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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.

 

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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.

As Moroccans vote on constitution, little discussion of reforms’ weaknesses

July 1, 2011 1 comment

Moroccan King Mohammed’s proposed reforms will be adopted following today’s vote with much fanfare and little analysis of the broad powers he will retain.

By rushing the referendum to the people the King was able to avoid an organized PR or protest campaign against the reforms.  The government launched an aggressive PR campaign of its own, and it certainly has better resources (ie: money, experienced staffers and organizational structure) than any protest movement. It took less than a month for the announcement of reforms to today’s vote — hardly enough time for any opposition movements to form and direct public dialogue.

Moroccan news outlets and various organizations have supported King Mohammed’s proposed constitutional reforms, which were voted on today. BBC and Washington Post have viewed the reforms positively. BBC said it will make Morocco “the first constitutional monarchy in the Arab world.” Truthfully, there’s a lot to like about these reforms, and that has people talking. But there’s been little to no mention of some of the reforms’ problems, which I have discussed here.

I believe the lack of reporting on dissenting opinions is a reflection on the inability to spread information. There was no time to organize or come up with a clear and impacting way to convey the message that the King holds onto enormous power with these reforms.

Chiefly, the King still has power over the military and religious spheres. He also will continue to appoint ambassadors and diplomats, effectively keeping foreign policy under his dominion. He also can dissolve parliament after consulting with a special committee, of which he would have appointed half the members.

The reforms are ultimately a good thing for Morocco, as it gives the prime minister and parliament more power.  News outlets have reported as much. News outlets can only report what they can observe, which was overwhelming support for the reforms. I think, however, that if this vote came in August that there would have been a stronger opposition once more information about the reforms’ weaknesses could be disseminated.

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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