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Corruption in MENA: Declining Trend or More of the Same?

CORRUPTION IN THE MENA REGION: A DECLINING TREND OR MORE OF THE SAME?

 

BY ROBERT BESCHEL

 

At first glance, MENA countries would not appear to be particularly well-positioned to combat corruption.  Although the story is more varied and nuanced than this brief description will allow, the region is characterized by relatively weak formal systems of checks and balances.  In country after country, a strong executive predominates over the judicial and legislative branches.  There is a relative lack of accountability institutions that are truly independent, such as supreme audit agencies, the cours des comptes, ombudsmen or anticorruption agencies.  A strong service culture within the public sector is generally lacking.  With a few exceptions, civil society is relatively weak and under-developed.  In some countries, the press operates with relative autonomy; in others less so.  There is a general dearth of transparency, particularly with regard to revenues derived from hydrocarbons, along with occasional commingling of personal and state funds among the ruling elites.

 

Control of Corruption Graph 2006

 

Yet if global indices are to be believed, in comparison with other parts of the world, the MENA region does not fare badly on indicators of corruption.   As the attached graph indicates, according to the Kaufmann, Kraay and Mastruzzi indicators, as a whole the region lags behind only the OECD and countries of Eastern Europe in terms of controlling corruption.  Such indices are not without their conceptual and methodological problems.  But an interesting and perhaps even surprising lesson is that things are not as bad as could be expected.  Undoubtedly many in the region take seriously the Koran’s injunction: "And do not eat up one another's property unjustly, nor give bribery to the rulers that you may knowingly eat up a part of the property of others sinfully.”

 

Alas, lest one become too sanguine, any assessment of the region’s ability to effectively address corruption requires much more rigorous scrutiny and analysis.    Corruption is hardly uniform throughout MENA, and regional indices indicate a great deal of variation between countries.  Take the TI index for 2007 for example. MENA countries can be loosely grouped into three categories.  At the top are countries such as Jordan and the Gulf sheikdoms, which in relative terms are doing fairly well on this agenda.  They rank in the 30s and the 40s on the TI index, roughly comparable with countries such as Italy, Malaysia, Hungary, and South Korea.  A second tier of countries is in the middle—somewhere in the 70s to the 90s range—including Morocco, Lebanon, and Algeria.  They are comparable with China, India, and Brazil.  A final set of countries falls towards the bottom and are perceived to struggle significantly with these issues, including Yemen, Syria, and Iran.  Iraq comes in at 178th position, just above Myanmar and Somalia.

 

While useful in providing a general overview, such rankings can at times obfuscate more than they clarify.  The term “corruption” is but a short-hand reference to a large number of administrative dysfunctions and pathologies.  Some may cut across the public sector, or at least large sections of it; others are concentrated in certain agencies and departments.  Corruption is not equally dispersed throughout the public sector, but tends to be found in ministries with a strong revenue, expenditure or regulatory function.  It is seldom a major issue for the department of meteorology, for example, but may very well be a concern for customs, public works or the police.

 

Map, Control of Corruption 2006

 

Further unbundling is needed to clarify the specific problems and challenges confronting various governments and the individual agencies and departments within them.  Do the fundamental challenges involve extortion in tax collection?  The deliberate misrepresentation of standards in bid documents?  Collusion in pharmaceutical procurement?  Favoritism in recruitment and promotion?  The payment of “speed money” for permits and licenses?  Pressuring companies to take on a well-connected silent partner to facilitate private investment?  The Arabic language itself reflects this diversity and has devised a number of terms to address various problems, ranging from bakshish (small facilitation payments) to wasta (connections) to fassad (corruption or “rot”).  Interestingly, many of these terms can also have neutral and less pejorative connotations.

 

There are reasons to suspect that perceptional indices such as TI’s Corruption Perception Index are weighted towards petty corruption and may not adequately reflect broader problems of “state capture” or the use of state machinery to direct economic rents to favored parties—a problem many sophisticated observers have argued may be particularly acute in some MENA countries.  During the Bank’s recent discussions surrounding the implementation of our governance and anticorruption strategy, many within the region also expressed concerns about “bright lines” and the belief that the rule of law often is not fully implemented against those with strong political connections.  Others lamented the pervasive role of wasta in attaining access to public goods and services or in securing a job within the public sector.

 

The past eighteen months have witnessed a major expansion in efforts to combat corruption in many countries of the region.  There are numerous reasons for this expansion, but one of the most important has been the ratification of the UNCAC Treaty.  During the period from December 2003 through December 2005, virtually all countries of the region became signatories to the UNCAC Treaty, and 10 countries have subsequently ratified it. 

