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Egypt, Jordan reproductive health changes — the new youth revolution

Jordan and Egypt made positive strides in reproductive health through the past several years but still have many challenges and opportunities to address, according to World Bank reports publicized yesterday.

Some of the key findings showed stark improvement in some areas: Egypt halved its infant mortality rate and malnutrition in children under five years old in the past two decades; 89 percent of Jordanian 15-year-old girls are literate; fewer than 2 percent of Jordanians live on less than $1.25 per day; overall fertility is declining, which is a positive for the overpopulated and youth-heavy nations; and use of modern contraceptives in both nations is increasing.

However, those pluses must be met with the sobering realities in each country. Contraceptive use among married women is just 60 percent in Egypt and 59 percent in Jordan. In Egypt, just 58 percent of women aged 15 and older are literate. Just 25 percent of Egyptian adult females work, mostly in agriculture. Fertility remains high among the poorest in each nation, creating large social problems. The poor are more at risk of early childbearing in each nation. HIV awareness is low in Egypt.

With 33 percent of Egypt and 35 percent of Jordan younger than 15 years old, tremendous opportunities exist to improve those statistics, the World Bank said. And if the revolutions in Egypt and Jordan (to a much lesser extent, of course) has proven anything, it’s that Arab youth are tired of being denied the standard of living so many other nations have. That means a path for grassroots reproductive health education has been paved, as raising the standard of living starts with healthy pregnancies.

Healthy pregnancies is an all-encompassing term. It doesn’t just mean birthing a functioning child — it means having a child at the proper age, having the right amount of children, being economically self-sufficient and having two parents. None of that will happen, however, without proper education and societal change that empowers women and promotes safe sex.

Both of those aims — empowering women and promoting safe sex — are complicated in the current Egyptian and Jordanian context. Still ruled and influenced by older religious men, women — especially in Egypt — are subordinate to men in every way. Additionally, contraception is frowned upon in Muslim society despite no explicit mention of banning birth control in the Qur’an.

These customs will be difficult to overturn in a top-down fashion. But, then again, the same would be said for changing governance — which is exactly why revolutions in Egypt and Jordan have been youth-led, grassroots efforts. The opportunity to change society and not only politics can be exploited in the same way. By directing the female empowerment and contraception message at the enormous youth populations in Jordan and Egypt, change will slowly occur. And this is change that does not require an election — it can happen everyday, with any person, whenever they choose.

Jordan report

Egypt report

Jordan proposed reforms limit government control over municipalities

Jordan’s Lower House approved reforms Wednesday giving municipalities greater control at the expense of an increasingly corrupt federal government cabinet.

Municipalities will receive a greater piece of the tax pie, which will help balance local government checkbooks. Ethnically diverse communities could splinter into their own municipalities if they get 5,000 or more people, which might be appealing to Christian minorities. Shielding municipal personnel decisions from a corrupt cabinet will ensure stability and long-term planning at the municipal leadership levels. The reforms also promote women on municipal boards.

With protests amplifying in Amman, the nation’s capital, and across the rest of the country, the vote might have been intended to dampen civil unrest. However, protests continue unabated.

In all, the reforms are a positive. If approved, women must comprise 25 percent of municipal boards instead of 20 percent. Also, municipal affairs managers can no longer request the federal government to forcibly remove municipal board members or mayors — now, the courts will review claims against board members and mayors. The municipal councils themselves will now appoint “executive managers” rather than municipal affairs managers making that selection.

The proposed law contains several other provisions. From the Jordan Times:

Under the new law, municipalities will be given 8 per cent of the fuel tax revenues instead of the 6 per cent stipulated in the older version of the law.

Inhabitants of any district with a population of 5,000 or more can request the establishment of their own municipality or disengagement from a merger with a larger municipality.

So not only does the Jordanian government give up control by shifting responsibility for determining whether mayors and city council members should be removed to the courts, it also gives Jordanians a greater right to self-determination and increases fuel tax revenues 33 percent for municipalities.

In all, these reforms promote stability by taking power over municipal decisions from the cabinet’s hands. However worthwhile, the reforms still might have come too late to squelch Jordanian protests.

