The Brookings Doha Center (BDC) and the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut cohosted a webinar discussion on February 10, 2021 on governance reforms in the Arab world. The panelists evaluated the administrative and structural overhauls in region over the past decade and provided recommendations for future governance reforms. The panel consisted of a group of distinguished scholars and experts including: Hala Bsaisu Lattouf, Jordan’s former minister of social development; Rami Khouri, director of global engagement at the American University of Beirut; Robert P. Beschel Jr., nonresident senior fellow at BDC; and Tarik M. Yousef, director of BDC and senior fellow at the Global Economy and Development program at Brookings. The panel was moderated by Joseph Bahout, director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs.
Rami Khouri began the discussion by pointing out that the Arab region was witnessing popular expressions of discontent and demands for proper citizenship. According to a recent polling by the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies, 60 percent to 80 percent of people in the region support protests, uprisings, and revolutions. Khouri stressed that the ongoing protests in Algeria, Sudan, Lebanon, and Iraq equally demanded a complete change of the government system and a more satisfactory relationship between the citizens and the state. He then added that the history of the Arab region was full of good and bad governance experiences. For instance, between the 1920s and 1970s, the region went through a significant expansion and development of public services, productivity, and quality of life, which was all before the oil boom. However, ever since the 1980s, the region has struggled with stagnation, regression, warfare, fragmentation, disintegration, sectarianism, terrorism, and youth emigration. These problems indicate a problematic relationship between the citizens and the state, which gave rise to continuous protests during the last 40 years that have been mostly ignored. Protesters are generally demanding better governments, better representation, better service quality, and a dignified life. Khouri argued that around 75 percent of people in the Arab world were not able to cover their monthly expenses and about 80 percent to 85 percent of people in non-oil countries were poor, vulnerable, marginalized, and politically helpless.Therefore, state reform is central and crucial for the region, but the good news is that some countries such as Jordan, Lebanon, and Palestine have already experienced such success to some extent. Khouri concluded by stressing that the protest movement of the past 40 years was a cry for citizenship and national self-determination rather than just a demand for technical reforms.
Hala Lattouf discussed the importance of state reforms and their dynamics based on Jordan’s experience. She argued that without reforms, the region is stepping backwards. Lattouf explained that there were two types of reforms: administrative reforms, which were visible and were mostly about efficiency in procedures; and values reforms, which were less visible and involved the core principles guiding a certain reform approach. Most of the studies and research focus on the first type of reforms, which is very important. The second is usually more difficult to adopt. Lattouf added that the timing and extent of the reforms were very important. For instance, adopting political, juridical, and administrative reforms simultaneously can be a challenging task that may lead to failure. She then clarified that a strong and charismatic leadership was crucial for a successful structural reform. Such leadership would make these transformations a national priority. In addition, it was essential to build the needed dynamics before starting such major restructuring. Lattouf explained that this was achieved by making those working in the public sector feel they were valued. She then concluded that it was crucial to understand fully the structural issues of the system, to be transparent with the different stakeholders, and not to sugarcoat the problems orcompromise and adopt double standards when implementingchanges.
Robert P. Beschel Jr. shared insights into governance reforms in the Arab world from his edited volume with Tarik M. Yousef,Public Sector Reform in the Middle East and North Africa: Lessons of Experience for a Region in Transition. Beschel chose Jordan as a success story of governance reforms among the case studies covered in the volume, which included Dubai, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Palestine, and Tunisia, among others. Jordan’s experience was mostly a homegrown effort with no external liaisons from the World Bank or other consultancy agencies. The reforms touched on multiple complex issues such as business process reengineering, separation of service delivery dimensions, and organizational restructuring. Meanwhile, Beschel thought that Lebanon’s human resources (HR) reform was the biggest failure among the examined experiences. Despite the serious efforts to inject meritocracy into the Lebanese public sector, the attempts failed very quickly. He argued that the entire region struggled the most in terms of HR reforms.
Tarik M. Yousef explained that the motive behind his edited volume with Beschel goes back the 2002 Arab Human Development Report, which focused on the governance gap in the region. While the report caught the attention of many intellectuals and practitioners, there was a lack of insider knowledge on how reforms take place in the Arab region. The volume drew from the insights of policy practitioners to answer questions such as how are reforms conducted in the region, what are the obstacles faced, and how long does it take to observe the results of a reform. Yousef added that despite the diversity of the covered reforms, there were many similarities between countries’ experiences. He argued that the public sectors in the Arab world were not specifically resistant to reform despite their complexities, over-largeness, and intrusion in the societies, polities, and economies of the region. Yousef then highlighted three main conclusions from the edited volume. First, leadership is an important key to a successful reform. Second, the way reformers coped with opposition and built credibility is very significant. For instance, transparent communication proved to be critical and pivotal. Finally, the nebulous notion of political will driving reforms is dynamic and under the control of specificparameters. In conclusion, the edited volume provides guidelines to transform what it seems as a complicated process into one that is practical and pragmatic.
In the subsequent question and answer session, panelists continued to discuss key factors behind successful governance reforms in the Arab world. Lattouf stressed that reforms cannot succeed through a top-down approach, but rather must include and motivate citizens. Khouri added that clear and transparent communication between the state and citizens was very important as proved by the successful experiences of East Asian countries. In addition, Beschel highlighted the importance of youth as leaders of change and transformation. He added that this generational shift would be beneficial for the public sectors of the region. Panelists have also examined the role of the state in responding to the COVID-19 pandemic and its economic repercussions. Yousef argued that the ongoing situation gave governments the opportunity to ascertain their legitimacy and relevance depending on how they responded. According to the recent Arab Barometer survey, trust in government in the region is at higher levels than it was in 2011. A possible explanation for this rise is how the state has deployed police and military forces to initially contain the outbreak and enforce restrictions, which were relatively successful.