                   Signing and Ratification of UNCAC Treaty

As the interview with Muhiyeddeen Touq indicates, efforts to combat corruption often seek to move forward along multiple dimensions.  Taking the lead from Hong Kong’s highly successful Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC), many governments have sought advance the anticorruption agenda along three major dimensions: prevention, prosecution, and public awareness raising.  The UNCAC adds additional elements to this mix—including asset recovery, international cooperation and technical assistance—and obligates its signatories to take a number of important steps to enhance integrity and combat corruption.  Taken together, they represent a rich agenda that will take years to fully implement.

 

The prevention dimension is vast and much of it is the agenda of sound public management.   It includes creating robust accountability mechanisms, such as internal and external audit systems; making procurement practices more open and transparent; strengthening meritocracy in civil service recruitment and promotion; streamlining and reengineering business processes within the public sector to reduce opportunities for corruption; and thelike. Reforms in this area can help combat corruption, but they often have other important benefits, such as improving the efficiency and quality of service delivery.  A number of MENA countries have made impressive progress in this regard. 

 

 

To Create or Not Create –

The Dilemma of Independent Anticorruption Agencies

 

During the past decade, a number of countries have sought to establish an independent anticorruption commission, along the lines of Hong Kong’s ICAC or Singapore’s Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau (CPIB), widely believed to be among the most effective agencies of their kind.  This experience has been mixed.  Occasionally, such agencies have been set up as essentially window dressing and, not surprisingly, have failed to deliver against the expectations surrounding them.  But even sincere efforts have occasionally come up wanting.  Critics have identified a number of problems that typically surround the creation of such agencies.  By themselves, they are seldom a panacea when the broader governance environment and public sector are weak.  Problems of staffing and ensuring that they have adequate financial resources can loom large.  Another important concern is their ability to coordinate effectively with the many different entities in government that must be involved in a serious anticorruption effort.  These include the police, the prosecutors, the financial intelligence units, customs, tax, and the courts.

 

On the other hand, while few would argue that the establishment of such agencies will automatically ensure their independence or effectiveness, there are numerous examples where the lack of independence has crippled or compromised an effective investigative function.  In environments where the anticorruption function is fragmented among a large number of small, under-resourced agencies with vague and overlapping mandates, some consolidation can be helpful.  In small states, a single agency may be the most simple and cost effective approach. It can also make a useful contribution in situations where it is difficult for other entities such as the police to investigate examples of internal corruption.

 

At the end of the day, there is no one right answer.  Any decision will need to be carefully crafted to fit within a given country’s legal and institutional framework, and thorough consideration will need to be given to the specific functions that should be performed by such an agency vis-à-vis other units of government.

 
To cite an example from our last newsletter, Egypt's General Authority on Investment and Free Zones (GAFI) was able to reduce the number of procedures facing a potential investor from 19 to 3, reducing the average time to register a company from 34 days to 3 days. 

 

The prosecution agenda involves a number of measures to strengthen the legal and institutional framework for combating corruption.  It can involve the creation of a dedicated anticorruption agency, although experts are divided about the effectiveness of such a measure.  It can involve passing legislation on topics such as income and asset declaration; conflict of interest; bribery, illicit enrichment, embezzlement and the misappropriation of funds; or money laundering.  It can involve strengthening the investigative function within government; improving disciplinary procedures and codes of conduct within the civil service; improving the linkages between the investigation and prosecution functions; and even creating new courts to address corruption related issues.

 

A number of Arab countries have recently taken steps forward recently along this dimension.   Morocco has passed legislation addressing both income and asset disclosure, as has Yemen.  New institutions specifically dedicated to combating corruption have been established in Morocco, Jordan, Iraq and Yemen, and one is currently under consideration in Kuwait.   Algeria has also recently passed comprehensive new legislation on anticorruption.  This newsletter covers the efforts of two countries—Morocco and Yemen—to improve their anticorruption efforts through recent legislative and institutional changes. 

 

It is in the final dimension, public awareness, where the most work remains in MENA.  Governments throughout the region typically do not fair well in terms of transparency and openness, although this is beginning to change.  Jordan has recently passed Freedom of Information legislation, and Egypt is currently considering such legislation.  Other countries, such as Lebanon and Palestine, have active civil societies and a growing number of NGOs interested in the good governance agenda.  

 

In many of the examples cited above, the reform agenda is incomplete and occasionally imperfect.  In the eyes of some, such changes constitute little more than window dressing.  Yet it would be wrong to dismiss them out of hand, in part because legislative and institutional change is never easy—particularly when there are those who are profiting, occasionally handsomely, from a dysfunctional status quo.  Such criticism also misses the dynamic trajectory of institutional change, which is far more often stumbling and incremental than relentless and sweeping.  The UNCAC treaty has helped to give shape and form to a far-reaching reform agenda; important domestic constituencies are pressing hard for change; and many MENA countries are rapidly making up lost ground.  We are likely to see the good governance and anticorruption agendas to continue to grow and expand throughout the Middle East and North Africa over the next decade.

 

 




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