 

Jordan workforce training initiative disappoints World Bank

Jordan must improve its joint public and private sector workforce development initiative, according to a sub-par World Bank report.

Since adopting a national plan to improve workforce training and preparedness in an increasingly globalized Jordanian economy, “the past two years have not seen effective coordinated implementation” of outlined initiatives, the World Bank said.

The review evaluates a 2002 plan to better integrate the private sector into the public sector’s efforts in preparing Jordanian workers for the competitive globalized market. That plan said, chiefly:

The absence of employers in the participation and decision making of most aspects of workforce development is the current dominating characteristic of the system. For example, none of the 5 private sector representatives of the 11 Board members of the VTC’s Board of Directors hold leadership positions or represent priority sectors. Over the last 30 years of VTC’s history, the attitude of the private sector toward VTC has been symbolic at best.

The quality of private sector training providers varies in both cost and quality and will have to be improved over time by developing certification and accreditation activities.

Jordan’s government has failed to set policies encouraging this partnership, the World Bank report released this week said. Ultimately, workforce training has to start with heavy government lifting. It must set the agenda and have a direction before it instructs the private sector on how to train and develop its workforce. Until the government knows what it wants, the private sector will remain distant.

The truly innovative and society-benefiting businesses follow talented minds and skilled labor, which Jordan certainly could have if it coordinated its efforts. The average Jordanian goes to school for 13 years, which means there are plenty who go to college. Workforce training starts with the government because it must set the agenda.

Private sector was not engaged in workforce training because, historically, Jordan generated most of its revenues from high tariffs, effectively closing off the economy and reducing its need for productive efficiency and a trained workforce. But the financial crisis that hit the nation in 1988 provoked serious trade liberalization discussion. In essence, government can take the blame for the private sector’s unwillingness or inability to train workers — the government had never given the private sector a reason to prioritize this.

Jordan had been maligned by unemployment and poverty, relying on at least five International Monetary Fund programs between 1992 and 2002. As a result, the Hashemite Kingdom had to follow the standard IMF prescription of lowering trade barriers, cutting public benefits and privatizing business, among other things. During the time of those IMF programs, Jordan joined the World Trade Organization, the EU partnership agreement, the Arab Free Trade Area and a free trade pact with the US. That all meant Jordan needed a better trained workforce to compete with its new, freer economic borders, which has lead to rapidly increasing exports and GDP.

But increasing exports is easy when you change from a drastically protectionist trade policy and have low wages — Jordan’s GDP per capita is $5,400, ranking 144th in the world according to the CIA World Factbook. The key now for Jordan is value creation. More than 77 percent of its workforce is in services, which are low-paying and do little to generate societal benefit.

The median age in Jordan is 22, which means there’s an overwhelming amount of young people in the country. It will not survive based on an almost entirely service-based economy. The government needs the private sector to help train workers in order to attract capital and investment. Until the government gets its act together, that won’t happen.

Impact of Jordan decision not to recognize Palestinian statehood

Jordan’s announcement that it would not recognize the Palestinian Authority’s seemingly imminent unilateral declaration of statehood will send shockwaves around the Arab world. While the Arab Spring has united the Arab world and occurred irrespective of the Palestinian statehood question, the Hashemite Kingdom’s stance will certainly provoke strong reaction.

Arab leaders have rallied around the Palestinian cause for political gain, although the only Arab country with a true vested interest in Palestinians is Jordan. Most Arab nations — Syria being the most prominent example — have used Palestinians as rhetoric and as a political football. Many Arab nations reject Palestinian citizens from entering their borders, as even the opening of the Rafah border crossing between Gaza and Egypt has been met with resistance.

Jordan's border with Israel and West Bank could be more volatile with Palestinian statehood

Jordan, however, begrudgingly accepted Palestinians. They are second class citizens in that country despite comprising nearly half the population. So if anyone is an authority on Palestinian statehood and refugees in the Arab world, it’s Jordan.

