Are Arabs, West moving into phase two of reform?
Meeting sober and workmanlike
BEIRUT: When government and civil society representatives from Arab states and the 30-member Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) joined forces with the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) in Jordan earlier this week to launch an Arab public sector reform initiative, they effectively launched two things.
They formally set in motion the multi-sectoral Arab public sector reform initiative, and they seem also to have unofficially inaugurated a new, down to earth phase in the heretofore contentious debate on how to reform Arab society.
The sober, workmanlike nature and tone of the proceedings, and the initiative's envisaged three-year initial work plan, in many ways complement the new European Neighborhood Policy that seeks to spur changes within partner states around the Mediterranean basin through negotiated action plans for reform and modernization.
These two efforts are both in their early stages, and success is uncertain. Arab and Western participants in both processes say, however, that the reform debate centered on the Middle East is becoming a more practical, less ideological, and increasingly mutually defined process. Arabs and Western partners are starting to work together to spur the changes that are widely acknowledged as being imperative for a healthy Arab future.
In both cases, Arab and Western partners jointly define the priorities and pace of change and work together to implement reforms. This contrasts sharply with the experience of recent years, when the U.S. and other Western parties tended boldly to announce initiatives to reform Arab societies, and the Arabs spent considerable time and energy resisting and rejecting these ideas.
Over 300 participants from 40 countries participated in the two days of meetings along the Dead Sea coast in Jordan that launched the initiative for "Good Governance for Development in the Arab Countries." The gathering was noteworthy, in the eyes of the participants, for several reasons: the process was initiated by Arab officials and activists working closely with UNDP; Arab governments joined on their own volition (all Arab League states were at the launch meeting except for Saudi Arabia, Djibouti, Somalia and the Comoros Islands); the entire process is jointly designed and implemented by Arab and OECD parties; civil society and the private sector in the Arab world are equal partners with their governments; and, the initiative's carefully thought out follow-up and implementation mechanisms are designed to share information and best practices among countries to achieve administrative, financial, and judicial reforms.
The six targeted sectors are civil service and integrity; the role of the judiciary and enforcement; e-government, administrative simplification and regulatory reform; the role of civil society and media in the reform of the public sector; governance of public finance; and, public service delivery.
The whole process will be coordinated by the UNDP's Programme on Governance in the Arab Region (POGAR), based in Beirut. Adel Abdellatif, POGAR's regional coordinator, said in an interview after the launch gathering in Jordan that important goals were achieved there: "We got the endorsement of the Arab countries for an initiative based on the 2004 Tunis Arab summit decision to adopt reform policies, and we have started to put into action that which the Arab leaders agreed last year. The industrialized countries now support a purely Arab initiative, not a wider or broader Middle East initiative. And we have formally launched the reform process itself, using the six working groups as platforms for change."
The initial recommendations that emerged from the six working groups will now be refined into clear priorities that will be taken back to the Arab countries for confirmation. Each of the six sectors will have a working group co-chaired by an Arab and an OECD partner, working jointly as equals. Lebanon and the EU, will co-chair the media and civil society group; Jordan, the U.S. and France will co-chair the judicial reform group, and so on. The working groups will meet three times a year and serve as forums for exchanging information and analyzing reform constraints across the Arab world. They will also feed into the national committees that will be established in every participating Arab country and that will formulate national plans of action for reform in the six sectors.
The overall initiative will be guided by a steering committee and a secretariat of Arab and OECD countries, UNDP, and other collaborating groups such as the World Bank.
Jordanian Minister of Justice Salaheddin Bashir, a pivotal figure in the initiative, said in an interview that one of the important issues that became clear at the launch meeting was the need for governments and civil society to define exactly how they can work together for common goals.
"The language we heard from all participants was strong and solid, but with a variety of priorities, capabilities and needs. Some in civil society said they have a problem with the way non-governmental organizations are organized and operate vis-a-vis the state. We now need to crystallize the debate and identify mutual interests among different stakeholders. It was extremely helpful to see everyone feeling the heat of the urgency of doing something about the institutions of the public sector in the Arab world. We have to make sure now that we sustain this process in the coming months and flesh out the priorities we identified."
Western officials said privately that they also sensed a new and more positive mood in the interaction between Arab and Western officials and civil society organizations. The choice of OECD as the Western partner is an important reason for this, some participants said, given its less politically contentious nature as compared to the U.S., NATO, or the G8 grouping that have all promoted Middle Eastern reform initiatives with wildly varying degrees of success.
"There is an element in the air of people starting to address the issues seriously," said one European official who is based in the Arab world and is deeply involved in Euro-Arab joint efforts. "The hard work begins now and it remains to be seen if this initiative succeeds. It seems for now that Arab governments have given their commitment to this process, partly because they feel they, and not the West, are driving it."