A recurring narrative in media coverage of the ongoing political turmoil in the Middle East is that corruption has been a major driver of the protests. In the wake of the revolution in Tunisia, one major Western media outlet trotted out the most classic of corruption metaphors, the fish that rots first from the head, suggesting that deposed Tunisian President Zine Ben Ali was the political equivalent of that aquatic decay.
A parallel – but misleading – narrative is that the region has finally turned the corner on curbing corruption and abuses of power by throwing out the bad guys at the top. A closer examination reveals that the region’s deeply dysfunctional institutions and legal frameworks will likely impede any meaningful anti-corruption reforms regardless of the personalities at the top. In short, finally getting the rules of the game right in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) may be more important than who holds office next.
Just how severe is the problem?
Data assessing governance and anti-corruption mechanisms in the region generated by my organization, Global Integrity, paint a depressing picture. Of the more than 200 national assessments generated by Global Integrity since 2006 in more than 100 countries around the world, only two countries assessed in MENA – Israel and the United Arab Emirates – have ever posted an overall country score above Global Integrity’s low threshold for avoiding a Very Weak performance label on anti-corruption safeguards. Beneath that threshold, MENA countries comprise a disproportionately large percentage of the cohort; of the 65 country assessments that are Very Weak; a striking 35% are countries from the region. The disparity between MENA and the rest of the world on governance and transparency issues is cause for deep concern.
Our newest study confirm these data, which means that citizens in Egypt, Tunisia, Syria, Algeria, the West Bank, Yemen and across much of the region lack the basic information and mechanisms needed to hold their leaders accountable, including accurate details of government finances, the sources of personal wealth of senior bureaucrats and politicians, and reliable electoral mechanisms. Little wonder that the streets have become the default avenue for attempts to hold leaders accountable.
International actors appear to be waking up to this reality. World Bank President Robert Zoellick said in a landmark speech on April 6 2011, “Our message to our (MENA) clients, whatever their political system, is that you cannot have successful development without good governance and without the participation of your citizens. We will encourage governments to publish information, enact Freedom of Information Acts, open up their budget and procurement processes, build independent audit functions, and sponsor reforms of justice systems.” Days later, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told the US-Islamic World Forum that, “According to the 2009 Global Integrity Report, Arab countries, almost without exception, have some of the weakest anti-corruption systems in the world. Citizens have spent decades under martial law or emergency rule. Political parties and civil society groups are subject to repression and restriction. Judicial systems are far from either free or independent. And elections, when they are held, are often rigged.”
In the face of these huge challenges, what can practically be done to move the needle on lasting transparency and anti-corruption reforms in the region?
First, “do no harm”. The usual approach in most post-revolution countries is to reach for the most visible anti-corruption reforms, such as setting up a high-profile anti-corruption commission. Unfortunately, such commissions are rarely effective, particularly in Africa, and often undermine the broader reform agenda when they become politically captured. A better approach would be to focus on the boring but important bits, such as reforming a country’s legal code to require regular asset disclosures from senior officials or opening the budget process up to public debate.
Second, a real debate around anti-corruption and transparency priorities is essential. While chasing after a deposed dictator’s hidden assets in Switzerland grabs headlines, it’s debatable whether the time and money spent on that is worth ignoring more pressing challenges at home, such as reforming the country’s tax and banking system to make tax evasion and capital flight more difficult.
Lastly, second-best reforms are often better than adopting hollow international “best practices” that stand little chance of being implemented. Adopting a fancy new electronic government procurement system in a country with poor internet connectivity and irregular electricity may be less helpful than simply requiring multiple written approvals before items over a certain threshold can be purchased.
Regardless of how many more governments in the Middle East and North Africa are toppled in the coming months, it’s clear that a watershed moment has been reached in finally coming to grips with the governance deficit in the region. The challenge is no longer one of raising awareness, but of getting the next steps right.
— Nathaniel Heller
— Image: ProtestPhotos1