The Heritage Foundation’s economic freedom report for 2010 has come out and Jordan has actually improved.
Jordan’s economic freedom score is 68.9, making its economy the 38th freest in the 2011 Index. Its score is 2.8 points better than last year, with significant gains in fiscal, monetary, and investment freedom and improved control of government spending. Jordan is ranked 4th out of 17 countries in the Middle East/North Africa region and registered the sixth highest score improvement in the 2011 Index. Progress toward upgrading Jordan’s economic infrastructure has aided economic growth despite the challenging global economic environment. Levels of trade, fiscal, and investment freedom are relatively competitive. The financial sector has taken steps to meet international standards.
Public finance management and privatization have been key parts of the reform agenda. Social security and pension reforms are being followed by efforts that include public wage bill containment and capital spending reduction. Future planned adjustments include better-targeted capital spending, water and energy market liberalization, and private-sector development. Overall economic freedom is limited by corruption and the judicial system’s vulnerability to political influence. [source]
The graph below shows how Jordan compares to Bahrain and Qatar, both of whom rank high on the index scale, with the former ranking an impressive 10th globally. According to Transparency International’s 2010 report, Qatar is the least corrupt country in the Arab world, ranking 19th worldwide (UK ranks 20th, and the US ranks 22nd). It is followed by the UAE (28th) and Bahrain (48th) with Jordan and Saudi Arabia both ranking 50th on the list.
-1.0 Points: Corruption is perceived as present. Jordan ranks 49th out of 180 countries in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index for 2009. Influence peddling and a lack of transparency have been alleged in government procurement and dispute settlement. The use of family, business, and other personal connections to advance personal business interests is seen by many Jordanians as a normal part of doing business. [source]
That’s a scary quote right there: “as a normal part of doing business”. Unfortunately, anyone who has lived or worked in Jordan, specifically those who have started up businesses here, are likely to find this statement true. Bribes are often considered a standard operating procedure, helping largely to facilitate what is ordinary difficult to do. This, in my opinion, is one of biggest reasons as to why corruption persists in the business sector; organizations basically make payments in exchange to facilitate something that is legal but burdensome and troublesome to fulfill ordinarily. If bureaucratic barriers were lowered, there might be a better chance that corruption in this arena could see a drop.
Corruption remains the biggest impediment in Jordan, but not only when it comes to the economy, but social development as well. With the gap between rich and poor widening, there’s a bigger need now more than ever for corruption to be fought extensively in the name of reform. I am not talking about window-dressing scapegoats and the infrequent case that floats to the surface but rather a consistent pursuit of corruption in a country with plenty of it. To their credit, the Rifai government has probably done most in this pursuit, with two major cases emerging this year: one of which resulted in the jailing of fairly significant figures over the Jordan Petroleum Refinery Company scandal, and another, Mawared, which is currently under investigation. Both are significant for the mere fact that they involve, in their own respective manner, important figures in the local business and political arena, and both are cases that, several years ago, no one would have thought the government would dare pursue. Unfortunately, with the former case, a complete media blackout was imposed by the prosecuting State Security Court, and so information as to what exactly took place is unknown. Suffice to say, those prosecuted and sentenced are serving jail time, luxuriously.
While the Mawared case is still under investigation by the Anti-Corruption Committee, early signs seem to indicate what most people already thought to be true – that there was indeed massive corruption by officials when it came to land sales, specifically those that stirred a great deal of controversy in early 2008, such as the sale of the port of Aqaba and the proposed sale of the Medical City in Amman. It seems thousands of emails were found to have been deleted by the government’s investment arm, in a likely attempt to conceal evidence. How this case will turn out remains unknown, but one can only hope the media will play its role in keeping a spotlight on it – or that they’ll be allowed to by the judiciary.
Although these two cases are far from enough to indicate any real progress on the prosecution front, they do seem to highlight the fact that business and politics are a typical mix in Jordan’s world of corruption. Last year’s Global Integrity Report seemed to indicate as much, with the Government Accountability and Elections categories receiving the lowest scores, specifically when it came to executive and legislative accountability. Things may have improved slightly in or two of these fields, but not nearly enough to set a proper precedent.
The media remains one of the pillars of transparency-inducing entities in this, or any other country for that matter, and it seems that while the number of corruption cases have increased in the past year, with the biggest cases being related to money being stolen from ministries such as the Agriculture and the Industry and Trade ministry – such events do not seem to be reflected in the local media. This is what lead me to wonder a while back whether corruption has really been on the rise in Jordan or whether we are just perceiving it to be.
So what are some of the steps that need to be taken?
1) Public officials should disclose assets, and information should be made public.
2) Media blackouts on corruption cases should not be in place unless the case involves national security or puts lives in immediate risk.
3) Establishing new channels to facilitate access to information by media.
4) Empowering monitoring bodies through independence and not merely legislatively.
5) Establishing an effective whistle-blower system that is empowered legislatively, and ensures anonymity.
These are perhaps some of the initial steps that need to be taken, which do not seem to be on the government’s radar – at least publicly speaking. However, one important measure is self-awareness and self-interest. The government needs to recognize the importance of transparency in helping to create a healthier business environment for better forms of long-term investments in a country that truly needs it, as well as the social dynamic of lowering unemployment through increased job opportunities, to say nothing of changing dominant perceptions about government and corruption in a country where the gap between rich and poor is growing, and the latter is becoming increasingly restless about it. The prevailance of corruption is why confidence is so low amongst the people when it comes to their government as a whole.
Signing a pledge to be ethical may be a step in the right direction by the Rifai government, but in this field, Jordan needs to be taking leaps. And there is absolutely no impediment or reason not to – if the goal is to truly reform the status quo, that is.