The Middle East's Biggest Governance Failure: It's Not Elections, It's Information

The Global Integrity Report is a bottom-up look at what’s working and what’s failed in efforts to fight corruption and abuses of power. I’m using this diary to share some of the findings with Red State readers. — Jonathan Eyler-Werve

The Global Integrity Report: 2008, released this week, covered more countries in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) than ever before; among the Report’s key findings is that when MENA is compared to the rest of the world, the most significant anti-corruption performance lag is not election integrity but poor access to government information.

While there are a small number of success stories in the Middle East and North Africa (such as Jordan), Arab countries assessed in the Global Integrity Report: 2008 are overwhelmingly behind the rest of the world in providing basic transparency mechanisms for citizens to access government information. When compared to all other regions in the world, the access to information deficit in the Middle East and North Africa is roughly double those countries’ deficit on any other issue assessed by Global Integrity. That staggering transparency gap generates negative spillover effects across government, politics, and public policy in the Middle Eastern and Northern African countries assessed.

(For details of the Global Integrity approach, see methodology, download XLS data or dig into the scorecards.)

Without basic transparency mechanisms in place, citizens and businesses have no way to monitor government budgets or public procurement; have no way of knowing which companies or countries are funding the campaigns of their elected leaders; and lack the basic tools to monitor the performance of other key anti-corruption bodies such as audit agencies and anti-corruption commissions. While the average citizen may tend to use access to information mechanisms for daily services such as obtaining land records or birth certificates, anti-corruption watchdogs in the media and civil society can be significantly hampered without effective and regular access to government documents and records.

Access to Information and Economic Growth

Similarly discouraging can be the negative effect of poor access to information on the business climate, especially for foreign investors unfamiliar with the local market. Access to information helps to level the playing field for businesses involved with government procurement and privatization by making the “rules of the game” transparent to all competitors; it can also help to streamline licensing and permitting processes by limiting discretion on the part of public officials. All other factors being equal, these Middle Eastern and North African countries’ poor performance on information transparency could be a red flag for foreign investors and multinationals assessing opportunities in the region.

2008 marked the first year that Global Integrity gathered Integrity Indicators data in the West Bank, and the access to information situation there was little better than the rest of the region; in fact, systemic governance challenges seem to be the norm in the troubled territory. Despite relatively effective electoral mechanisms in the West Bank, we report how, “Political considerations, personal loyalties, family connections, and the like serve as common factors in hiring, firing, and promotion of civil servants,” while, “The government rarely acts on the findings of the [human rights] ombudsman.” In the context of the ongoing conflict in the Palestinian territories, poor government transparency can certainly be of little help in closing the gap in trust between Palestinian political leaders and their citizens, a dynamic that only hampers the peace process.

Other country-specific findings in the region include:

Egypt: There are laws that actively prohibit citizens from accessing government information and records. For example, Law No. 35 (established in 1950) prohibits publishing any information related to the government; offenders risk imprisonment. The personal asset disclosure records of all state employees are considered “official” documents and are therefore prohibited from being made public to citizens, rendering them useless as an anti-corruption deterrent. Interestingly, however, the legal framework and enforcement of citizen access to privatization regulations and bids are relatively strong, so the climate for privatization in Egypt remains somewhat positive.

Iraq: There is no legal right of public access to government information in the Iraqi constitution. Government audit reports are not accessible publicly and are kept strictly within the Prime Minister’s office. While there is a legal framework for citizens to be able to access the financial disclosure records of senior government officials, the requirement for those officials to submit reports is not enforced effectively, and there is no evidence of anyone having ever accessed such disclosure records in practice.

Jordan: In contrast with most countries in the region, Jordan has a law (circa 2007) guaranteeing citizens the right to access government information. Citizens, for example, can access the results of public procurement bids either through the department of public procurement website or via text message. However, while the public can obtain information and records at a reasonable cost and within a reasonable timeframe, the government exercises considerable discretion in granting and denying applications for information requests. In addition, a government secrecy law considerably weakens the effectiveness of the new right to information law.

Global Integrity (www.globalintegrity.org)