note, this is quite an inspiring video from TED, where lawyer Shaffi Mather has decided to take on the booming business of corruption in India’s public sector by using social entrepreneurial methods. From what we can gather from his talk, the idea is to establish a business where citizens can accomplish an ordinary task they would otherwise need to bribe someone in government to do, by paying this institution. The idea is that the fee would likely be much cheaper than the bribe, thus not only offering a sense of affordability to the citizen, but also depriving government officials, which would weaken their support system. It is a naturally controversial proposal, and many idealists would likely argue that citizens shouldn’t be paying anyone at all when it comes to getting what their entitled to. However, using corruption-plagued India as the case study, one could also argue that this initiative is meant to address the realities of “what is”, rather than what “should be”.