But as new Arab governments come to power, they may be less beholden to United States and other Western influences. The U.S. supported many Arab dictators — like Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak — because they were willing to support Israel’s right to exist. However, that view was not aligned with the Arab street in those nations. As democratically elected governments come to power in Tunisia and Egypt, and possibly Libya in due time, it will be more difficult for the U.S. to interfere and pressure those leaders to support the unpopular cause of aiding Israel.

Jordan may now have partially ostracized itself among a new group of Arab leaders by essentially breaking a party line. It will be interesting to see how accepted Jordan is when a new government in Egypt takes control. And if Bashar al Assad remains in power, Jordan will not be spared from his vitriol. Same goes for Iran.

Jordan’s stance on Palestinian statehood breaks from Arab solidarity on that issue. Jordan already has set itself apart from Arab nations by its cool but cordial relations with Israel, which may be more for Jordan’s own border security than shared ideological beliefs. Jordan maintains respectable ties with Israel out of necessity because they share a border. Their histories would not naturally align the two.

And that is why Jordan is making this decision — the border. A unilaterally-declared Palestinian state would mean Israeli involvement, as it could be considered aggressive behavior because Israel believes it has a right to settlements in the West Bank. Politically, Jordan had to try its best to maintain the status quo and keep as quiet a border as possible with Israel and the West Bank. By not lending its support to Palestinian statehood, Jordan shields itself from Israeli blame and the associated political ramifications.

The U.S. will undoubtedly veto any UN Security Council resolution, so the Palestinian Authority will have to appeal to the General Assembly for symbolic support of statehood. Nothing will be official until the Security Council agrees, which is unlikely for the indefinite future.

Side note:

Interestingly, the YNet story also had this to say about Palestinian identification papers in Jordan:

Meanwhile, the paper also reported that Jordan is preparing to cancel the identification papers provided for Palestinian statesmen and their families. The decision was explained as a move that began with a 1988 ruling “to disengage from the West Bank and maintain Palestinian identity”.

The wording is extremely vague. I’m not sure yet what it means to “cancel” identification papers. The papers were issued to Palestinian refugees beginning in 1988 to distinguish them from Jordanian citizens. The Jordanian government put a nice spin on it with that quote, but it ultimately has been used to discriminate against Palestinians in Jordan rather than to “maintain Palestinian identity” out of some source of nationalistic pride. By canceling these papers, are Palestinians in Jordan recognized as the same as Jordanians? Or are they now officially nomads with no national identity or rights? I’ll have to look into this.

Media quiet on Jordanian protests

June 29, 2011 1 comment

Jordanian protests have largely gone unreported by the U.S. media. Most likely it has something to do with the good relations Jordan had with the U.S. and the Hashemite Kingdom’s quiet border with Israel — because, let’s be real here, the U.S. was late to denounce Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak because of foreign policy implications with Israel.

Jordanian protests have not reached Egypt levels, which would be tough to do considering about half of the Jordanian population are Palestinians with very few rights to begin with — despite being such a large portion of the country, Palestinian representation in parliament is at its lowest ever at 12 percent. I can’t imagine much solidarity between Jordanians and Palestinians when it comes to calling for a new government, although they may both want the same thing. But if they do get the same thing, that means Palestinians could more equal representation and become an enormous bloc of the Jordanian parliament. That’s reason enough for Jordan to balk at true reform.

Ministers have resigned. Legislation curtailing media freedom has been introduced. The prime minister was cleared of a corruption charge despite being implicated in a parliamentary report. The government has been slow to act on promised reforms. There is fear prolonged protests will lead to Islamist gains.

Protests are happening. Corruption is happening. Read about it here, from Amman-based journalist Osama Al Sharif on ArabNews.com:

Jordan is locked in a vicious circle that threatens to deepen the current political and economic crises. The government headed by Marouf Bakhit is being chocked by scandals, resignations and public accusations that it is incapable, or unwilling, to carry out dire political reforms in response to royal directives and public demands.

On Monday the Lower House voted to exonerate the prime minister from charges relating to circumstances under which a casino license was granted to a foreign investor in 2007, when Bakhit headed his first government. Fifty-three deputies voted against him, but the motion was defeated even though a parliamentary report had implicated the prime minister. It was the latest in a series of political crises which have bedeviled the Jordanian government.

Last week Minister of Information Taher Adwan dealt a heavy blow to the government by resigning his post over what he described as amendments hostile to media freedom being introduced to laws that will be presented to the Lower House in spite of the Cabinet’s objections. He warned of forces that are trying to push Jordan toward a dangerous path.

Adwan’s walkout came two weeks after two other ministers resigned apparently over the case of convicted Jordanian businessman, Khaled Shaheen, who was allowed to leave the country earlier this year supposedly to seek medical treatment in the United States. Shaheen’s case became the force behind public protests across the kingdom driving accusations against the government of complicity in one of the most controversial corruption cases in recent times.

The government has initially defended its decision to allow Shaheen to leave his deluxe prison cell on humanitarian reasons, but under media and public pressures, the prime minister later admitted that there have been irregularities in the handling of the case.

Since public protests in Tunisia and Egypt broke out earlier this year, Jordan has been witnessing weekly demonstrations and sit-ins across the country demanding major political reforms and a strong crackdown on official corruption. Most of the government’s mega projects of the past few years have been blemished by accusations of corruption including a royal initiative to provide affordable housing to the country’s poor, and allegations concerning certain deals by an independent government corporation, Mawarid, an investment arm for the army, which is involved in a major development project in the heart of Amman.

The two most pressing issues for Jordanians today are political reforms and fighting corruption. Both are interrelated and both are believed to be connected to the bad economic situation in the country. In response to the first, and after weeks of protests, King Abdallah announced that the government has been instructed to oversee political reforms, especially with regard to introducing new elections and political parties laws.

A National Dialogue Committee, appointed by the prime minister and headed by Speaker of the Upper House Taher Al-Masri, met for almost two months and finally approved two pieces of draft legislations. It was boycotted by Jordan’s powerful Islamist movement, the Muslim Brotherhood. Still the proposed laws were received with enthusiasm by the public and the media. The king said the government will refer the laws to Parliament for approval and in few years Jordanians will be able to elect their own government.

But after almost a month of submitting the draft laws, the government is yet to take action. It is now believed that the laws will be presented to Parliament in its next ordinary session this November. Meanwhile, another committee, appointed by the king, is yet to deliver its report on constitutional amendments. Political parties, especially the Islamists, have been calling for major changes to the constitution limiting the king’s powers and establishing a parliamentary monarchy.

The issue is a contentious one. Young Jordanians rallying under a movement calling itself the 24 March Youth were beaten and attacked by an unidentified mob when they lifted slogans calling for a constitutional monarchy in Jordan three months ago. The government denied any involvement and promised to investigate.

Another showdown took place in the eastern city of Zerqa two months ago when had-liners took to the street demanding freedom for their detained relatives. They clashed with the police and many were seriously injured from both sides. The hard-liners continue to march especially after a royal pardon issued recently failed to include members of their movement.

The fact that the government of Bakhit is embroiled in scandals makes it difficult for it to maintain credibility in the street, especially with regard to its ability to carry out political reforms. Jordanians are calling for its resignation and are appealing to the king to speed up reforms and defuse tension.

Pundits believe there are three forces working against each other in the Jordanian street today. The first is the conservative security apparatus, backed by old guard politicians, which is against adopting major political reforms for fear that they will benefit the Islamists. The second is the Islamist force, led by the Muslim Brotherhood, which is allied with other opposition groups. They are trying to pressure the palace to accept these reforms, fire the government and call for new elections. But there is a third force and that is the youth who are calling for a constitutional and other reforms but do not necessarily see themselves aligned with the Islamists. This last group is growing and gaining support as it becomes active in the street and on social media sites.

There is no doubt that the king is in favor of calculated reforms, but battling these forces is no easy task. In the absence of organized political parties, the common view is that the Islamists stand to gain the most in the future. Jordan is now at a crossroad and the street is frustrated with an impotent government, weak economy and allegations of widespread corruption. Unless concrete moves are made soon the pressure will continue to build up.

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